Reviewed by David Neary
Produced by David O. Selznick; directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison, adapted by Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan from the novel by Daphne du Maurier; photographed by George Barnes; production design by Lyle Wheeler and Joseph B. Platt; edited by W. Donn Hayes (uncredited); music by Franz Waxman; starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson, George Sanders, Gladys Cooper, Nigel Bruce, Reginald Denny, C. Aubrey Smith, Florence Bates, Leo G. Carroll, Leonard Carey, and Edward Fielding. Blu-ray and DVD, B&W, 130 min., 1940. A Criterion Collection release.
“I never make mystery films,” said Alfred Hitchcock, a liar, in 1973. Certainly he was speaking specifically about the nature of suspense in his films—the old “let the audience know the bomb is ticking” technique—but to suggest that none of his films are mysteries is patently false. Eschewing whodunits, Hitchcock layered his psychological thrillers with an aura of unknownness; you need only to look at his most adored works, Vertigo and Rear Window, to see how close he kept his narrative cards, only playing the twist to dispel the mystery in his final hand. His heroes, so regularly in over their heads, hold our hands (or we hold theirs) as they work step by step toward their revelation, like Vera Miles in the cellar of the Bates Motel. Of all his films, none feels more shrouded in mystery than Rebecca, which features perhaps his most naive protagonist and certainly his most haunted house. Why he would not think to label it a mystery is worth exploring—perhaps he considered it so strongly a gothic romance, or perhaps the unhappy experience of making the film, of vying for control with the talented, tyrannical producer David O. Selznick, had left it sidelined in his heart and mind. “Well it’s not a Hitchcock picture,” he told François Truffaut in 1962.
And yet it is impossible not to list it amongst the finest works to bear his name—it might infuriate Hitchcock purists, it certainly peeved him, that it was the only film of his to reap the Best Picture Oscar (which went, of course, to the producer). Hitchcock was working on his adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn (1939) when her novel Rebecca was published, to instant critical acclaim and commercial success. Selznick had the rights bought up before Hitchcock could think to pounce; by coincidence, the pair already had a deal to make a film about the Titanic. Hitchcock, a great purveyor of fear and a slave to it, also, was eager to get out of London before the looming war; also, like a hermit crab, he had, after fifteen years, outgrown the shell of the British film industry. Selznick, riding high on a cocktail of Gone With the Wind and amphetamines, wanted to boost the profile of his next film with the prestige of the director of The 39 Steps. Hitchcock’s Hollywood career was born.
The clash of personalities was evident before Hitchcock even left the U.K.—the director was a vulture when it came to adapting source material, leaving only the bones upon which to build a new work, while Selznick considered fidelity to the text a priority. “We bought Rebecca, and we intend to make Rebecca,” he angrily wired Hitchcock in ’39, upon reading the director’s reworked script treatment. As film historian Bill Krohn muses amusedly in a documentary accompanying this Criterion release, Hitchcock modeled himself on Cecil B. DeMille as director; Selznick modeled himself on Cecil B. DeMille the producer. It’s a miracle the film was ever finished.
But what a little miracle it turned out to be. It helps that du Maurier’s story is so splendid. Our anonymous heroine (credited in the script as “I”), an introverted and awkward nineteen-year-old, becomes the daytime companion and very suddenly wife of Maxim de Winter, a recently widowed aristocrat. His intentions are unclear, “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool” is his curt idea of a proposal; all we and “I” can be certain of is that he is lonely and pained. The honeymoon period of their meeting and wedding in Monte Carlo ends abruptly as they return to Manderley, his stately home in Cornwall. Here the second Mrs. de Winter finds how ill-prepared she is to be a great lady, immediately butting heads, both literally and figuratively, with the grim, stern housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. Rebecca’s ghost seems to linger in every corridor and crevice of Manderley; “I” recoils and shivers at every mention of her. Her monogram appears on stationery and napkins, snatches of conversation reveal how beautiful and elegant she was (and Mrs. Danvers “simply adored her!”), the family dog pines outside her bedroom, preserved like a ghastly, silken mausoleum, with Maxim’s smiling portrait on the dressing table in lieu of a death mask. It is when she most fears that she has entered a one-sidedly loveless marriage with a man still pining for his perfect bride that Rebecca rises once more. Believed drowned in an accident, her body is pulled from the sea in a boat scuttled from within. For Maxim, this is a death sentence: he buried her at sea after she hit her head during an argument over her ceaseless affairs and emotional abuse. For “I,” it is an equally horrific and joyous rebirth. Like an anti-Vertigo, Maxim has tried precisely not to make her into the woman he lost; the revelation emboldens her.
As adaptation, it is largely faultless. The opening, a dream of returning to Manderley after its ruination, sees cinematographer George Barnes’s camera float, like all dreamers, and most great filmmakers, “possessed with supernatural powers,” passing through the great mansion’s gates. The action opens on a scripted scene in Monaco’s Monte Carlo coast, where Joan Fontaine’s timid heroine finds Laurence Olivier’s Maxim standing at the edge, mistaking his sad rumination for a suicide attempt. The scene creates an immediate air of awkwardness and tension between the pair, skipping pages of du Maurier’s navigating the class divide, while sparing American audiences these social details. Manderley, described laboriously by du Maurier (based on her lifelong love, Menabilly, a stately Cornwall home), is suitably imposing, and the design work put into re-creating it is astonishing, from vast miniatures used to shoot the exteriors, to beautifully detailed sets fleshed out with subtle, superimposed matte paintings. Hitchcock, who meticulously planned every shot, has Barnes repeatedly pull the camera away from Fontaine, dwarfing her in Manderley’s opulence, a doe-eyed Alice in a gothic wonderland (Maxim even compares her to Carroll’s creation)…
Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 1