“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
I am often asked how was it that I came to have a passion for classic films. That is a simple question I always answer by saying my great-grandma loves Cary Grant and being curious I started to watch his films and from there I started watching classic films. One question I am never asked is what was the movie that sealed my love for classic films and my great admiration for Hitchcock. Well what sealed my love for classic films and Hitchcock is his first American film Rebecca. I can remember the first time I sat through this film: I had recently bought Hitchcock’s Notorious and Spellbound because Ingrid Bergman starred in both films. I was talking to my great-grandma about these films and I mentioned that I saw the DVD for Rebecca. She said Rebecca was an excellent film that I would really like it. So the day after I saw her I bought the film and after it was over I understood why Hitchcock was a genius and why he is considered the greatest director of all time.
The beginning of Rebecca is like a fairy tale: a young girl working as a companion to an annoying old woman meets and falls in love with a wealthy older man (who was old enough to be her father according to the book) and the two have a world wind romance. The girl has to leave with her companion but she does not want to go for if she goes she will never see the man again. The man asks her to marry him. After they marry he takes the young bride to his castle of a home in the English country side. But alas, this is a Hitchcock film here and no story line of his films is ever pleasant for very long. The new bride is not well liked by the head maid and starts to become frightened of the women. Secrets come out that should have remained hidden. Feeling tormented the poor girl starts to fear for her life.
The element which makes Rebecca such an amazing film and so suspenseful and heart pounding besides the story is the acting. Without Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, and Judith Anderson in their roles as The Second Mrs. De Winter, Maxim De Winter, and Mrs. Danvers the film would not have been as powerful, each actor was exceptional in their roles.
If there had been anyone else besides Joan Fontaine in the role of the Second Mrs. De Winter the character and the story would not have worked. Hitchcock always knew who he wanted in the roles of the characters in his films. He had seen a screen test of Fontaine for The Second Mrs. De Winter and liked her, he knew she was the nearest to the heroine of the story. David Selznick insisted on making tests of just about every actress in Hollywood like he did for Gone With the Wind just to drum up some publicity since it worked so well the first time. Hitchcock said he found the whole thing a bit embarrassing seeing all these women try out for the role when he knew who he wanted. He saw that Fontaine could play the character in a nice, quiet shy manner which she did. (Speaking of Gone With the Wind… Laurence Olivier wanted his then girlfriend Vivien Leigh for the part of the Second Mrs. De Winter. Since Leigh did not get the part Olivier was hostile to Fontaine throughout the filming of the movie.) From the first moment you see Fontaine on the screen after Maxim yells at her to leave him alone you feel for her: she cowers hurtfully and sadly away when she was only trying to help him.
Laurence Olivier, in the movies I have seen of him, played the same character as Maxim De Winter over and over. But the monotony this time works to a great advantage. I have read the book twice since I first saw the film and Olivier portrays the character perfectly; he’s handsome and wise but there is something dark and troublesome lurking underneath. Olivier had the look as well for the character he was handsome and had charm and at the same time could be cold.
Where to even begin on how incredibly perfect Judith Anderson was as Mrs. Danvers? No one could have been more creepy and unsettling than Anderson in the role. When Mrs. Danvers is first seen when the newlyweds come back to Manderley I had this feeling that she would be up to no good and my heart gave a little flip. Mrs. Danvers is the suspense in this film she is sinister and dark and her motives are twisted and insane. She was never shown in motion; to show her moving would have humanized her and there is no reason whatsoever for us to like her. Hitchcock explained the character and her functions the best:
“Mrs. Danvers was almost never seen walking and was rarely shown in motion. If she entered a room in which the heroine was, what happened is that the girl suddenly heard a sound and there was the ever present Mrs. Danvers, standing perfectly still by her side. 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.” (Hitchcock/Truffaut)
Another very important character to the story is Manderley itself. The house is in an isolated area of the English countryside. To add to the isolation we do not even know what town Manderley is in. The characters especially The Second Mrs. De Winter has nowhere to turn she is completely alone. The house is so huge it feels cold and uninviting.
What I find fascinating about the story of Rebecca is how domineering the woman was in life and what a hold she had on Maxim and how even in death she managed wreak havoc on him and everyone around him. The whole story is told through a young woman’s view; she is not experienced in love or with taking care of a large house with a staff. From the start we are shown that Rebecca plays on The Second Mrs. De Winter’s mind even when she is at the hotel. The fear and suspense is all made possible through this poor character’s fear and paranoia and of trying to live up to what Rebecca was and what people must think of her with their possible constant comparisons to the dead woman. All The Second Mrs. De Winter hears is how beautiful Rebecca was and what a great lady she was and she feels so plain and insignificant. Adding suspense and paranoia the character is constantly fumbling or breaking things or wringing her hands or a handkerchief.
All the fear is brought on from something no one else knows. All anyone knows about the woman was what they saw in public. They all believe she was so wonderful and outgoing. To Maxim she is a monster who was evil and manipulative. In the film Maxim tells his wife that Rebecca’s death was an accident he went to talk to her and she fell hitting her head. He did not want people to think he killed her so he put her in her boat and sunk it. In the book Maxim shot Rebecca purposely but because of the Production Code of the time period movie Maxim could not be a killer and get away with it. Maxim killing Rebecca is the whole point of the book it explains everything about him. After Maxim tells his wife what happened we are given the sense that he could have killed her: his horrible temper is mentioned over and over again blurring the lines between guilt and innocence and his behavior along with his wife’s after he tells her are consistent with guilt.
Hitchcock questioned the line of the story asking why when Maxim had identified the body of another woman as Rebecca’s there was no inquest but when the real body of his first wife is found there is an inquest. Very interesting thought indeed.
Over the summer I happened to find a biography on Daphne Du Maurier. The book was a very interesting read. So much of Du Maurier was put into Rebecca it is almost autobiographical. Du Maurier lived in Cornwall on the English coast where when she was younger she saw a house called Menabilly which would become the setting for Rebecca (in her later life she would live in Menabilly). Her husband was a high ranking officer in the British Navy so he had money to hire servants. Du Maurier never knew how to give commands to the servants. She grew up wealthy and used to be friends with the servants her parents hired so giving commands was uncomfortable for her. Her husband had previously been married to a beautiful woman before she met him. The woman actually lived with them for a while and during the War she killed herself. Du Maurier felt that her husband was haunted by her death and never got over her in a way. The book version of Mrs. Danvers and parts of the film version reflect Du Maurier’s psyche. Book Mrs. Danvers obviously had very strong almost lesbian feelings for Rebecca; Du Maurier in her letters and journal claims to have lived with “a boy in the box” or had “Venetian tendencies”- in other words she had strong lesbian feelings for other women even though she was married with children (her father made her a bit screwy and always said he had wished she was a boy).
Rebecca is the only film Hitchcock made to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. This is truly a Hitchcock masterpiece. It was a perfect film to kick off his incredible and long work in Hollywood. My favorite scene in a Hitchcock film and the whole reason I became addicted to classic movies is the scene where Maxim describes the night Rebecca died. As he explains the woman’s movements moments before her death the camera follows the movements by panning the camera up when she got up and moving towards the door as she had moved towards the door. Me explaining the scene will never do it justice you just have to see it the scene just totally and completely captivated me. From the opening scene to the ending scene there is not one fault in this film whatsoever. Every character is perfectly cast, the cinematography is outstanding (this also won an Academy Award), and the story is breathtaking. This is the only instance where I have found both the movie and book to be fantastic I could not tell you which is better (I will say the movie ending is ten time better than the book ending).
If you have never seen a Hitchcock film in your life and would like to start forget Psycho and watch Rebecca. I guarantee you will be absolutely addicted and breathless from the first line of the film all the way to closing scene.