Grade: BRebecca (1940)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Stars: Joan Fontaine, Sir Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson

Release Company: The Criterion Collection

MPAA Rating: NR

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Hitchcock: Rebecca


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Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden, the supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me.

David O. Selznik originally brought Alfred Hitchcock to Hollywood to work on a film about the Titanic, but Selznick changed his mind after getting rights to Rebecca. He had blockbuster visions of another Gone with the Wind and attempted some of the same techniques and stunts that so successfully promoted that other feminist work. Contrary to Hitchcock's concept that films must radically change a book to fit his visual style, Selznick insisted on keeping the best seller true to the text, unwilling to risk upsetting the book's audience.

Selznick also wanted to test all the big stars in town, repeating the publicity stunt he had done in searching for Scarlett O'Hara, even though they were testing actresses that Hitchcock knew were unsuitable for the part. The Criterion DVD includes the screen tests for Vivien Leigh, Anne Baxter, Loretta Young, Margaret Sullavan and Joan Fontaine. Early tests had convinced Hitch that Fontaine was the correct choice. As he told François Truffaut,

"I felt Joan Fontaine was a little self-conscious, but I could see her potential for restrained acting and I felt she could play the character in a quiet, shy manner. At the outset she tended to overdo the shyness, but I felt she would work out all right, and once we got going, she did."

Of course Hitchcock was correct in this case--Fontaine works perfectly here in Hitchcock's well crafted, but imperfect Rebecca, the only film he directed to win an Academy Award. Pointing out the conflict between producer and director, Hitch was always quick to say that HE never won an Oscar—that award for Best Picture went to Producer Selznik while the Best Director award that year went to John Ford. Clashes between the two collaborators are now stories of legend, and account for some of the tension in certain pivotal scenes (most notably the Fontaine scene with Mrs. Danvers touring Rebecca's room, filmed when Selznik was on the set).

Technically, this is Hitchcock's first American film since he had signed the contract with an American producer. Originally planned for location shooting in Britain, this became impossible due to the war, so everything shifted to California. Hitchcock never considered Rebecca an American film, however:

"'s a completely British picture: the actors, and the director were all English. I've sometimes wondered what that picture would have been like had it been made in England with the same cast ... The American influence on it is obvious. First, because Selznick, and then because the screenplay was written by the playwright Robert Sherwood, who gave it a broader viewpoint than it would have had if made in Britain."

Indeed, after a mesmerizing opening sequence through the fog to reveal Manderley—clearly influencing Welles' opening shots of Citizen Kane, Maxim DeWinter (Lawrence Olivier) is seen standing over a cliff before being interrupted by Fontaine. Shortly after, the two are re-united inside Monte Carlo. Both these settings are far more open than Hitchcock's favored confined meeting place in his British films—the train.

Rebecca contains huge issues of control, both for the hero and the filmmaker. DeWinter controls the situation from the beginning, treating Fontaine like a subservient child, even calling her an "Alice in Wonderland" character (note the height of the doorknobs at Manderley as well). His meek wife acquiesces and continues acting like an inferior to her own house servants, and especially fearing to displease Mrs. Danvers—note how she covers up the broken ceramic and hides it in the back drawer. DeWinter remains in control until the fateful day on the beach, where Fontaine discovers Rebecca's boat house—from that point DeWinter's careful plans unravel. Similarly, Hitchcock himself had always been in control of his films—the idea of loss of control is terrifying to him, so Rebecca had to be a real horror story for him with Selznik intervening frequently. This may account for much of the film's tension, and definitely accounts for some unevenness since Hitch was such a master of detail.

Parallels abound in Rebecca—Fontaine (she doesn't have a first name and only will be known later as Mrs. DeWinter) attempts to duplicate Rebecca, and later we find that there's another false copy. Initially, the shy Fontaine acts as a servant to plump socialite Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates) and repeats her timid behavior with the stern Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), the head housekeeper at Manderley, when first coming "home." Hitchcock compares the story to a fairy tale where the heroine is Cinderella and Mrs. Van Hopper and especially Mrs. Danvers play the ugly stepsisters. Actually, according to Hitchcock,

“. . . it was even closer to Pinero's his House in Order. That's a play in which the villain isn't the housekeeper but the sister of the master of the house; in other words, she's Cinderella's sister-in-law.

Mrs. Danvers is one creepy lady. Just what is her obsession with the dead Rebecca? Why does she caress Rebecca's fur coat so lovingly, show off her underwear, and sensuously hold Rebecca's negligee for Fontaine to admire? And there's Danvers' carefully embroidered pillow softly resting on the bed that Rebecca once used. If that's not enough, what about the crashing of the sea against the rocks--a visual cue far more cliché than Hitchcock's humorous ending train shot in North by Northwest. Hitchcock was dismayed that touches of humor weren't allowed in Rebecca--Selznick didn't want the filmmaker to go beyond the bounds of the novelette. But how did Hitch sneak all these sexually charged scenes past the producer and the film censors?

Adding to Mrs. Danvers creepiness are the unsmiling face, the penetrating eyes, and the sinister sounding monotone voice more in keeping with Dracula's castle than a friendly homestead. Sure as hell, not the kind of housekeeper I'd feel comfortable with, and Fontaine's uneasiness around Mrs. Danvers is palpable. Mr. DeWinter's sister attempts to reassure her, but this adds to the ambiguity about Danvers' relationship to the dead Rebecca:

"Oh, there's no need for you to be frightened of her. But you shouldn't have any more to do with her than you can help...You see, she's bound to be insanely jealous at first, and she must resent you bitterly...Don't you know? Why I should have thought Maxim would have told you. She simply adored Rebecca."

To make Mrs. Danvers appear even more threatening and omnipresent, Hitchcock NEVER shows a medium or long shot of her walking about the house; instead, she pops into the frame unannounced and disappears as abruptly. Hitchcock does this deliberately, as he reveals to Truffaut:

In this way the whole situation was projected from the heroine's point of view; she never knew when Mrs. Danvers might turn up, and this, in itself, was terrifying. To have shown Mrs. Danvers walking about would have been to humanize her."

Hichcock accomplishes his mission. Mrs. Danvers goes ranks as one of the most memorable villains in screen history--countless clips highlight that eerie entrance she makes from behind the thin curtains in Rebecca's room. How the Academy failed to award Best Supporting Actress to Judith Anderson is another of many Oscar mysteries--at least they recognized her with a nomination.

Hitchcock's legendary use of actors as "cattle" for his camera works with Rebecca. Laurence Olivier's ambivalence towards Fontaine comes across naturally without the legendary prima donna actor breaking a sweat--Olivier didn't want Fontaine as his leading lady and had campaigned heavily for his wife. Notice that the script never has DeWinter tell his new wife directly that he “loves” her and all the kisses are initiated by Fontaine. That stiff body language of Olivier's communicates his true feelings toward the actress, but it works perfectly for the script.

Likewise, Fontaine's uneasiness and shyness fit the story perfectly and the real life situation. Her father may have been British, but she was an American actor who didn't know Hitchcock or any of her British co-stars, so she was very much an "outsider" on the set. The master filmmaker knew exactly what qualities would work with the film, so used her natural discomfort to advantage. For one scene, Fontaine needed to cry--rather difficult to do with long and multiple takes. When Hitchcock asked her what it would take for her to maintain the crying state, she suggested that "slapping" might help--Hitch quickly obliged, and the cameras rolled.

Rebecca certainly doesn't rank as a perfect film, and even though it's the only Hitchcock film to win an Oscar™ for Best Film, it's not his best—that's between Notorious and three others from the 1950's. Selznick insisted on a much tighter schedule than Hitchcock had been used to in Britain and forced the director to abandon his usual artistic preferences, so the film plays without humor, sticks to the source material, and has more open sets. In particular, the sound quality varies noticeably—sound loops are overused, resulting in very inconsistent clarity and volume. Given more time and more independence, Hitchcock would have re-dubbed the soundtrack. I can only imagine the battles behind the scenes between Hitchcock and Selznick, but this is only the first of three films that Selznick contracted Hitchcock to direct.

Despite its imperfections, Rebecca stands as a classic film for its landmark cinematography and for creating long lasting images that remain indelibly implanted long after the credits roll. Selznick places Hitchcock on a leash, but I still can't get Mrs. Danvers out of my head!

Note: Film aficionados need to check out the Criterion version. The screen tests alone make this worthwhile--contrasting the subtle different takes by the actresses is fascinating. Film Scholar Leonard J. Leff, author of Hitchcock and Selznick, is a good choice for the commentary track. He's obviously done his research and provides insightful background information about the production. Some of his theories are a stretch (but English majors all do this on occasion), but most are helpful and he pays attention to detai-- would have never noticed the continuity error on the dog "jumping" from right to left frame during one sequence, for example.

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