Alfred Hitchcock Visits Manderley in “Rebecca”

21 07 2010

“It’s not a Hitchcock picture; it’s a novelette, really. The story is old-fashioned. It’s almost a period piece.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Mr. Hitchcock may not have considered “Rebecca” a true Hitchcock movie, but in many ways it seemed like one to me. Released in 1940 and starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, “Rebecca” is Hitch’s first Hollywood production and his first film made with producer David O. Selznick, who brought the director to the U.S. from England.

A gothic romance that drips foreboding and suspense, “Rebecca” begins with one of the most famous lines of dialogue in Hitchcock’s oeuvre: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” The line is uttered by Joan Fontaine as we see her dream of an estate in ruins, overgrown with foliage. Fontaine’s nameless heroine is at the center of the story, which begins in Monte Carlo, where she is working as a traveling companion to the demanding Mrs. Van Hopper. Their trip takes a turn for the brighter when Maxim de Winter, played by Olivier, arrives on the scene. Van Hopper quickly fills in de Winter’s backstory: He’s a wealthy, grieving widower whose wife drowned in a boating accident a year ago. When Van Hopper catches cold, her companion starts keeping company with de Winter, and before their stay at “Monte” comes to an end, he has asked her to marry him.

The newlywed couple arrive at Manderley only to be greeted by de Winter’s extensive staff, led by Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), a severe looking middle-aged woman. The new Mrs. de Winter struggles with her new role as mistress of the manor; her background is working class, and she has no idea how to run a household or a staff. Her discomfort and submissive nature don’t help, as Mrs. Danvers constantly talks about Rebecca, the late Mrs. de Winter: how she ran Manderley, where and when she did daily activities like correspondence. Whatever confidence the new Mrs. de Winter has is constantly undermined by Mrs. Danvers, and we see the fear Mrs. Danvers has instilled in her new mistress when she hides a broken cupid figurine rather than saying anything about it.

De Winter himself, meanwhile, has no idea that his new wife is having trouble, even as Mrs. Danvers shows her the west wing and the late Mrs. de Winter’s room, replete with monograms everywhere. Mrs. Danvers speaks of the deceased in reverent terms, saying in no uncertain terms that the new Mrs. de Winter will never be able to fill her predecessor’s shoes. There’s a disconnect between the older, serving staff and young Mrs. de Winter: They expect her to act like a member of the upper class and have a commanding personality like their late mistress. Mrs. Danvers’ contempt for the guileless new Mrs. de Winter is plain to see.

Of course, Mrs. Danvers isn’t the only force contributing to the new Mrs. de Winter’s problems. Her new sister-in-law is equally belittling, though in a less cruel way.

It's hard to see in this shot, but Mrs. Danvers is smiling here.

It comes to light that de Winter and his first wife hated each other, and that he accidentally killed her. He is soon cleared of that, after a few scenes that are very reminiscent of Hitchcoch’s earlier film “Blackmail,” and when it’s clear that de Winter and his new wife are going to be able to live happily ever after, Mrs. Danvers sets fire to Manderley, allowing herself to die in her former mistress’s bedroom as it is engulfed in flames.

Manderley itself is an important character in the movie; we learn more about its history as the movie progresses, and discover its secrets. Visually, it opens and closes “Rebecca,” and at least three-quarters of the film takes place there.

This was the second film Hitchcock made from a novel by Daphne du Maurier, after “Jamaica Inn,” and Selznick insisted that Hitch stick to the plot of the book, which was a bestseller. The only major change is Mrs. Danvers is younger in the movie. Her obsession with her late mistress has been described as having lesbian overtones, although I read it as much as a testament to the power of the first Mrs. de Winter’s personality, which seemed to hold Mrs. Danvers in thrall. There’s also a neat bit of symmetry in the fact that Mrs. de Winter died by drowning while Mrs. Danvers dies in fire.

The movie was made in 1939 but held for release in 1940, as Selznick did not want anything to compete with his 1939 epic, “Gone with The Wind.” Vivien Leigh, star of GWTW and wife of Laurence Olivier, auditioned for “Rebecca,” as did Margaret Sullavan. Leigh’s schedule on GWTW kept her from working on “Rebecca,” but Joan Fontaine captures the young Mrs. de Winter’s innocence and lack of confidence beautifully. Olivier, meanwhile, shows off his moody nature here just as he did a year earlier in “Wuthering Heights.”

Even in this first outing together, Hitchcock and Selznick clashed. Hitchcock was used to running his own show, from shaping his source material to fit his purposes to writing articles in the press that subtly touted his movies. Selznick, though, was a classic micromanager who wanted things his way. He constantly called the director with suggestions or sent lengthy memos, which Hitch did his best to ignore. It must have been frustrating for Hitchcock to have been brought from England to make movies for Selznick, only to learn that despite his successes and reputation, he had been hired to make movies the way Selznick wanted them made. “Rebecca” was a hit, though, and won the Academy Award for “Best Picture,” the only award in this category ever won by Hitchcock, as well as “Best Cinematography” and nominations in seven other categories.

Hitchcock’s next movie would be “Foreign Correspondent,” a fast-paced, witty return to intrigue and spies.




5 responses

22 07 2010

Great review. The insights into the subtleties of the plot, the lesbian issue, the symmetry of death method as well as the tension between Hitch and Selznick make this one of your finest efforts.
Keep it up.

27 07 2010
Scott Sonneborn

Cool blog. Nice seeing in San Diego.

1 08 2010
Fundamental Jelly

I watched Rebecca a couple of nights ago and still love it. I am a Hitch fan myself and look forward to more reviews. All the best.

12 09 2010
Alfred Hitchcock Gets Psychological in “Spellbound” « Hitchcock and Me

[…] Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, it’s with good reason. It was his first film since “Rebecca” to be released by Selznick International Pictures, and David O. Selznick’s demands […]

11 02 2012
Who Will Star in the New “Rebecca”? « Hitchcock and Me

[…] of “Rebecca.” When I wrote about Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film adaptation here, I called it “a gothic romance that drips foreboding and suspense,” and while […]

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