David O. Selznick brought Alfred Hitchcock to Hollywood in 1939 and promptly got the British master his first and only Best Picture win at the Academy Awards. That film, Rebecca (1940) holds up today as a Gothic romance, a largely faithful literary adaptation (of the Daphne du Maurier novel) and an important stepping stone before Hitchcock’s later American masterpieces. However, the dueling egos at the head of the production, it has often been said, temper the film’s success somewhat. Selznick, fresh off his triumph with Gone with the Wind, had a world-beating reputation for making classy films for well-read audiences. He secured Laurence Olivier for the brooding romantic lead in Rebecca after the actor’s own Oscar-nominated turn as Emily Brontë’s Heathcliff. Hitchcock, on the other hand, would never be known as an obedient prestige director. He was thrilled to have an exorbitant budget with which to work, but nothing would stop him from inserting his unique quirks of humor and sly suggestiveness. If neither man fully got his way, the end result is still a fascinating piece of genre fiction, full of suppressed pasts and sinister monograms between a violent sea and a haunted mansion drenched in shadows.
Joan Fontaine plays the narrator and protagonist who is, to be clear, not named Rebecca, and who in fact is never named at all (a conceit taken directly from the novel). The story is thus a bildungsroman, in which the Fontaine character grows into an identity throughout the course of the movie. She being a woman and times being what they are, that identity is found in becoming Mrs. de Winter, the second wife of Maxim de Winter (Olivier), owner of the enormous mansion called Manderley. With her shy eyebrows, Fontaine is perfectly suited to the childlike innocence and simple tastes of the character. The haughty Maxim, prone to fits of gloom, is an odd match for her, but they have one thing in common. Soon after she moves in to Manderley, Mrs. de Winter accidentally breaks a beautiful china sculpture. Already intimidated by the imperious housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) — who has already judged her to be inferior to the previous mistress of the house, Rebecca — Mrs. de Winter impulsively hides the evidence in a drawer. This simple gesture taps into something fundamental about Hitchcockian psychology: the feeling of guilt, of course, but also the desire to hide that guilt despite knowing that the cover-up will only make everything worse. Maxim, as du Maurier’s most ingenious plot twist eventually reveals, is holding on to a much bigger secret.
Before the exposition dumps of the film’s final forty-five minutes (which are leavened quite a bit by George Sanders in one of his trademark lip-smacking villain roles, thankfully), this movie coasts along entirely on atmosphere and a kind of psychic conflict, rarely called by name but often visceral. Maxim’s new wife is immersed in a world entirely new to her, pressured in equal and opposite ways, by Mrs. Danvers and Maxim respectively, either to live up to Rebecca’s standards or to remain her simple, innocent self among all the rich phonies. At least intermittently, she manages to thread the needle, claiming her authority over the house without trying to be a Rebecca clone, but more often than not she catches herself slipping from one extreme to the other. Maxim’s unwillingness to talk much about his life with Rebecca or her untimely death doesn’t help matters. Without ever actually going bump in the night, Rebecca haunts the house and her successor’s life through embroidered pillowcases and stationery, a cobweb-strewn cottage, and a massive bedroom in Manderley left unchanged since her passing. Above all, she lives on through the harsh stares and icy politeness of Mrs. Danvers, whose devotion to Rebecca is both ardent and intimate.
It would probably be too neat to divide this movie into the Selznick half and the Hitchcock half, but the central, brooding portion of the film has less in common with the typical Hitchcock film than do the opening passages (a breezy courtship between Olivier and Fontaine) and the denouement (an investigation into a death, psychologically tangled confessions and attempted blackmail). If Gone with the Wind fans went to Rebecca hoping for a similar mix of flawless art direction and passionate romance, they got at least half of what they wanted. The central relationship never fully works. If anything, the second Mrs. de Winter is in love with her new lifestyle, a chance to be the belle of the ball, rather than with the moody, insulting older man she married. The story of Rebecca has a lot in common with Jane Eyre, but I don’t find this protagonist to be as compelling as her predecessor. Still, there’s always Manderley. First glimpsed by the protagonist through a rain-streaked windshield, the house is a truly sumptuous sight, garish and unruly both inside and out. Du Maurier put the name of the house in her novel’s first sentence, and the screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison followed suit with a voice-over opening, for a reason.
More than just the movie that rode Gone with the Wind‘s coattails to Oscar glory and kicked off Hitchcock’s epochal American career, Rebecca can boast some remarkable stylistic influence. Its heavy shadows and canted camera angles at tense moments look forward to the film noir era, and it even beat Citizen Kane to the punch in at least two respects. First, there’s the overlong dinner table between the husband and the wife, and second, there’s the ending, in which the last traces of memory are symbolically burned up (R for Rebecca, R for Rosebud). In more specific ways, the film shows some critical elements of Hitchcock’s own filmmaking style. Eyes looking directly at the camera, as Joan Fontaine’s do on several occasions, can have a noticeably discomforting effect. It’s a clever way to keep one’s audience on edge. A less celebrated staple of Hitchcock’s oeuvre is the aforementioned inquest. The director seemed to enjoy these scenes, in which “what happened” is painstakingly spelled out, although sometimes the person doing the talking is meant to be a fool. The most famous example of this is the much-maligned ending of Psycho, but there’s also one right in the middle of Vertigo, and we can even reach as far back as the 1930 film Murder!, most of which takes place during a trial. Last of all is a specific image, one that seemed to affect Hitchcock on the deepest level: a matronly silhouette, with hair done up tightly. Mrs. Danvers here, and of course Mrs. Bates later. The Selznick-Hitchcock partnership wasn’t a very happy one in the end, but it produced this darkly beautiful, and occasionally great, film.