Film #108: Rebecca (1940)

film 108 rebecca

Rating: 3.5/5

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Based almost entirely faithfully on Daphne du Maurier’s book of the same name, this film adaptation of Rebecca is such a quintessentially classical Hollywood film – directed by Alfred Hitchcock, produced by David O Selznick, starring Laurence Olivier, shot in brooding, beautiful, gothic black and white. Its direction is impeccable, the acting equally so, and it deservedly won two academy awards (best picture and best cinematography) out of the eleven it was nominated for. My quibble is not with any the technical aspects of the film, but with a seemingly small change in the narrative – the result of the stringent Hollywood Production Code at the time, which stated that the murder of a spouse must be punished. Consequently (spoiler alert!), the whole point of du Maurier’s story is undermined: whereas in the novel Maxim de Winter is a murderer, shooting his first wife, here Olivier’s de Winter only thinks about doing so, and her death is an accident. These small detail changes the entire relationship between Maxim and his young new wife who, in du Maurier’s world, doesn’t care that her husband is a murderer. Instead, here Maxim becomes a version of Hitchcock’s classic “wronged men” – haunted by a memory and, later on, accused of a murder he didn’t really commit. It’s a shame, really, because Hitchcock was very adept at drawing out the more tortured side of his male leads – he brought out a darkness in everyman James Stewart, for example, and some of that actor’s finest roles were under Hitch’s direction. If anyone could play a ruthless, cold-hearted murderer and still be believably attractive, it’s Olivier, so it’s a shame that such a crucial plot point had to be watered down.

In contrast to Olivier’s roguish, charming Maxim, Joan Fontaine is superbly unassuming as the second Mrs de Winter. This poor girl (for she is young – visibly much younger than her husband) doesn’t even have a name of her own: first introduced as the paid companion of an older society woman, she is quickly smitten by Maxim’s charms (and who wouldn’t be?!) and, after a whirlwind romance, the pair return to Manderley, a vast, ominous manor house near the Cornish coast. Suddenly thrust into a world far beyond her station, the new Mrs de Winter has to not only adapt to her new social status, but try to fill the shoes of the seemingly perfect Rebecca – a figure so important that both the novel and film take her name, despite not even being shown in a picture or portrait. Rebecca is so dominant that her presence is felt throughout the film – the long corridors and vast, opulent spaces of Manderley seem filled with her, and Hitchcock approaches the story as though it were a true ghost tale. In many ways, of course, it is – the new Mrs de Winter is haunted by the spectre of Rebecca, this beautiful, perfect, urban, witty woman who, it appears, Maxim has never gotten over. Manderley’s housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) definitely hasn’t, and makes sure to remind Mrs de Winter of her inadequacies (as many other characters do) frequently.

It is here that the film makes a further deviation from its source novel: while du Maurier imagined Mrs Danvers as having a maternal bond with Rebecca, here it is implicitly a romantic fixation. Mrs Danvers, prim, proper and utterly intimidating in her strict black dress, has evidently fetishised the memory of Rebecca – the scene in which she takes Mrs de Winter into Rebecca’s old bedroom and points out all the luxury has distinctively erotic undertones: “Did you ever see anything so delicate?” she asks, showing off Rebecca’s sheer negligee. “Look, you can see my hand through it!” Fittingly, all three actors mentioned received Oscar nominations for their roles – Olivier brings a darkness to his role as the charming Maxim, Anderson is rather terrifying as the cold, cruel Mrs Danvers, while Fontaine epitomises innocence and naivety. While Fontaine is undoubtedly beautiful, here she really seems plain – quite an achievement, considering. When Maxim finally reveals what he believes is the truth regarding Rebecca’s death (that it was his actions that killed her), Fontaine is superb. All she hears in this shocking confession is what she wants to: “You never loved her,” she breathlessly repeats, relief all over her face. In all that he has said, that’s the only thing that matters to this smitten, tormented woman.

Although the alterations to the narrative do mean that the power of the story is somewhat reduced, I cannot fault the film itself. The stage production is wonderful – the sets, particularly Manderley’s halls and rooms – are beautiful, expensive and expansive, while the music perfectly complements the visual elements. The score, by Franz Waxman, brings an eerie, gothic quality to the film, emphasising the horror and tension perfectly. Olivier et al are supported by a solid cast, including the delightfully caddish George Sanders, who injects some life into the film’s final third. It’s not all doom, gloom and atmospheric anxiety though – Hitchcock wisely brings some black humour into the narrative by way of some of the smaller roles. Just moments before one of the most devastatingly simple yet brutal cruelties imposed upon poor Mrs de Winter, for example, Maxim’s sister and brother-in-law parade around in ludicrous outfits, highlighting even further the nastiness that follows. As is now expected of Hitchcock, the director demonstrates his mastery of creating tension and, also, revelling in cruelty – yet it is Fontaine’s performance that truly demonstrates the consequences of such cruelty. The devastation is etched all over her face, her torment and agony clear throughout. It’s impressive, really, that we can still empathise with a woman who is such a shell of a person herself – in the end, we still don’t really know anything about her except that she is Maxim’s devoted wife.

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