And so Alfred goes to Hollywood. This is the first movie he made on a seven year, rather incendiary, contract with David O. Selznick, uber producer of the barnstorming ‘Gone With the Wind’ from the previous year. The Hollywood sheen is instantly recognizable in the look and feel of the picture – the photography luminously lovely and the production values distinctly American.
‘Rebecca’ is amongst the director’s most famous films, and one that breaks out from the norm of his work and attracts an audience wider than even the later 1950’s classics. One reason is that it doesn’t follow many of his obsessive themes (innocence on the run/voyeurism etc) but rather adapts another Daphne Du Maurier tale (see ‘Jamaica Inn’) into a dark picture of suppressed passion, insane devotion and bubbling jealousy. The Rebecca of the title is dead before the film begins and her ghost haunts the action. Her widowed husband Maximilian de Winter (Laurence Olivier) stalks around attempting to raise his spirits and interest in another relationship, eventually settling on the meek and mild ‘Second Mrs. de Winter’ (she doesn’t even get a name in the whole film, which is a really neat trick to denigrate her even further – Joan Fontaine portrays this puppy dog of a woman). Mrs. dWII is unwelcomed into the family estate of Manderley by the cliché evil Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) who makes no secret of her devotion to the deceased MK.I wife and openly undermines the new woman of the house. There follows a tale of soap operish levels of plot twisting and relationship confusion – ultimately a whodunnit containing murder/suicide/adultery/false pregnancy/cancer and a wildly obsessive housekeeper who derangedly torches the family home in a blaze of white heat anger: made it Rebecca, topped myself.
The opening model shots allow Hitchcock to sweep through the Manderlay estate with a fluid camera, cuts disguised under fog. We are then transported to the South of France with a shot of a fairly tumultuous sea crashing against the shoreline, the camera panning up to the figure of Max perched high on the crest of the cliff – the memory and contemplation of suicide. The cut to behind his head, his behatted silhouette framed by the ocean, is a classic Hitchcock composition.
As his future second wife shouts for him to stop lest he fall, he confronts her in the first of a number of grumpy and aggressive deliveries Max directs at her. But the attraction is there and as the younger woman’s boss/guardian/harridan (Edyth Van Hopper played by Florence Bates) is laid low by illness the couple start to get to know each other. It feels pretty organic and natural and, after his initial annoyance at her, he turns out to be somewhat of a charmer – as well as obviously being drenched in cash.
Max is on a knife edge throughout – her mention of possible drowning kicking him off into another huff. The ensuing montage of slow building romance scenes is effective enough but, even with the technology of Hollywood, there are scenes that still scream back projection (I know this is the limitations of the day but it does all look a tad crude). Max tells her never to wear black velvet or pearls in a kind of anti-‘Vertigo’ way (as in, he doesn’t want to rebuild her as a replica of his past – this blown spectacularly later on when the second Mrs. de Winter appears dressed entirely in the same costume as the dead Rebecca, the evil Mrs. Danvers instigating this disastrous decision).
Later in the picture, when Mrs. de Winter II has a chat with family friend Beatrice Lacy (Gladys Cooper) about Max never noticing what she wears, the older lady comments ‘he must have changed then’, Max clearly not caring about many things he used to.
As Van Hopper suddenly needs to go to New York, the innocent waif rushes around to tell Max – who promptly asks her to marry him (‘I’m asking you to marry me you stupid little fool’ – very smooth, I wish I’d tried that proposal method). ‘Tell me: have you been doing anything you shouldn’t?’ asks the old fast-talking battleaxe – the poor girl is under siege all over the place and continually seems out of her depth. Van Hopper’s parting sneer ‘Hmm – Mrs. de Winter?!’ is openly rude and patronizing and you’re glad to see the back of her, although she’s just a preface for Mrs. Danvers’ vengeful nastiness. The camera pulls back and leaves the soon-to-be Mrs. dWII standing looking lost in Max’s room – her whole world turned upside down within a few minutes.
Their approach by car to Manderlay as Mr. and Mrs. de Winter is really nicely done – the arch made by the windscreen wipers matching the shape of the trees they pass under and the same arch shape replicated a third time by the cut back to her covering her head with his raincoat – clever stuff.
Franz Waxman’s excellent score works a treat here – her open mouthed expression at the beauty of the building themed wonderfully. It’s a great reveal*. Mrs. dWII is understandably agog as the entire house staff are lined up for her arrival and the first appearance of Mrs. Danvers clearly establishes her as an evil force (interesting dissolve to a clock face here from c/u of Danvers**). Hitchcock takes time to establish the character of the house – all deep shadows and gothic archways. Mrs. Danvers pointing out Rebecca’s bedroom (‘the most beautiful room in the house’) symbolically guarded by a sleepy black dog.
From the small to the large (or vice versa) is a common Hitch technique (as an example, see the stupendous ‘Notorious’ ‘key’ scene from 1946) and he uses it well as the camera starts on a close up of a monogrammed napkin (‘RdW’) and then swoops out to reveal the overlarge dining table with the two of them seated far apart.
Later, as she slowly explores the mansion you get a sense of the scale of this enormous house. Room after room dwarves her as she looks around, the servants directing her to rooms where Rebecca liked to reside. It’s feels very Citizen Kane-y (a year earlier than the Welles’ masterpiece) in its sense of pointless grandeur and pretty useless beauty. Everything is branded with ‘R’s and feels foreboding and forbidding. She breaks an ornament and has to hide it after one rattling visit from Danvers. It comes back to haunt her as one of the servants is accused of the breakage. This is a painful scene as the de Winters start viewing their honeymoon film footage happily, then pause for the Great China Breakage Inquisition and then it all goes off the rails when they try to get back to the bright mood. Mrs. dWII mentions gossip and Max gets uppity yet again, the whole thing starkly lit by just the projector’s light, only their strobing faces visible – really nicely done***.
The slight lightening of atmosphere supplied by the ever dependable Nigel Bruce as Major Giles Lacy is good and a welcome relief – he describing Mrs. Danvers as ‘not exactly an oil painting’ before blustering off to find Max. The Major’s wife then lets the new Mrs. de Winter know that Mrs. Danvers ‘simply adored Rebecca’ (oh, really…) and Hitchcock pulls out a stark profile shot of Joan Fontaine as the lighting engulfs her in blackness. The whole dinner evening with the couples (and the estate’s foreman, Frank Crawley played by Reginald Denny) is pretty highly strung, the bumbling Major putting his hoof in it with a reference to sailing in a don’t-mention-the-war kind of way.
The film and her life spirals into darkness and implied threat – what happened at the little cottage by the sea where the crazy old Ben (Leonard Carey) gurns out of the doorway? What is the whole story of Rebecca? The new Mrs. De Winter is told that Rebecca ‘wasn’t afraid of anything’ – in contrast to herself who is frightened by every shadow, and there’s plenty of them at Manderlay. ‘I suppose she was the most beautiful creature I ever saw’ says Crawley, betraying his own unrequited feelings. Mrs. dWII seeks the advice of a fashion magazine (does she really have no girl friends at all?) ‘What on earth have you done to yourself?’ says Max as she appears dressed to the nines in a new London dress – the old flatterer. It’s pretty broad to believe that she’s that alone and clueless.
When she eventually ventures into Rebecca’s rooms it’s as much of a mausoleum as the Bates house in ‘Psycho’ – everything frozen in time, evocative also of Miss Haversham’s house in David Lean’s ‘Great Expectations’ (but with better housekeeping). Disturbed by the dreaded Mrs. Danvers she is then given the grand tour, Mrs. D. rubbing her own and then Mrs. de Winter’s face with Rebecca’s furs in an undeniably sexual way.
She shows her Rebecca’s translucent lace and silk night dress (‘look, you can see your hand’) – the image eventually becoming underlit and evoking more of a scary feel in the spidery Mrs. Danvers’ tour. By the end of this scene (and Mrs. Danvers ‘listen to the sea’ speech) the young woman is absolutely terrified – with no Max to comfort her (he’s away for a few days). There’s a lovely dissolve to the crashing ocean as Danvers intones and repeats her sea lines – her image going to a freeze frame before we see the waves.
Mrs dWII’s sketches, by the way, are woefully poor – she mentions early on that her father was a painter but clearly the skill didn’t pass itself on (maybe his talent was houses rather than canvas).
When she is sketching her potential outfit for the costumed ball, we see various crude renditions of Joan of Arc and the like, before Mrs. Danvers helpfully suggests she replicate a frock that Rebecca wore, guaranteed to flip Max out in one of his rages. Her triumph turns to bitter tragedy when Max sees her, Mrs. Danvers finally coming out and revealing her hatred for the new Missus – ‘even in the same dress you couldn’t compare’ she spits.
Max’s recollection of Rebecca laughing at him in the cottage and relating that she is pregnant by George Sanders’ car salesman Jack Favell (she’s actually not – but has already admitted her endless shenanigans to Max four days after their wedding) is done really well – the camera moving around the cottage and across various inanimate objects to illustrate the characters’ movements of the past, as Max narrates. He thumps the door to illustrate her falling as the camera pans down.
Sanders is great in throughout (I like him a lot generally) and especially when he tries to blackmail Max for sufficient cash to retire to the country with a few acres for shooting. He’s an oily sort, nibbling nonchalantly on a chicken leg and sipping a drink as he lays out his scheme. Max eventually plants one on him after calling his bluff and having all the cops present to expose Flavell as the scruples-free scoundrel he is.
The devoted, obsessed Mrs. Danvers has some kind of love for the similarly evil Rebecca. I don’t quite buy that Max would fall for someone quite as bland as Mrs. dWII but it works ok. He seems a much more passionate and strong soul than her – she so much of a doormat you feel he’d be bored with her in a short while.
‘Rebecca’ is kind of overwrought but mostly in a good way. Olivier portrays Maximilian as a tortured soul – did he/didn’t he bump his wife off? Did he love her in the first place (no, they hated each other from the off, Rebecca scedaddling up to London for days on end for steamy love trysts with her ‘cousin’ Flavell). I like Olivier’s performance throughout – he’s a furnace of barely controlled emotions, desperately trying to cap his feelings of anger and guilt at covering up the death of his first wife whilst attempting to be loyal and loving to his new one.
Joan Fontaine overcooks it a fair bit and seems so meek and mild I just wanted to grab her and feed her a plate load of guts. And Mrs. Danvers is some kind of a beastly harridan: a force to be reckoned with, a well done – nay overcooked – piece of admirable ham who gothics her way through the film with outrageous actions and suggestions (at one point nearly persuading the henpecked Mrs. dWII to top herself).
I have to say that Mrs. Danvers seems the most typically Hitchcockian aspect of the movie – the rest of the film goes along well enough but it really comes alive when she’s onscreen. What would it be like with just a normal housekeeper or if Mrs dWII grew a pair and had her sacked? The film would grind to a halt and turn into a domestic bliss, God forbid. Mrs. Danvers is the catalyst for all nastiness in the film – and makes it what it is.
The over-the-top denouement, Manderlay in flames and Mrs. Danvers like some horror movie villainess looking up to see flaming beams falling towards her, is powerful and effective.
The film overall seems to be rather an odd mix of the domestic and the hysterical. It’s good, if a bit overlong and ultimately is a murder–mystery-whodunit with the answer being ‘no-one’. Yes it’s a classic: but it’s not classic Hitchcock.
There’s a right royal staircase at Manderlay – shown off to best effect when Mrs. de Winter II descends dressed in the fatal frock recommended by Mrs. Danvers.
*Not quite as tear inducing as my favourite of all time, the crane move to reveal the town of Sweetwater in ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’, but Hitchcock/Waxman give Leone/Morricone a good run for their violins.
**There is another dissolve from her to a clock, by the way, just after the tempting to suicide scene – what is it with these clock dissolves? Later it dissolves from Mrs. Danvers to a tree…hmmm, lost me a bit here.
***I agree with Patrick McGilligan in his book ‘Alfred Hitchcock – A Life in Darkness and Light’ that this is the most purely Hitchcockian moment in the film.
The version I watched was on the UK Fremantle label and has really good picture and sound quality. The visuals in particular are quite superb.