Released in 1940, Rebecca is not one of Alfred Hitchcock’s well-known films, but is without a doubt one of his greatest; a remarkable achievement given that Hitchcock is widely – and rightfully – regarded as one of the most skilled directors of all time. Rebecca is a masterpiece, and so I find it unfortunate that it has not surpassed the height of fame achieved by some of his other movies.
Even more mysteriously, it has snuck under the casual film watcher’s radar completely – and tragically so, because I guarantee they are missing out. Perhaps I can provide an explanation as to why this situation has occurred. Rebecca is an unorthodox Hitchcock project: there are no murderers like in Psycho or Rear Window; no grand conspiracy like in The 39 Steps or Vertigo (though a conspiracy nonetheless).
But this is Hitchcock after all, meaning that the audience must constantly deal with a copious serving of suspense; the viewer’s thought processing mechanism develops a severe case of schizophrenia where one side attempts to rationally piece the overall puzzle together scene by scene, each frame reveals another piece; whilst the other side is left in a total state of confusion, nervously awaiting the conclusion of the plot and only being able to relax after the truth has emerged from the darkness. Rebecca is certainly no exception to the ‘Hitchcock rule’.
The first thirty minutes begin with every 1940s woman’s dream – marrying Laurence Olivier.
The protagonist, a young, innocent and naïve young woman, beautifully played by Joan Fontaine, is serving as a secretary when she encounters Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) whilst her boss is on holiday. Through my own politeness, I am compelled to include a ‘trigger warning’ here – this is a romance film (though just as much as it is a typical Hitchcock thriller). After a brief holiday fling, Maxim asks her to marry him and after the shock of the proposal sets in, she eagerly accepts.
But don’t feel left out – especially my fellow gents – because in one of the first scenes, there is something every self-respecting masculine chap adores; smoking indoors in a public place. More importantly, this scene is the first reveal of the main character, Rebecca. The main character is not a physical entity but a memory – a memory which dominates the plot and in particular, the interior of Maxim’s mind because Rebecca is his late wife.
It is revealed early on that Rebecca met her end through drowning, and upon the arrival of the new Mrs. de Winter at Mandalay (Maxim’s mansion which has been passed down and preserved through the generations) after their honeymoon, it is she who finds herself out of her depth, forced to swim against the tide of Rebecca’s legacy – a tide which fully submerges her, and in one scene, nearly succeeds in killing her.
Rebecca is glorified in the movie as being the picture-perfect person: adored by the household staff; too beautiful for the eye to behold; the noble wife symmetrically attached to the noble patriarch. She is obsessively remembered by Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, who serves as the antagonist for this film by doing everything in her power to remind the new Mrs. de Winter that her character is vastly inferior to Rebecca’s, and that Rebecca was a much better wife to Maxim than she could ever hope to be.
The new Mrs. de Winter struggles to navigate this new world of aristocracy – a task that is made excruciatingly more difficult by the almost ethereal influence Rebecca has on her life. In contrast to the ideal figure of Rebecca, the new Mrs. de Winter is clumsy and childish, which causes her to make many mistakes, subsequently resulting in her unintentionally embarrassing her husband on a number of occasions.
Through the constant reminder and unveiling of more information about Rebecca, and the perception that she herself is not good enough for her husband (in part stemming from the comparison with Rebecca), the second Mrs. de Winter suffers a wave of insecurity regarding her husband’s feelings towards her which deepens as the film progresses. With each passing scene, it appears as if their marital relationship is quickly deteriorating, which further adds to the suspense and ensures that both the new Mrs. de Winter, and indeed the viewer themselves, question whether Maxim is still in love with Rebecca.
I will not summarise any more of the plot out of fear that I might spoil it; when typed into Google (don’t Google the movie), too much of the storyline is revealed, which drains all of the excitement out of the experience. I would certainly have been less taken back by the twists and turns of the plot had I known what would be revealed just before the final act.
Rebecca showcases cinema in a way that modern audiences do not have the privilege of experiencing.
Hitchcock knew how to make the perfect motion picture; marvellous acting, superb set design, accompanied through even better dialogue and, most importantly in my opinion, an ingenious plot. There are some special effects (like a car driving by a screen to give the impression of movement) but no omnipresent CGI monstrosities (think of the Orcs in The Hobbit prequels) you receive with every film release nowadays.
This echoes the conversations I frequently have with my grandfather when he shares the tales surrounding his many pilgrimages to the cinema in his youth to see historical epics such as Lawrence of Arabia and Ben Hur. He is also perhaps the world’s biggest Western movie fan (and I can’t blame him) – TCM (Turner Classic Movies) is always on full screen on the TV whenever I visit.
But what he always points out to me without fail is that those in battle scenes, large crowds, and so forth, are real people. Whilst CGI can accurately display many sights that may be hard – or even impossible – to replicate in real life, it removes part of the humanity of a film. I’ve gone a little bit off the beaten track here, but the point is that film-makers such as Hitchcock needed to make their work come alive, thus possessed some degree of intelligence to make this happen rather than mindlessly sticking this “creativity” onto a green-screen.
For Rebecca I have described a simple plot; an insecure young woman must outmanoeuvre her predecessor’s grand legacy in order to be appreciated by her husband to have that fairy-tale ending. Like all films, there is our hero (heroine in this case) battling their arch-nemesis who in this case is Rebecca, appearing to possess Mrs. Danvers from beyond the grave.
Unlike the leads in Hitchcock’s other films, she is not facing off against murderous psychopaths or ruthless spies; the most danger she finds herself in is being on the brink of attempting suicide, out of despair. It is through recognition of all this that the plot of the film, along with its execution on camera, can be truly appreciated.
Nevertheless, Hitchcock is able to play on other fears rather than imminent death or extreme peril. Given the new Mrs. de Winter’s vulnerability along with the popularity of Rebecca, she is socially isolated; as we humans are social creatures, this unearths some deep primordial fear. Even worse, she is made out to be the enemy in her own home, a mere outcast to the people of the mansion.
Filmmakers consider home invasions to be effective in terrifying the audience because we empathise with these characters and to much of us, the home is the most safe and secure place that we can be; Hitchcock partly ripping that away in the film is a very clever technique.
Another technique utilised by Hitchcock is to broadcast the stark contrast in personalities between the new Mrs. de Winter and everyone else. Whilst the rest of the characters have smooth, deep voices and stable emotions, the new Mrs. de Winter has a soft voice, sounds hysterical and is on the verge of tears in many scenes. Rather than simply making her look vulnerable and alien in her new surroundings, I believe Hitchcock also uses this to show where each character’s loyalties lie; the former is allied with Rebecca against her replacement who must fight on her own, increasing the feeling of social isolation.
The last technique I would like to point out is one I only discovered when I was researching the full names of the characters and actors on IMDB; you may have noticed that I have referred to Joan Fontaine’s character as simply the ‘new Mrs. de Winter’ because she doesn’t have a name, showing that her status is insignificant when compared with Rebecca as her name is uttered in nearly every scene. It is a form of power-play, revealing that Rebecca has an identity – and a strong one at that – whereas the ‘new Mrs. de Winter’ must go without this for the duration of the film.
I’ll say it one last time – Hitchcock knew how to make a masterpiece.
His era did not possess grand CGI or any of the other futuristic gadgets that have been bestowed upon modern directors. Instead, Hitchcock played on very real fears held by humanity to make this film come alive and create a form of entertainment by making the viewer’s hairs stand on end from the suspense.
The plot and the acting are simply phenomenal which assisted Hitchcock in achieving this. If my word can’t convince you to watch the film then I hope you are persuaded by the Academy Awards, which awarded the movie Best Picture in 1941 (when the Oscars actually meant something).
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