Beginner's Guide to Alfred Hitchcock: Rebecca (1940)
Only one of Alfred Hitchcock’s films won the Academy Award for Best Picture: Rebecca. In 1940, Alfred Hitchcock made his first film in Hollywood under the watchful eye of behemoth producer David O. Selznick. Adapted from the bestselling novel Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier. The film is a Hitchcockian fairy tale combined with gothic romance, sprawling mansions, naïve young women, brooding husbands, crazy servants, and an unconquerable ghostly presence. Rebecca is an important film in Hitchcock’s career because it showcases how Hitchcock’s directorial vision can flourish even when he is forced to remain faithful to the novel he’s adapting. Hitchcock made many films based on novels and short stories, but Rebecca is the only one that sticks very close to the source material.
A nameless young woman (Joan Fontaine) is traveling in Monte Carlo as a paid companion to the wealthy Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates). Shy, excitable, and naïve, the woman falls for the handsome, mysterious Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), who begins courting her much to her surprise. Maxim proposes and she agrees to marry him, much to the dismay of Mrs. Van Hopper. The woman, now the 2nd Mrs. de Winter, moves to Maxim’s huge mansion Manderley, where the memory of Rebecca, his first wife, lingers. Rebecca was a striking, formidable woman and the 2nd Mrs. de Winter fails to compete with her. Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) is the head servant, and is still pathologically obsessed with Rebecca, torturing the new bride.
While the film itself won the top Oscar (along with Best Cinematography; the film is the only one since the 1930s to win Best Picture but none for acting, writing, or directing), Alfred Hitchcock maintains that he’s never won an Oscar. That’s factually true, since the Oscar went to Selznick. Hitchcock bristled under the mandate that the film cannot deviate from the novel too much. Selznick surmised that fans of the book would object to the film if it had been any different. History was on his side, he claimed, after the success of Gone with the Wind. I don’t think Hitchcock ever felt that Rebecca was his film—though he tried to adapt the novel in the 1930s, he couldn’t afford the rights. Hitchcock thought there was no suspense in the story.
Alfred Hitchcock is entitled to opinion—and far be it from me to teach the Master of Suspense about his own films—but I disagree with him. Rebecca finds suspense not in its plotting, but through its characters. The uncertainty of the de Winter marriage, the polite hostility of Mrs. Danvers, and looming specter of Rebecca all add to the psychological landscape of the film. The production design also highlights the suspense, with heavy shadows and oppressive architecture. The 2nd Mrs. de Winter is a fish out of water, and she can’t seem to get anything right in her new surroundings.
That Rebecca is Hitchcock’s first film in America is significant. The story is British, the director is British, the characters are British, and the actors are all British—but the film does have some American qualities to it. It a bit broader in its themes, and the film’s ending had to be changed to comply with the Hays Production Code. I’m not sure what a British version of the film would be like, but as an American film, Rebecca is surprisingly modern and timeless. The story holds up until almost the very end. The changed ending doesn’t really work, and the film almost makes a complete protagonist shift, steering the film away from Joan Fontaine. However, Rebecca is an entertaining now as it was back in the 1940 because of Hitchcock’s leaning into the gothic horror.
The fairy tale elements of Rebecca also make it attractive. The beautiful young bride whisked off to a lavish estate by a romantic hero is a compelling setup when it is made ominous by Mrs. Van Hopper’s words of warnings. The 2nd Mrs. de Winter believes she’s living her fairy tale romance—and maybe she is—but the omnipresent ghost of Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers’ sinister behavior bring crushing doubt and unease to her. The film has such a dreamlike quality; it’s surreal and heightened to match the high ceilings of Manderley. Hitchcock’s fairy tale isn’t some magical love story, but one where the housekeeper/stepmother drives the princess to insanity.
It helps that the princess is played by Joan Fontaine, who has a Cinderella quality, like she’s always asking “who, me?” when Max tells her he loves her. Fontaine was nominated for Best Actress for this role and would go to win an Oscar the next year for Hitchcock’s Suspicion (the only actor to win for a Hitchcock role). We’ll talk about Suspicion eventually—though she’s excellent in that film, it’s easy to think she won as a consolation for losing in 1940 to Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle. Her performance in Rebecca is aching, defiant, naïve, and heartbreaking. Even without a name or much of a backstory, Fontaine gives the character a full life and purpose. She completely leads the film with conviction and determination.
Laurence Olivier’s gloomy, unknowable Maxim is a great example of the gothic romance leading man. His wife tries to figure him out and he eludes explanation. Olivier is handsome and strange, and his love for the 2nd Mrs. de Winter is not easy to decipher, but as the film goes on it becomes more apparent. The breakout star of the movie is Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers, who possesses a ghostly presence as well. She’s hardly seen walking. She just appears out of nowhere to torment the young bride. The film has some lesbian undertones; Mrs. Danvers’ obsession with Rebecca is borderline sexual. Her monologues are puzzling and quietly terrifying.
Rebecca may have been influenced by its producer, but the Hitchcockian elements are there. Even the police are shown to be intrusive and meddlesome. The film does have a strong legacy, but you don’t see it mentioned much. Hitchcock said the film didn’t have much humor because of its gothic melodrama trappings. Sure, the film doesn’t have the jokes of North by Northwest but it certainly isn’t as serious as Notorious. There are some moments of black comedy. I really enjoy Rebecca for its performances, its visual design, and for its distorted fairy tale aesthetic.