(As is the case with my viewing habits, once in awhile and typically during the slow part of the year, I get into the habit of running through a chunk of someone’s filmography or a bunch of movies with thematic similarity. Since they are usually pretty rewarding experiences for me, I figure I might as well continue doing it in this blog too. So get ready for two weeks of the master Alfred Hitchcock!)
Alfred Hitchcock’s first foray into American filmmaking is an interesting entry into his extensive filmography. It looks and plays like a classic Hollywood romantic drama and lacks the usual suspense and visual playfulness that is typical of Hitchcock’s work. Part of this has to do with the fact that this also seems to be the rare film in which the producer of the film (David O. Selznick) seemed to have more say in the making of the movie than Hitchcock did. This is seen especially in the fact that Hitchcock’s Rebecca is more or less a straight adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel (except for a key Production Code-mandated change). Thus even though it is a successful classic Hollywood picture (and Hitchcock’s only Oscar-winner), it is also seems the least like his work.
After a famous opening with one of the iconic lines of cinema (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley”) the film opens in glamorous Monte Carlo where an unnamed woman (Joan Fontaine) meets and falls in love with the aristocratic and aloof Maxim de Winters (Laurence Olivier). From the offset the pairing looks a little odd with him being the epitome of refinement and class while she describes herself as simple, plain, and naive to the ways of high class society. Yet even in these early scenes we are given a glimpse into the interesting and ugly dynamic that makes it work. In small micro-aggressions Maxim dictates the way she should behave whether it’s subtly telling where to go, or where to eat, or tellingly in a car ride, how to behave (“Stop biting your nails”).
This aspect of controlling her behaviour only becomes more pronounced and complex when she officially becomes the second Mrs. de Winters (with the inelegant proposal “I am asking you to marry me, you fool.”) and they return from Monte Carlo to Maxim’s family estate, the Manderley. There the imposing building with its disorienting hallways seems tailor-made to make the plain Mrs. de Winters seems especially small. But the imposing exterior is nothing for what lies inside as she encounters Maxim’s high society and decidedly does not measure up. In particular she does not measure to the effervescent and elegant grace that was the first and now deceased Mrs. de Winters, Rebecca.
Rebecca is perhaps the most haunting movie character to not actually be a ghost as her presence literally stalks the second Mrs. de Winters at every turn. The clearest embodiment of Rebecca’s haunting presence is the head of the household staff Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). She is fiercely loyal to Rebecca, even to the point of infatuation and her jealousy and contempt for Rebecca’s successor is clear, even if it it insidiously expressed. She constantly stalks the new bride at every turn, subtly running the household on the schedule and routines set by Rebecca which renders the new bride powerless in her own household. In addition, Rebecca’s furniture and adornments remain, with her embroidered initials “R.W.” emblazoned to make a mockery of the new Mrs. de Winters and make her a stranger in her own home.
Yet further complicating her plight is that she finds herself impossibly torn between two forces. On the one side are her new high society acquaintances who measure her against Rebecca and find her wanting. But her attempts to rise to the position of high society wife are curiously rebuffed by the increasingly absent Maxim who curiously seems to be the only person who was not enamoured by Rebecca. The details of Rebecca’s demise and her relationship with Maxim are frustratingly obscured besides the most cursory information which exacerbates his new wife’s problems as it keeps her fighting a unseen foe that she doesn’t understand.
These current circumstances threaten to tear her apart until outside forces intervene. In this case it a ship which runs aground by hitting the submerged de Winter family yacht and with it the previously missing body of Rebecca is finally found. This turn of events causes a tumultuous change in the relationship between Maxim and his bride as it forces Maxim to confess everything about his feelings of contempt for Rebecca, her infidelities, and the tragic circumstances that surrounded her death. His confession is easily the best scene of the film as the mysteries of his previous aloofness become clear and his true feelings of love for his new bride become clear. Olivier and Fontaine own the scene as the power dynamics between the two slowly shift as it becomes increasingly apparent that the discovery of Rebecca’s body and the circumstances of her death might signal the end of any hope for his current marriage and might render him a criminal. Faced with both the confession of his true love for her and this threat to their marriage, Maxim’s bride sheds her previous mousiness and lack of confidence to reveal a ruthless streak as she moves quickly and swiftly to figure out a way to conceal the mode of Rebecca’s death from the investigators.
This is as good a moment as any to talk about how great Joan Fontaine’s performance is. The success of this film depends on Fontaine’s performance and she delivers in spades. At surface level it seems border-line ridiculous that Fontaine, who is as glamorous a classic Hollywood star as they come, is asked to portray someone who is self-described as “plain”. But she manages to pull it off in the physicality of her performance. She hunches her shoulders, moves clumsily and awkwardly, and her eyes display a lack of confidence and strength as they dart from side-to-side. And by doing all this and so consistently she manages to fool us into believing that she could ever be perceived as being not worthy of Maxim’s affections. In addition it makes it especially chilling when in the third act of the movie that mousiness disappears and is replaced by a much more steely fortitude as she tries to hid her husband’s crimes.
It is at this point however that the Production Code rears it’s ugly head. The original novel’s great revelation is that (spoiler-alert) Rebecca is murdered by Maxim during a heated argument about her infidelities. But because the Production Code mandated than you can’t depict someone getting away with a crime, Rebecca’s death is changed from a murder to an unfortunate accident that happened during that same argument. This one change has the immediate effect of changing Maxim from being a dangerously abusive murderer to simply being a potentially wrongly accused man. While this ironically makes the movie a little bit more Hitchcockian, it also makes the story and the second Mrs. de Winter’s transformation a lot less interesting. Of course one could read some deception into Maxim’s confession as we only have his word that Rebecca’s death was actually an accident, but that would be a stretch.
Still despite the Production Code slightly neutering an explosive ending, the film has a lot going for it. The Manderley is easily one of the great movie houses with its opulent furnishings and labyrinthine hallways which creates what is easily Hitchcock’s most atmospheric movie. Every aspect of this movie is top-notch from the assured if understated direction, the aforementioned acting performances of Fontaine, the production design and cinematography, and the lush score. Combined they create a great example of a classic Hollywood romantic movie. But as an Alfred Hitchcock production however, the movie fails to reach the heady and playful heights that either his later American output or even his best British films reached. Thus it occupies the very strange and unenviable place of being a very good movie that still ends up in the middle of the pack for Hitchcock movies.