A Lit Major at the Movies: Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca 1940Spoilers ahead!

Who doesn’t love a bit of Hitchcock now and again? Although the director is probably best-known for iconic films such as Psycho and The Birds, Hitchcock actually made his debut in Hollywood with what has been patronisingly dubbed a ‘woman’s film’. Having read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca a few months ago, I decided to return to the film version that I’d absolutely loved when I’d first seen it (pre-reading the book, much to my shame).

Rebecca is a controversial book in many ways, and it’s perhaps inevitable that the film should be so too. As with du Maurier’s novel, the heroine of the story is a young, nameless woman working as a companion to a vulgar older lady, who meets and marries a mysterious widower and goes to live on his estate in the south of England. The film captures the book’s wonderful opening lines in an iconic way: as the film begins, we hear the heroine (played by Joan Fontaine) say: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”. She takes us on a dream-tour of Manderley’s front drive. As she describes her dream, we follow along with her, passing through the front gates of the estate and travelling along the overgrown front drive before finally catching a glimpse of the magnificent house in the distance.

It’s a wonderful beginning, moody and powerful, and du Maurier’s opening chapter sounds excellent when spoken aloud by Fontaine. It sets the tone for the rest of the novel, which unravels like a murder-mystery, with the paranoid heroine gradually discovering more and more about her husband’s first wife, Rebecca, and the circumstances of her death.

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Joan Fontaine as The Heroine Who Shall Not Be Named.

You’d expect the fact that the heroine is never named in the book to be an issue when the story is transferred to the screen, but it isn’t. In fact, the first time I saw the movie I didn’t even register that she didn’t have a name; it was only after it was pointed out to me that I realised that we never do find out the heroine’s name.

But although the film resists making up a name for the heroine, it does deviate from the book in one rather major way, radically re-writing a key event in the book. While in the novel it is eventually revealed that the heroine’s husband, Maxim, killed Rebecca (what some might charitably call a ‘crime of passion’, but I prefer to call ‘yet another dodgy dude kills his wife in suspicious circumstances’), in the film the big reveal is a little less exciting; it’s revealed that Rebecca tripped and fell, a rather lame end for such a fascinating character.

My only guess as to this lame cop-out is that a) nobody thought a movie about a guy who murders his wife would appeal to lady viewers (quite rightly, in my opinion); b) nobody thought that Laurence Olivier was capable of playing a man who murders his wife (how could he, with that face?); or c) Laurence Olivier refused to play a man who murders his wife (let’s face it, it’s not the best PR line).

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“I’m ashamed, my darling, because the screenwriters went for this lame cop-out of a plot.” Olivier as accidental wife-killer Maxim.

To be fair, Laurence Olivier does a wonderful job as the haunted Maxim de Winter, infusing the character with a likeability and vulnerability that the original just didn’t have. I was slightly less impressed when I found out that Mr Olivier was apparently incredibly mean to Joan Fontaine on-set, because he’d been gunning for his then-girlfriend to get the main part in the movie. I’m disappointed, sir, I really am.

The best part of the entire movie, though, is how Hitchcock deals with absences. Specifically, the absence of Rebecca, who is the most important character – after all, the movie is named after her – and who never once appears onscreen. What’s fascinating about this is the way that Hitchcock manages to evoke a sense of her presence even though we never see so much as a photograph of her. Through some fabulous camera shots, great acting and some wonderful sets, Hitchcock establishes the sense of a ghostly presence which haunts the house and the main characters. It’s so brilliant that the viewer feels like they can almost see Rebecca on-screen, as if she’s just out of reach but always, always present. It’s a wonderfully spooky effect.

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Monogrammed items appear again and again throughout the film, adding to the spooky effect.

Another fascinating aspect of the film is the portrayal of Mrs Danvers, the housekeeper who in the book is old and creepy, with skeletal features and a fixation on Rebecca.

In the movie, this is taken to a whole new level; instead of being a crusty old woman, Mrs Danvers is middle-aged, with a reasonably good-looking face and very unimaginative dress sense. Her obsession with Rebecca (and, indeed, with the heroine) has led many to speculate that the character is a lesbian. Perhaps for the audiences of the 1940s this made Mrs Danvers even more sinister; but today it makes her seem human, a character that you can sympathise with, in stark contrast with the Danvers of the book, whose ‘skull-like’ appearance makes her more creepy and unrelatable. Judith Anderson does a fabulous job making Danvers a sympathetic character, while still making her seem sinister at the right moments. Like Rebecca, Danvers is a bit of a question mark, and there is a lot that is left unsaid about the both of them. It’s part of the reason that this movie stands up to multiple viewings; there’s a lot of subtlety that I really appreciate now that I’ve seen it three or four times.

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Judith Anderson as a fascinating Mrs Danvers.

Rebecca is a brilliant movie. It’s not as iconic as some of Hitchcock’s later films, and he clearly struggled at times with the source material (apparently he wanted the movie to be much less ‘feminine’ – whatever that means – than it actually ended up, and his producer criticised him for taking out all of du Maurier’s ‘feminine touches’). And although Hitchcock’s movie is by no means a perfect adaptation, he does a lot right. As a movie, it’s suspenseful and engaging, and the final shot – in which Rebecca’s monogrammed pillowcase is shown being devoured by flames – is still a point of debate and contention. Whether Hitchcock intends it to symbolise the fall of Rebecca and a not-so-subtle suggestion as to where she may have ended up, or whether it’s a more ambiguous comment on the power she still has over the inhabitants of Manderley (I’d like to think it’s the latter), one thing is certain: Rebecca will stay with you for a long, long time.

Rating: 4.5 Stars

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3 thoughts on “A Lit Major at the Movies: Rebecca (1940)

  1. Pingback: The Classics Book Tag (AKA Oh My God I Can’t Believe I Still Haven’t Read All These Books Please Don’t Judge Me) | (majoring in literature)

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