HCF REWIND NO. 166: REBECCA 
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 130 min
THE HITCHCOCK CAMEO: walking past a phone booth just after Jack Favell makes a call [originally his face was seen, but it was cut because it was felt it would detract from the drama]
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A young (and nameless) woman, a paid companion to the wealthy but obnoxious Edythe Van Hopper, meets the aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo and stops him from throwing himself over a cliff. They fall in love, and within two weeks they are married. Maxim takes his new bride to Manderley, his country house in Cornwall, where the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers is domineering and cold, and is also obsessed with the great beauty, intelligence and sophistication of the first Mrs. de Winter and preserves her former bedroom as a shrine. The new Mrs. de Winter is intimidated by her responsibilities, overwhelmed by the continuous reminders of Rebecca, and begins to doubt her relationship with her husband….
“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again” says the female voice over Franz Waxman’s evocatively mysterious music as the camera passes through two imposing gates and up a shadowy, fog-strewn driveway to the ruins of what was obviously once a magnificent country house. It’s such a lovely, atmospheric opening, and one that immediately tells you that you’re in for just over two hours of gloriously old-fashioned Hollywood storytelling of the highest calibre. Watching Rebecca, with its lushness and literariness, comes as quite a surprise after viewing all of Hitchcock’s previous films, because it really does feel very different. Hitchcock, who never dabbled in this kind of thing again except for Under Capricorn, wasn’t too fond of the end result, this kind of romantic, slightly Gothic melodrama not really being his forte, but then Rebecca, the kind of accurate book adaption favoured by producer David O’ Selznick, is as much its producer’s film as its director’s. Very wordy and slow in places, it doesn’t have the glorious fun value of The Lady Vanishes or The 39 Steps, but then it’s not meant to be like them, and Hitchcock seems perfectly at ease in a much more serious, interior-set film, showing signs of later work like Vertigo and Marnie when he would perfect his own kind of darkly romantic, psychological, tale. And, while not full of action, it is, for large sections, highly atmospheric and creepy.
In my review for Jamaica Inn I mentioned that Rebecca had been planned as Hitchcock’s first American film for some time. He himself wrote the first script with his secretary Joan Harrison and Philip MacDonald, but it departed greatly from the novel, calling the nameless narrator Daphne, adding much humour, action and some strange addition like a mad grandmother in the west wing of Manderley [as if Rebecca wasn’t enough like Jane Eyre already, and similarities to Carolina Nabuco’s The Successor and Edwina L. MacDonald’s Blind Windows actually led to MacDonald suing the studio]. Selznick rejected it and another more faithful version was written, mostly by Robert E. Sherwood and Michael Hogan, though it retained the alteration of Mrs Danvers to a much more mysterious character. Selznick wanted Ronald Colman, but he didn’t want to star in a “woman-starring vehicle” so refused, but then Laurence Olivier became ‘hot’ after Wuthering Heights. He wanted his girlfriend Vivien Leigh as his co-star and Selznick wanted Olivia de Havilland, but unknown Joan Fontaine won the part. Hitchcock exaggerated Olivier’s dislike of her to everyone’s supposed dislike of her to enhance Fontaine’s performance. The final section had to be re-written because the Production Code forbade someone from getting away with murder, so it became accidental death. Selznick’s preoccupation with Gone With The Wind meant he didn’t interfere as much as he normally did, though he hated the way Hitchcock filmed. The usual Hollywood way was to ‘cover’ a scene in several ways so it could be reshaped different ways in the editing room, but Hitchcock just shot what he had planned, meaning that there was only one way it could be cut together – his way. Selznick did do some minor reshoots. Rebecca went to be a big commercial and critical hit. Nominated for eleven Oscars, it won two, Best Picture and Cinematography. Yes, you read that right. Hitchcock didn’t get Best Director, and he never did in his long career.
After that wonderful introduction, we flashback to the first meeting of ‘I’ [that’s all she is called in the novel] and Maxim, and after that the gradual romance of the two, leading to one of the most throwaway, yet oddly sweet, marriage proposals in film. Maxim asks ‘I’ if she’d prefer Manderley or New York, and when she fails to pick up on the hint, says: “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool”. Despite Maxim being moody and full of Dark Secrets, this section is fairly light when compared with the rest of the film. The chuckles mostly come from the vulgar [she even stubs out a cigarette in her face cream], rude, and even egotistical [she thinks Maxim may actually be interested in her] Edythe Van Hopper, though it beggars belief that ‘I’ would have been able to put up with this horrible woman for more than a minute, let alone be her travelling companion. Interestingly none of the women except ‘I’ are very nice in this film. Maxim’s friend Beatrice Lacey is given to snide and cutting comments, and as for Mrs. Danvers…we’ll get to her in a minute! Despite basically setting up the main part of the story, this early part does actually try to get stuff out of the way as economically as possible, such as the couple’s honeymoon, which we don’t get to see any of until later on when Maxim and ‘I’ look at pictures on a slide, a brief moment of happiness together at a time when everything around them seems to be transpiring to destroy them.
It is once ‘I’ comes to live at Manderley that Rebecca really gets good, especially in the scenes where Rebecca is either alone in the huge house, the camera slowly gliding through the interiors, grand but gloomy and forbidding in a complex combination of sets and matte paintings [and even if you can tell the matte paintings in the distance, don’t they add to the atmosphere of unreality and cinematically describe ‘I’s feelings? ], and in every single scene with Mrs. Danvers, chillingly played by Judith Anderson with amazing subtlety, the forbidding housekeeper who still has an obsessive devotion, and perhaps even lesbian love [just look at the way she handles Rebecca’s negligee], for her old mistress. Often you don’t see her enter a room, she just appears there, ready to begin her cold, oddly elegant, kind of verbal sadism, eventually trying to get ‘I’ to commit suicide. Rebecca herself, and this would be so even without the organ music that constantly plays her theme, pervades every scene in Manderley, to the point where you can almost smell her in the scenes in her room and inside the beach-hut where she used to go. We never see her, but she’s the most powerful character in the film. Throughout all this Fontaine is simply stunning the way she acts her character’s increasing strain. It’s almost painful to watch, the performance is that good, and hardly ever even becomes hammy in the way some old movie-style acting can seem to modern eyes. Meanwhile Olivier, who disappears for long stretches of the film, transmits such palpable sadness and hurt as Max, and the two together certainly have the chemistry required to believe in their love story and care about it.
The climax of the film seems at first to be a lengthy scene where Maxim confesses all about Rebecca to ‘I’ in what is both a brilliant display of acting and a textbook example in how to use camerawork and staging to enhance the words without overshadowing them. It also makes us visualise Rebecca’s death so clearly we just don’t need to see it properly. After this though Rebecca loses some of its power as we switch to London. There’s a court hearing, blackmail and much investigation concerning Rebecca. It’s interesting, because everything has transpired to make us gripped by the story, but one wonders if Hitchcock’s first draft would have transmitted some of this in more interesting terms. The climactic fire would have been more dramatic if we saw ‘I’ in more danger and struggle to escape. There is no doubt that Rebecca is more Selznick than Hitchcock, but it’s still full of touches that scream Hitchcock, from the dog waiting outside the door of Rebecca’s room for a mistress who won’t return, to the final dolly shot across the burning room to the embroidered ‘R’ on Rebecca’s pillow [Selznick actually wanted to have smoke from the burning Manderlay to form a huge ‘R’ in the sky, but even Hitchcock thought that was over the top and for once in this film got his way], a sure sign that, while everything of her’s will soon be ash, her malevolent influence may continue and never go away.
Rebecca is full of great supporting performances, from Florence Bates’s Edythe Van Hopper – you just hate her but enjoy every moment she’s on screen – to George Sanders, doing his usual venomous smirking the way only he can, as Max’s duplicitous cousin Jack Flavell. George Barnes’ deep focus [where everything, even far away, is clear] cinematography is outstanding, often prefiguring film noir in its great use of shadows, often falling across characters. Franz Waxman’s score, moving gracefully from lush romanticism to eerie tension, is almost constant and perhaps appears in a few scenes where it doesn’t need to by today’s standards, but it’s still a fine example of Olde Hollywood scoring at its best. As was common at the time, some cues from previous scores, not all of them by Waxman, were inserted by the producer, though you wouldn’t know it. Maybe, in the end, Rebecca is not that great a Hitchcock film, partly because as I write this I can think of at least fifteen films of his which are better, but then he made so many good films. Rebecca is a strong example of Hollywood’s Golden Age, almost a showcase, at least for the first two thirds, in how to respectfully put a book up there on the screen and still result in thoroughly absorbing, compelling cinema. And it has, in Fontaine and Anderson, two absolutely brilliant performances which should be studied. It was remade for TV in 1962, 1978 and 1997.