There are two things that immediately come to mind when I think of the film “Rebecca.” The first is that it was one of the few VHS tapes we owned when I was kid. At some point, someone had squashed the case when it was vacant of the tape, leaving it mangled and bent out of shape. In an effort to repair the damage, the guilty party placed several evenly spaced strips of black electrician’s tape across the front of the case to help retain its rectangular shape. The tape created this venetian blind effect, isolating the darkened stares of Mrs. de Winter and Mrs. Danvers in the famous scene where the latter tries to convince the former to leap to her death. As a kid, I found these intense stares looking out at me between the strips of black tape sort of unnerving, which gave me serious pause before firing up the VCR to ever watch “Rebecca.”
However, when I did finally get around to watching “Rebecca,” I remember finding it a tad boring, a conclusion owing more to my age than to the film itself, I’m sure. The one thing that did hold my interest was the surname of the protagonist couple: de Winter. This name made me think of Wint O Green Lifesaver candy, which became so embedded in my thoughts that I couldn’t think of much else happening onscreen. Heck, Mrs. Danvers could have could have pushed Mrs. de Winter from a window, gone off and married Maxim and I probably still would have continued to daydream about Wint O Green Lifesavers.
Needless to say, it has been good to revisit “Rebecca” as an adult to construct a new set of memories and appreciate the film beyond its apparent subliminal message about impulse-buy candy. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and toplined by Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, “Rebecca” was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, taking home three, including the Oscar for “Best Picture” in 1940. Produced by the indefatigable David O Selznick, “Rebecca” signaled Hitchcock’s American directorial debut and would go one to become the Master of Suspense’s only film to win “Best Picture.” I find this notably ironic for two reasons. The first is that “Rebecca” is a gothic yarn skipping hand-in-hand with a psychological thriller, which doesn’t land neatly inside the brand of suspense that the name Hitchcock would become synonymous with. What’s more, Hitchcock’s later success with classics like “Rear Window,” “North by Northwest” and “Psycho,” have nudged “Rebecca” so far to the edge of the spotlight that it’s scarcely remembered when discussing Hitchcock films. Yet, it was the only one of his pictures to breakthrough and collect the top honors.
|Judith Anderson (left) torments Joan Fontaine in "Rebecca."|
Shortly after their wedding, the de Winters make their way to Manderley, Maxim’s sprawling estate. But Mrs. de Winter’s qualities soon leave her floundering in the role as mistress of Manderley, as the entire mansion is seemingly monogrammed with memories of Rebecca. She, in turn, possessed all the star qualities that elude Mrs. de Winter version 2.0, leaving her to feel inadequate compared to Rebecca’s legend. Perhaps no one whips up these comparisons more forcibly than the house keeper, Mrs. Danvers. Gliding through Manderley’s corridors like a vampire with perfect posture, Mrs. Danvers evokes the image of an evil stepmother, jealous that Cinderella has married the prince. As such, her efforts are focused on sabotaging the happiness of the de Winters to protect the legacy of her precious Rebecca.
One of the unique aspects about “Rebecca” is that the action, the characters, the entire narrative, are so affected by a singular individual, which the audience never even gets a glimpse of. Yet due to her overarching influence on the lives of everyone in the story, Rebecca seemingly lives on, coursing through the veins of the memories of others. (It somewhat reminded me of Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants,” in that regard.) You come to judge Rebecca, to feel you know what type of a woman she is, particularly because those singing her praises are less than savory characters. But it’s clever storytelling to reveal the central antagonist strictly through the descriptions of others because it allows the viewer to construct a sublimely malicious creature.
But I think what gives Rebecca gravity to be a threat is that she represents the past, which can be the most menacing villain of all. The past is ubiquitous and relentless in its attack on the present in trying to destroy the future. Sometimes the villainous past can take form in those still living, which in this case is the stoic Mrs. Danvers. Judith Anderson serves up a deliciously creepy performance as Manderley’s house keeper from hell. Rebecca’s ability to be everywhere is seemingly matched only by Mrs. Danver’s similar ability to be lurking at every corner. Her wish to do Rebecca’s bidding from beyond the grave makes the entire film shiver, allowing Anderson to steal the picture.
Just as a side note, several modern critics have speculated that the character of Mrs. Danvers was obsessed with Rebecca to the point of sexual attraction. However, I don’t completely agree with this assessment. To me, her obsession with Rebecca seems more founded upon a notion that Mrs. Danvers vicariously derived from Rebecca all of the female qualities she wished she possessed but never did. I feel like behind Mrs. Danvers’ sinister stare is her fossilized soul, created from years of being ignored and undervalued for her lack of beauty and gaiety. However, the opportunity to attend to the beauty and care of a shining star like Rebecca allowed Mrs. Danvers to internalize some of the credit for Rebecca’s social successes. In mourning Rebecca, I think Mrs. Danvers is also mourning the loss of her direct line to splendor and exquisiteness, leaving her once again a wretched and overlooked housekeeper.
Apart from Anderson, Olivier and Fontaine also turn in wonderful performances as a mismatched couple attempting to take cover from the past, instead of confronting it head on. I particularly enjoyed watching Fontaine’s Mrs. de Winter evolve from being an awkward thing to finding her feet and taking up courage to stand on them to support Maxim, as he eventually turns to face Rebecca. Apparently, David O Selznick tried to drum up publicity by recreating a casting frenzy for the role of Mrs. de Winter, a la Scarlett O’Hara for “Gone with the Wind.” He set up screen tests for a parade of actresses, including Anne Baxter, Margaret Sullivan and Joan Fontaine’s sister, Olivia de Havilland, a move which only served to add fuel to their legendary sibling rivalry. But in the end, Hitchcock adored Fontaine, staking his reputation on her by claiming he could get the performance out of her.
|Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier embrace in "Rebecca."|
Like most Hitchcock films, the true star is Hitchcock himself, who had an incredible talent for pacing a story to maximize the mystery and suspense. He employs a gift for never sacrificing plot for mood, dialogue for action, instead coaxing every element of story to perform exactly as he wishes. If Adam Smith had been a film critic, upon reviewing any of Hitchcock’s films he most certainly would have written about an invisible Hitchcockian hand guiding his pictures from start to finish. Nothing about a Hitchcock film seems sloppy or extraneous. They always feel whipped into shape and “Rebecca” is no exception. And while it may not contain a slasher shower scene or a climatic finish on Mount Rushmore, the power of “Rebecca” lies in its peculiar subtleties, chilling you like a stare from Mrs. Danvers behind a piece of black electrician’s tape.
Favorite Line: Maxim de Winter first meets his future wife in Monte Carlo, where she is working as a companion to the wealthy and obnoxious Edythe Van Hopper. The two engage in conversation, with the future Mrs. de Winter sitting by quietly, when Maxim asks her directly if she is enjoying Monte Carlo. Before she has a chance to respond, Mrs. Van Hopper elbows her way back into the conversation, prattling on before eventually saying, “Most girls would give her eyes for a chance to see Monte.” To which Maxim dryly responds, “Wouldn’t that rather defeat the purpose?”