Rebecca has stood up quite well over the years – I don’t know why.
- Alfred Hitchcock
REBECCA (1940) IS THE film where some of the door-handles are set at eye-level. Remember?! Maxim de Winter’s ancestral home, Manderley, in Cornwall, where he brings the seemingly nameless heroine (henceforth ‘I’), who is also the story’s narrator, is one of the film’s impressive ‘stars’ – along with Laurence Olivier as Maxim, Joan Fontaine as ‘I’, and Australia’s Judith Anderson as the formidable housekeeper Mrs Danvers. The timid ‘I’ is as much initially frightened of ‘Danny’ (as Maxim calls Mrs Danvers) as she feels dwarfed by Manderley’s architecture and lost in its maze of corridors. However, well before the end, she has grown up– the perennial theme of so many Hitchcock movies over the years. (I see it as almost inevitable, given such a masterful director.)
In the early scenes, the orphaned ‘I’ often seems intimidated. When she and Maxim first encounter each other in an off-season Monte Carlo, she is employed as paid companion to the overbearing Mrs Van Hopper. Likewise, the plot seems to subtly characterise Mrs Van Hopper – she doesn’t seem to have the friends, nor perhaps quite the wealth, to be seen in ‘Monte’ (her term) at the height of the season. (Maxim has his own reason for being here at this time, and it concerns the death of his first wife, Rebecca, a short while before. ‘I’, who squirms when her employer acts over-familiarly towards Maxim, is embarrassed as much for Maxim as for herself, but Maxim shows himself capable of sizing up Mrs Van Hopper and administering a snub in double-quick time, before walking off.) Later, when Maxim encounters ‘I’ alone in the hotel foyer, and is again taken with her, he invites her to join him for a drive.
|Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Rebecca|
These days I read Rebecca as a comedy in the very best sense – it rings true. Olivier’s performance as Maxim subtly registers how his aristocratic character is used to getting his way without question - enough to imply that the fearless Rebecca may have offended him for reasons he never admits. (At the climax, he will say to the startled ‘I’, ‘I hated her!’) As well as Olivier’s performance, there are explicit incidents, as when, braking suddenly, he tells ‘I’ that if she doubts his concern for her she can get out of the car and walk. Topping that is his proposal a bit later: ‘I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool!’ They get married in a registry office. He buys her some flowers. In the following scene they are driving through the Cornish countryside, but the moment is not exactly auspicious: it begins to rain. (Hitchcock may have been remembering the rainy wedding-day in his first film, The Pleasure Garden.) Again stopping the car, Maxim shows his bride the distant Manderley. Framed through the car’s windscreen, it appears to have a visible spell cast over it. We see a mansion that looks forbidding and apart.
Conveying the same idea that Manderley is somehow spellbound is the fact that all of its menfolk appear to have become ‘impotent’ and denatured. (Even the younger Frith, at the gatehouse, seems elderly. His father is one of Manderley’s house staff.) Typical is a remark made about the estate’s resident eccentric, ‘Barmy’ Ben, that he’s ‘perfectly harmless’. The person who makes that remark is the estate-manager, Frank Crawley (Reginald Denny), a bachelor, whom Maxim calls ‘as fussy as an old mother hen’. (In Torn Curtain, Professor Lindt uses that line to criticise his ‘cluck-clucking’ colleagues.) As for the marriage of Maxim and ‘I’, for a long time it never seems much more than another ‘companionship’ – later we find out why - a mere extension of ‘I’s’ position with Mrs Van Hopper. Also, her intimidation by her former employer effectively continues, but this time at the hands of the fearsome housekeeper, Mrs Danvers. A suppressed final chapter to Daphne du Maurier’s novel, unpublished until 1981, reveals that the central couple are still childless several years later.
|Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson)|
Mrs Danvers deserves a separate note to herself. For a start, it isn’t clear how she acquired the title ‘Mrs’ – presumably it’s a courtesy title given her when she came to Manderley as Rebecca’s personal assistant. Anyone less likely to be married (to a man) is hard to picture. We’re told that she ‘simply adored’ Rebecca; the housekeeper’s butch nature seems established from the start. Actually, she strikes me as one more of Hitchcock’s eccentrics, of which his films are full.1 Mrs Danvers remains single-minded in her dedication to the supposedly drowned Rebecca, and oppressive towards poor ‘I’. At one of the film’s many climaxes, she nearly pressures ‘I’ to jump from the window of Rebecca’s bedroom to her death (‘Go on! It’s easy! Why don’t you?’), only to be thwarted by rockets suddenly being fired at sea to signal that a ship has run aground – a different, more impersonal, disaster, but keeping the melodrama at high intensity. Wicked housekeepers were not unprecedented in fiction, of course (a rough equivalent to the wicked witches in the contemporary work of L. Frank Baum!). Hitchcock told Truffaut that he had tried to avoid ‘humanising’ Mrs Danvers by dressing her in black and seldom showing her moving. And indeed, Daphne du Maurier seems to have based the character on another, called Mrs Unthank, in the novel ‘The Great Impersonation’ (1920) by espionage writer E. Phillips Oppenheim. Here’s how Oppenheim introduces his malevolent housekeeper: ‘A woman whose advent had been unperceived, but who had evidently issued from one of the recesses in the hall, stood suddenly before them all. She was as thin as a lath, dressed in severe black.’ And here, for comparison, is how du Maurier introduces Mrs Danvers: ‘Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black …’ (Hitchcock told Truffaut that he found du Maurier ‘derivative’.) The type has continued in movies: think of the devastating housekeeper, Mrs Baylock, in The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976).
Hitchcock seems to have enjoyed depicting butch women for their ‘entertainment’ value. The novelist Isobel Sedbusk (Auriol Lee) in Suspicion (1942) is another. She is by no means disagreeable, but masterful like Hitchcock himself – indeed, he sees fit to give her a knowledge of plotting, and of true-life murder cases, to rival his own. In Rebecca, there is also Beatrice Lacy (Gladys Cooper), Maxim’s plain-spoken sister, who, fortunately for ‘I’, takes an immediate liking to the new bride. She is married to Major Giles Lacy (Nigel Bruce), seemingly a bit of a duffer, revealed in the novel to have been one of Rebecca’s victims, i.e., seduced by her. Giles and Beatrice’s marriage appears childless ...
|Jack Favell (George Sanders)|
I have still to mention Jack Favell (George Sanders) who describes himself as ‘Rebecca’s favourite cousin’ and who remains chummy with Mrs Danvers, probably due to the fact that he, too, in the novel, had been seduced by Rebecca. However, if Giles is a duffer, Favell is a bounder. Sanders is suitably smarmy, as he will be again when featured alongside Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950). In Rebecca, he provides comic counterpoint to the gentlemanly Maxim, and more than once they cross swords. Here’s how the film introduces Favell, or, rather, how he introduces himself. Catching ‘I’ unawares, he appears behind her and asks her almost cheekily, ‘Looking for me?’ (She has just been eavesdropping on him and Mrs Danvers, being too timid to enter the same room. Instead, she hides herself nearby.) Favell is standing outside a window behind ‘I’, and his voice makes her whirl around, startled. We had not been shown the window earlier in the scene, so we are startled, too. Hitchcock often required windows, doors, etcetera, placed for an effect he might want. For example, Patricia White’s monograph on Rebecca mentions a window in Rebecca’s room which Mrs Danvers opens: ‘strangely adjacent to the bed … and Danvers encourages [‘I’] to jump.’ (p. 87) Favell doesn’t remain outside. With cheeky insouciance, he throws a leg over the sill and bounds into the room. There is a shadow across his face just before he does so, undercutting any impression that he is simply being jolly. Later in the film, during a lunch recess at the inquest, he joins Maxim and ‘I’ in their car uninvited, and promptly attempts blackmail. Cheekily, he first helps himself to a piece of chicken before tossing the bones away. ‘What does one do with old bones?’, he wisecracks. ‘Bury them, eh what?’
|The boathouse, Laurence Olivier|
Another key line spoken by Favell reflects directly on Maxim: ‘That temper will do you in yet.’ (An exasperated Maxim had punched him.) It gives us justifiable pause. Maxim’s irascibility surfaces on several occasions along with references - such as Favell’s - to his temper. His generally subdued manner is integral to the dramatic outcome, and proves to be an instance of clever misdirection. Until a quite brilliant 14-minute boathouse scene2which steers the narrative where we hadn’t anticipated, our assumption (with ‘I’) has been that Maxim is subdued because he hasn’t gotten over Rebecca’s death. Now, suddenly, we learn that he had hated her, and that his manner has another explanation. The scene both gives and withholds information. Maxim claims that when he had confronted Rebecca in the boathouse about her liaisons with Favell, she – secretly knowing that she had cancer (as we find out later) – intended to goad him into killing her, such was her malevolence. ‘Aren’t you going to kill me?’, Maxim claims she said. But then ‘she had stumbled and hit her head on a piece of ship’s tackle’. Throughout Maxim’s account of what had happened, the camera moves around the boathouse to show his and Rebecca’s movements. It is both graphic and gripping. For example, we see the rope and tackle lying on the floor. But later we are prompted to ask questions. Did Rebecca really fall and hit her head accidentally? It sounds an unlikely story! In du Maurier’s version, Maxim did indeed kill Rebecca. Then he buried her body at sea, placing her body in her boat and scuttling it. Then he rowed himself ashore in the boat’s dinghy. Incidentally, if Maxim isn’t telling the truth, then the boathouse scene prefigures the ‘flashback that isn’t true’ in Stage Fright (1950). Only, critics don’t think of it that way, even if they distrust Maxim’s words, because it’s as much verbal as visual.
Similarly, critics tend not to notice, or anyway don’t comment on, the underlying questioning that du Maurier’s story embodies, and from which it derives much of its power. Maybe, just maybe, Hitchcock’s Catholicism stopped him from developing that aspect – but it’s there anyway. In du Maurier’s novel of Jamaica Inn, her villain is a man out of sympathy with his age: a clergyman whose real allegiance is to paganism, to a time ‘when the rivers and the sea were one, and the old gods walked the hills’. It’s hard not to see some of du Maurier in that character - but she is sufficient of a craftsperson to simply write herself out of any head-on accountability. In Rebecca, what so shocks Maxim about his first wife is that she is both promiscuous and – apparently – bisexual. (Mrs Danvers is the face of Rebecca in that respect.) She thus resembles an aspect of du Maurier herself, as her biographers have shown. In effect, Rebecca is what Camille Paglia has called the archetypal Great Mother, ‘[t]he supreme symbol of fertility religion … a figure of double-sexed primal power’. Maxim, by contrast, is an arch conservative and patriarch: someone who firmly believes, he tells ‘I’, in mastering an action by performing it ‘over and over again’. When he learns the true nature of Rebecca, he is understandably traumatised – and driven to hatred of her.
The English of the time firmly believed in being ‘decent’ in all their dealings. (In its under-stated way, the term no doubt expressed why for years they had opposed Hitler: he wasn’t a ‘decent’ chap, now was he?) But it’s a term that can be used to put a person down – and Marnie (‘Tippi’ Hedren) in Hitchcock’s film of that title scoffs at it. You feel that Hitchcock was on her side. Sarcastically, Marnie says to Mark (Sean Connery): ‘I’m a thief and a liar, but I am decent!’ Superficially, she’s right, but she knows that there are deeper factors that make her what she truly is. Even Rebecca had been prepared – she tells her husband after four days of marriage – to play up to an image of her as the perfect hostess and to make herself and Maxim, and Manderley, the envy of Society. Just so long as he lets her stay what she is, i.e., promiscuous! The opposite of Rebecca in nearly every way – except that they’re both ‘spoilt’ – is Mrs Van Hopper. I chuckle when I hear her reprimand to ‘I’: ‘Have you been doing anything you shouldn’t?’ No doubt, Mrs Van Hopper thinks of herself as virtuous and a good ‘parent’ to this girl, her ‘companion’. Hitchcock loved under-statement, of course. My favourite example is what Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) says at the climax of North by Northwest, ‘This won’t do! We’re on top of the Monument.’
|Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier|
Above all, I think that Rebecca’s plotting needs appreciation as an instance of what the distinguished playwright Robert Sherwood - the film’s screenwriter - and Hitchcock came up with after many drafts, taking inspiration from du Maurier’s ‘prodigious imagination’ (White, p. 99). Granted, they draw on whatever they can get away with! For instance, it’s doubly convenient that an unknown woman’s body had been washed ashore soon after Rebecca had disappeared in her boat. Convenient for Maxim, who had killed her (probably), and for the screenplay! Equally, it’s convenient that when Rebecca’s boat is found at the bottom of the sea with holes in its planking, and her body still on board, the scene can be read as one of suicide. Convenient for Maxim and again for the story, too. (Presumably, the gash that must have been on Rebecca’s forehead is no longer apparent.) The very ambiguity that accompanies the sinking of the boat allows the screenplay to not actually say that Maxim had killed his wife: the American Legion of Decency rules for films decreed that a murderer could not get away with his crime, no matter how exonerating the circumstances. (There’s another choice line at the second inquest into Rebecca’s death: the boatbuilder Tabbs waits for a suitable moment in his evidence before saying, ‘And then there’s them ‘oles!’)
Finally, I’d like to pay tribute to producer David Selznick’s moderating influence on Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film. Selznick actually threw out its first treatment, which was written by Philip MacDonald and Joan Harrison under Hitchcock’s supervision. In one of his famous memos, Selznick wrote: ‘Dear Hitch. It is my unfortunate and distressing task to tell you that I am shocked and disappointed beyond words by the first [treatment]. I regard it as a distorted and vulgarized version of a provenly successful work, in which, for no reason that I can discern, old fashioned movie scenes have been substituted for the captivatingly charming du Maurier scenes.’ The treatment had begun by showing the characters on their way to Monte Carlo, including scenes of seasickness à la Champagne (1928) or perhaps Chaplin. Selznick thought these ‘cheap beyond words’ (that phrase again!), and called for a total rewrite. Such an imposition of discipline on England’s top director surely taught him a rigour that he never lost thereafter. Rebecca is plainly his first Hollywood masterpiece.
1. Author Charles Dickens also had many such grotesque characters in his novels, such as Miss Havisham in ‘Great Expectations’ who was jilted on her wedding day and has lived as a recluse ever since – although bringing up a beautiful waif, Estella, as a lure for male victims, who will fall in love with her only to find that she has been taught to be unresponsive, and thereby break their hearts!
2. When Selznick saw the rushes for the boathouse scene, he called them ‘wonderful’. For once, he seemed almost lost for words!
Ken Mogg has published widely on Hitchcock; his The Alfred Hitchcock Story(1999, revised 2008) covers every film 'in loving detail' (Bill Krohn, Cahiers du Cinéma). His recent writing includes a chapter on Topaz and (the script of) The Short Night in Hitchcock and the Cold War (Pace University Press, 2018), a chapter on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in Children, Youth, and American Television (Routledge, 2018), a chapter on "Hitchcock's Literary Influences" for A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock(Wiley Blackwell 2011, pb 2014), and an essay on "The Cutting Room" in 39 Steps to the Genius of Alfred Hitchcock (BFI, 2012). Ken has also written "Psycho Considerations" (2020), on the hitchcockmaster website if you click here.
Ken Mogg's email address is email@example.com