Although 1940’s “Rebecca,” the “picturization” of Daphne du Maurier’s best-selling novel, was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, it is in equal parts owned by David O. Selznick. Immortalized for his production of “Gone with the Wind” — whose romanticization of slavery is finally being held to account — Selznick also produced the original “A Star is Born” and later, “The Third Man” (with another legendary moviemaker, Alexander Korda). Selznick and the Master of Suspense famously clashed on “Rebecca,” but you wouldn’t know it while watching the movie. “Rebecca” is one of Hitch’s finest films, a ghost story of a different kind where the people of our past never leave us, and the wounds they inflict never heal.
“Rebecca” was the first movie Hitchcock made in Hollywood. Accustomed to the complete control he exercised in London, his first draft for “Rebecca” wildly deviated from the source material (and when it came time to adapt another du Maurier story, “The Birds,” he’d pull a similar trick). But Selznick put his foot down, insisting the film strictly adhere to the book. “Rebecca,” then, was at least a successful collaboration artistically, if not personally: Selznick maintained the spirit of the novel while Hitchcock supplied the subtlety of a true auteur. It was also a success within the industry, nabbing Best Picture for Selznick’s second year in a row. But Hitchcock was snubbed, and “Rebecca” would become the only film of his to ever win that award.
Why Hitch thought so bitterly of “Rebecca” is beyond me. The film stands today as his first great masterpiece, in a storied career that would produce several others. Of those classics, however, “Rebecca” is the least Hitchcockian, at least in the way that we usually mean. A gothic romance dressed in 20th century garb, “Rebecca” has more in common with “Jane Eyre” or “Wuthering Heights” than “Dial M for Murder.”
It tells the story of a naive young woman, played by Joan Fontaine. This is not Rebecca. This is a shy, sheepish girl, vacationing in Monte Carlo with the domineering older woman (Florence Bates) who pays her to be her companion. It is here that she meets Maxim de Winter (actor of actors Laurence Olivier), a mysterious, older man with whom our heroine (referred to simply as “I” by film historian David Thomson) grows infatuated. It’s only a matter of days before Maxim proposes, transporting “I” to the grounds of Manderley, his ornate mansion by the sea for which she must become the mistress.
There’s just one problem: Fontaine isn’t the first Mrs. de Winter. This is Rebecca. She’s Maxim’s first wife, long gone but not forgotten. We never meet her, or even see her, but to say that she haunts the film would be an understatement. Rebecca is the film, seeping through every crack, poisoning every scene. “I” soon realizes she can never escape the specter of Rebecca: she is Maxim’s every thought, his every last action, and Manderley’s chilling housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) controls the estate as if she still lived there. Looks like we’ve got a psychological thriller on our hands!
“Rebecca,” more than anything, is a polished film, that rare kind of movie where the whole, entire production was taken seriously. In a star-making turn, Fontaine is nothing short of perfect: it’s a complex role that demands she be both awkward and competent, and as the secrets of Manderley simmer to the surface, she unlocks in the character a darker side that we didn’t know existed. Laurence Olivier is equally skilled on the opposite, relishing in Maxim’s Byronic gloom while hinting to the audience why a girl like “I” might be attracted to him in the first place.
From a modern perspective, “Rebecca” is especially interesting for being one of the first films to explore an abusive relationship. There’s a stilted sort of quality to Fontaine and Olivier’s romance right from the start, but the film — through George Barnes’ Oscar-winning cinematography and Franz Waxman’s swelling score — calms our nerves with the aesthetic trappings of a Hollywood love story. In doing so, Hitchcock gaslights the audience in much the same way Olivier gaslights Fontaine, a woman for whom he clearly has no love except for as an object: a representation of everything Rebecca was not, that he nonetheless expects to use as filler for the hole in his heart.
“Rebecca” is also fascinating for the way in which the Hays Code both succeeded and failed at censoring it (Here come the spoilers). In the book, we learn that Maxim is directly responsible for Rebecca’s demise, having shot her at the end of an argument. But the Production Code stated that the murder of a spouse could not go unpunished, so the “murder” of Rebecca was made to be an accident. While this change admittedly diminishes the horror of the story, it also turns Rebecca into an even more complicated character. For the sake of saving you something to discover on your own, I’ll refrain from revealing why.
But I want to end this essay like the film: with Mrs. Danvers. How this character escaped the clutches of the censors, the world may never know. The movie strongly suggests — though never comes out and says — that Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca were lovers. Lesbian relationships were strictly forbidden by the Hays Code, so Hitchcock was forced to allude to their affair in subtler ways.
Consider the scene where Mrs. Danvers takes “I” on a tour of Rebecca’s room, guiding her through Rebecca’s underwear drawer and ending at the mistress’ bed… ok, maybe it’s not that subtle. But a much more poignant indicator comes at the end, when Maxim, investigating the doctor to whom Rebecca paid a visit on the morning of her death, learns that she never checked in as “Mrs. de Winter,” but rather, as “Mrs. Danvers.” While easy to interpret as Rebecca just covering her tracks (the characters, and the censors, thought it so), perhaps what Hitchcock is trying to say is that this is how Rebecca truly saw herself. By this point in the film, we know that Rebecca only married Maxim for his fortune, and what’s more, that Mrs. Danvers arrived at Manderley when Rebecca was still but a bride. If you ask me, Mrs. Danvers is the ice-cold heart at the center of the film.
So when, at the very end, she burns Manderley to the ground, it no longer feels like the villain has finally snapped. God knows Hitch didn’t leave us with a happy ending: “I” is still married to Maxim, and likely for forever, now that she knows all his secrets. Rather, when the building caves in — when the plywood falls on Mrs. Danvers’ head — we understand this act of destruction not as a kind of psychosis, but as a form of revenge. Revenge on Maxim, for replacing Rebecca; revenge on the world, for denying their love. Only in death can the two be together. Cut to the burning, red “R.” 9/10