Rebecca (1940, Alfred Hitchcock)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
In 1939, Alfred Hitchcock relocated to America. He was approaching forty years old and had made an international reputation over the prior five years, after a bumpy start to his career, as a director of emotionally fraught, witty, and tightly edited British thrillers. These included three major commercial hits (The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes), two of them among the best films of the decade. When Sylvia Sidney watched him cut together a murder scene in the magnificent Sabotage, she whispered that Hitchcock couldn’t be long for a small and breezy career at British Gaumont. She was correct. Recruited to Hollywood after The Lady Vanishes by David O. Selznick, the man who would nearly a century later remain almost universally regarded as cinema’s greatest director (Orson Welles, John Ford, Fritz Lang and Jean Renoir still among the few serious competitors for the title) would now embark on an illustrious career in the U.S. — and would soon enough be making films unrecognizable from the breezy, economical, forceful thrust of The 39 Steps and Young and Innocent.
Selznick of course was riding high with a level of prestige never before or since afforded to a single producer. Gone with the Wind was still in production at the time, his nights still late and doped up, but his reputation would only continue to grow in the next two years. And as shown by the constant tyrannical replacement of directors and careful supervision of editing and personnel on GWTW, Selznick exercised a total control over his small studio’s output. A rare compromise was to allow MGM to distribute and keep some rights to Gone with the Wind; no such distribution of power was ever felt by the three directors (George Cukor, Sam Wood, and the credited Victor Fleming) who worked on that film. For Selznick, to bring Hitchcock to America was another prestigious coup; in addition to their popular success, the director’s films were ecstatically acclaimed by American critics — something that would soon change. The producer couldn’t possibly have imagined what an immovable force of equal and more eccentric stubbornness he was poised to rub up against. He expected a name director, like Cukor, but one he could manipulate — a green-to-Hollywood wonder boy who’d deliver what was expected of him.
In the end, Selznick and Hitchcock’s difficult and contentious partnership would yield four films, one of them ultimately given to RKO but with distribution rights retained: Rebecca, Spellbound, Notorious and The Paradine Case. Only Paradine would really suffer a bad fate from Selznick’s disdain for Hitchcock’s technique and Hitchcock’s disdain for being told what to do, even by the man who signed his paychecks. There would be work contracted out free of Selznick’s hand that would dismay him, there would be a rotten enough feeling from The Paradine Case that Hitchcock would act as his own producer forever afterward, but there would also be a permanent mark on both men that would decide their destinies.
That was all in the future in 1939, when Hitchcock was assigned to create a film about the Titanic; the pending war and threats of litigation from cruise companies nixed that project, and Selznick moved Hitchcock to the festering adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s Gothic-romance bestseller Rebecca instead. Over the years the director would decry the story as “not Hitchcockian” and claim distance from the material, but it seems to have infected and intrigued him in some fashion, given its many dealings with ideas and images that would come to define his American career. In other words, the story itself may not be Hitchcockian — though the novel is worthwhile in itself thanks to Du Maurier’s sumptuous prose and is strongly recommended — but the treatment of it is, in our modern conception. What’s fascinating is that the final film is a compromise that likely pleased neither Hitchcock nor Selznick, the director shooting in complex and unfamiliar ways decried by his boss, the producer editing the film together contrary to Hitchcock’s intent (with the result that Hitchcock would attempt to avoid shooting enough coverage to allow Selznick to alter later films). The result is so much of a piece with later American Hitchcocks — and so enormously different from his British work, handily shown off by his prior film, Jamaica Inn, a far scrappier Du Maurier adaptation that mortified the author and Selznick — that it’s tempting to view the film as being as influential to Hitchcock himself as it was to his peers (perhaps Orson Welles above all, essentially recasting the finale of Rebecca as the end of Citizen Kane, while modeling shadowy Xanadu on Manderley).
Rebecca, the novel, was nearly as celebrated as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, and speculation over its casting was similarly merciless — this easily explains Selznick’s attraction to the material, of course, and it’s also easy to see why this story so intensely captured the collective imagination. Put reductively, a vulnerable young woman is swept off her feet by a wealthy tall dark stranger whose life turns out to be full of darkness and deception as a result of the vaguely mysterious loss of his first wife, the legendarily beautiful and hedonistic Rebecca — to whom all of the other occupants of his shadowy mansion, Manderley, remain steadfastly devoted, eventually to the point that they wish harm on the heroine. Book and film are both about many things and have aged strikingly well for their still-modern sensibilities — female identity, class, marriage and alienation therein, grief, and guilt — but whether against Selznick’s will or not, Hitchcock harnesses and fixates upon the elements that excite him: the inevitable, haunting and constant presence of the past; societal taboos in regard to sexual freedom and bisexuality; the real-world possibility of an omnipresent figure, a ghost, to which everyone reacts without the entrance of any supernatural element; and, above all, mutual damage and manipulation within relationships.
Hitchcock may well, as a new entrant into the American film industry, have related at a core level to the unnamed heroine portrayed by Joan Fontaine, the mousy and tentative outsider forced into unfamiliar and strange surroundings by nothing more sinister or complex than love — and the film is genuinely subjective, placing us firmly in her seat for the entirety to such an extent that we believe many of the lies she’s told (especially by Laurence Olivier’s Mr. de Winter), even if we’ve no reason to do so. The aggression toward her carefully shown to approach from all directions by the Manderley staff, her employer, the extended de Winter family, and even eventually her husband is felt by us as a grotesque and unrelenting slight. In Hitchcock’s hands, the mannered snubs and veiled insults become the stuff of Gothic horror, reinforced by the castle-like atmosphere of Manderley; his Rebecca, like the subsequent Notorious, is a haunted fairy tale of a princess figure trapped among evil. Yet there’s still more going on in this appallingly rich film, something that deepens on repeated exposure: hardly a villain, Rebecca is cast by Hitchcock as a mostly neutral force — and the figures that bring hostility to the new Mrs. de Winter are approached with objective empathy. Even as we’re tempted to hate them, we know them to be figures of a past loyalty, loyalty to a corpse, as much as of the terror they inflict upon the heroine.
The complexity of these emotions is driven home by the final madness that takes hold upon Mrs. Danvers, the distant and frightening housekeeper whose disdain toward Fontaine is most explicit; in Hitchcock’s reading of the novel, she has lost a great love, her romantic feelings for Rebecca underlined by the sequence in which she shows off Rebecca’s underwear to the second wife, her easy manipulation assured by her appearance as of an apparition, and by her adversary’s silence. Her agony in the closing scene wherein she burns Manderley to avoid its overtaking by a new and “happier” couple is palpably sympathetic, no matter how much we’re attached to Fontaine and Olivier. Rebecca becomes a ghost story yet with only the tinge of the fantastic, the dead woman emblazoned entirely in the faces of those she affected, the film predicated upon the reactions of the living to her existence and loss. It reaches its greatest, most dizzying pitch during two key scenes with Danvers: when she chillingly inquires “Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?” and speculates upon Rebecca watching as the new Mrs. de Winter has sex with her husband (the sexual overtone giving the lie to de Winter’s all but direct claim later that his marriage was celibate); and later, when she attempts hypnotically — after persuading Mrs. de Winter to wear one of Rebecca’s dresses, unbeknownst to her — to talk her into suicide. “It’s easy, isn’t it?” she breathes, just before the spell is broken by a ship run aground.
We remain under the spell because above all, despite the absence of any more a direct antagonist than a woman clearly insane with grief and a dead predecessor whose greatest crime was being glamorous and liberated (if openly unfaithful), Fontaine is us — the focus of our sympathies and, much more to the point, the stand-in for the audience, the outsider whose reactions are nearly always our own. This is the clearest narrative line taken from Hitchcock’s British career in a film that can’t truly be classified as a thriller, indeed is one of his last non-thrillers: the woman alone, the woman who must take stock and make the final move in asserting her independence. The most direct forerunners in the British films are Blackmail, Sabotage (released in America, indeed, as A Woman Alone), and The Lady Vanishes, all equally readable as feminist critique, but we see elements of this in The Pleasure Garden, The Lodger, Easy Virtue, Murder!, Young and Innocent, and Jamaica Inn. Then, after Rebecca, it’s as much an inextricable part of his American movies as the more recognized “wrong man” theme. The difference introduced with this film is the passion in the frame, the approach of reverent beauty in the treatment of these stories: an intensity in the eyes and a clarity of purpose calling to mind Lillian Gish in Victor Sjöström’s The Wind. For Hitchcock, the ample resources of Hollywood would add up to a method of attaining greater and greater identification with his audience, constantly seeking the ideal of “pure” cinema.
Rebecca achieves its level of purity with a considerable debt to its cast. In this regard it also seems an easy transition for Hitchcock, as it uses British actors almost exclusively. The supporting players are uniformly excellent at defining their roles but especially strong are the great George Sanders as the menacingly glib Jack, a former lover of Rebecca’s, whose every word is as deplorably delightfully acid as ever (and this is the only movie in which you get to watch him steal someone’s fried chicken); and Judith Anderson, whose simultaneously terrifying and wounded read of Mrs. Danvers is quite simply unforgettable, the sort of role that makes a permanent mark on any audience member, and is infused by Anderson with a lost but feverish sensuality underneath the beckoning sense of approaching insanity.
Laurence Olivier, commonly regarded as one of the screen’s luminaries, was probably never better, largely because he was so unhappy during production due to Selznick’s failure to cast his wife Vivien Leigh as the heroine (her screen test, available on Criterion’s DVD, is horrendous). He seems to spit his lines out as quickly as possible to get through him, his stiff apathy and barely contained dread utterly visible and a match made in heaven for the character he’s meant to portray, which he nails absolutely — as much as you comprehend Fontaine’s attraction to him, you never completely trust him… nor does she. The movie itself seems to mock him at times for his inability to contend with the full-on scope of womanhood, a state of affairs gradually realized by his new wife as she begins to assert herself and to be less the “little girl” (his phrase) he wed in a whirlwind while on holiday. As with Mrs. Danvers, he’s a man toward whom our feelings are complicated, because he’s foolish and disingenuous (censorship yielded an alternative “confession” from the novel so that he never actually admits to killing Rebecca here — but it seems we still know the truth, and Hitchcock expects we will), but he’s also finally sympathetic — the oaf whose second attempt at a hollow patriarchal marriage is to be again foiled, ironically by the same woman, who really seems to be ushering her replacement along as much as antagonizing her. It’s a pity, in turn, that Olivier seemed rarely to yield so much control to a director, as the result is really sophisticated and momentous.
Joan Fontaine, however, eclipses everyone; it’s a somewhat acceptable line of thought to consider her Mrs. de Winter as just about the greatest performance by an actress ever captured, shy solely of Falconetti’s Joan of Arc. Fontaine and Hitchcock worked together intensely, forming by her account (and his, indirectly; according to Leonard Leff, he attempted to cast her in nearly every film he made in the ’40s, only to be constantly rebuffed by Selznick) a trusted and mutually adoring relationship. The galvanizing performance was the result partially of Hitchcock’s careful casting-level manipulation, to make the rest of the cast and crew distrustful and condescending to and of her, the blanket hatred exhibited by Laurence Olivier — and Hitchcock’s reporting of same to his lead actress — most helpful in presenting an absolute sense of out-of-bounds alienation within the marriage and life of the new Mrs. de Winter. To explain the genius of Fontaine in this film, it may be most useful to watch the scenes that involve something so petty as her accidental breaking of a piece of china and shoving it into a drawer — absolutely familiar and sympathetic, her behavior is achingly real and spot-on, the resulting confrontations and difficulties from this small action a perfect manifestation of the Woman Alone, the audience along with her.
Even if Rebecca‘s highest value is as a mood piece — indeed, the second act dealing with the general state of affairs at Manderlay is so artificially extended and sumptuous in its conflicted romance, it seems both the reason the film was made and the reason we return to it, with much of the “story” confined to the final forty-five minutes — it remains a model of the fusion of storytelling with interpretive, philosophical underpinnings. Gone with the Wind may or may not be a better film (I’d say not), but it is unquestionably a less intelligent and less multilayered film, and it seems we owe much of this to Hitchcock’s presence. (And as a side note, it can be argued that the opposite would be true, or that the two films would be more or less equal, had George Cukor been allowed to finish GWTW.) Today what’s probably most interesting, as alluded to above, are the sexual politics, the nearly explicit suggestion of homosexuality as a major theme (picked up on later by Hitchcock in Rope and Strangers on a Train, both of which deal with gay characters in even more direct fashion) which isn’t really picked up from Du Maurier, and the “progressive” nature of the story. It’s a densely layered film, fighting against what we’d now call slut-shaming while casting a largely nonjudgmental light on the killer of a woman who shirks the notion of being controlled by her husband — because all things being equal, Hitchcock fails to see either Rebecca or her husband as evil figures. Mostly, he’s sympathetic to the unseen Rebecca, slowly closing the distance between the two Mrs. de Winters as we discover that they are both on the same side, even if this is never illustrated to the necessary consequence of the central couple’s future together. In contrast to the novel’s bleak outlook on progression, we leave the new Mrs. de Winter in control of the pair’s destiny — she knows his secrets, and she will be in control now. No longer the outsider, she will be the participant in a shared life, or in nothing.
The more time one spends with Rebecca, the more Hitchcock’s comments to Truffaut as it being “not a Hitchcock picture” seem to have been carefully affected and not at all true. The early ’40s were a time in which the filmmaker was regaining his footing as an artist after the complete alteration in the direction of his career and, it can’t be ignored, the failure of his previous film Jamaica Inn — there would be experimentation with a number of genres, including screwball comedy with Mr. & Mrs. Smith, before Hitchcock would settle back nearly exclusively into the creation of suspense films infused with his peerless, inimitable sense of life and humanism. Like Mrs. de Winter with her marriage, he’d change Hollywood as much as it would change him and would quickly drop his outside-looking-in status, helped to a large degree by the fact that Rebecca, after a release delay to avoid competition with Gone with the Wind, would go on to become Selznick International’s second straight Best Picture winner (though Hitchcock himself would lose the directing Oscar to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath). Joan Fontaine would be in turn the first of many major performers to become a part of the Hitchcock “inner circle,” the existence of which was a sign of his own influence and power outside of the straightforward Hollywood system, which would allow him to reach an artistic zenith, free of meddling producers, in the ’50s.
The idea that Rebecca wasn’t an artistic influence, though, on his future career is so much hogwash; one need only look at Vertigo to quash that idea. Its allusions to the earlier film are everywhere: Mrs. Danvers’ “dead coming back” line is repeated nearly verbatim by Gavin Elster; a portrait is again a crucial manifestation of the past; a dress is used in connection with the recreation of a dead woman, in both cases an object of nefarious manipulation; one dead female body functions as a “stand-in” for another; a central male figure’s grief and crisis are the impetus for the entire narrative; and the “discovery” (of a second body in Rebecca, a “second” Kim Novak in Vertigo) signals a turning point that breaks one spell and casts another. Rebecca may be compromised in a sense unfamiliar from most of Hitchcock’s other major films, but it’s unquestionably a decisive and indispensable step toward his legend.