Thanks to Ruth of Silver Screenings. Kristine from Speakeasy and Karen of Shadows and Satin!
Men are simpler than you imagine my sweet child. But what goes on in the twisted, tortuous minds of women would baffle anyone. –Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca
First off, while I cover a good deal of the film, I take it only as far as I can before giving anything away about the great Rebecca. My focus is on the mystery surrounding the first mistress of Manderley’s devoted servant Mrs. Danvers. So I will not be referencing any departures from du Maurier’s novel, nor Rebecca herself or Olivier and Fontaine’s marital outcome. I believe there are still fans of Hitchcock who have not seen the picture, and I want to leave them something to enjoy!
One of the most enduring classic thrillers, psychological thriller, suspenseful and intriguing in the realm of romantic Gothic mysteries. Considered a ‘woman’s picture.’ Brooding atmosphere, perfect pacing, acting composition from the score to the set design to the cinematography. Manderley is a ‘castle of the mind.’ It is too shadowy too remote too unreal because it IS in the mind. It exists now only in the heroine’s mind. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” As these words are visualized on the screen, we don’t see a real Manderley, but a Manderley of the mind, a nightmare, a ghost. So imperceptible and subtle, Manderley is one of the vital characters of the story. Joan Fontaine plays the timid woman in peril archetype. Olivier is moody and brooding. All actors are overshadowed by Anderson’s on fire performance.
As scholar Mary Ann Doane points out that Rebecca is “initiating the ‘paranoia’ strand of the woman’s picture, a sub-genre in which gullible women discover that the men they married possess strange and sinister intents. The cycle continued through the 1940s-Suspicion (1941) Gaslight (George Cukor 1944) and Secret Beyond the Door… (Fritz Lang, 1948).”
Rebecca was adapted from author Daphne du Maurier and brought to the Gothic paroxysm on screen not only by master Alfred Hitchcock but by the exquisitely low burning maniacal machinations of Dame Judith Anderson (Lady Scarface 1941, All Through the Night 1942, Kings Row 1942, Laura 1944, And Then There Were None 1945, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers 1946, The Red House 1947, The Furies 1950, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 1958, Inn of the Damned 1975) as Miss Danvers — the epitome of the word villainess.
Mrs. Danvers– That austere cold stare, the measured calculating rhythm of each syllable spoken like serpent toothed silk cutting like finely sharpened knives to cut the jugular — a harridan — no, a harpy — no, a carefully slithering serpent of a woman in the vein of Angela Lansbury’s sinister housekeeper Nancy who helped the poor bedevil Ingrid Bergman feel gaslighted in Gaslight 1944 or the menacing Gale Sandaagard as Mrs. Hammond that same year in The Letter (1940), but Anderson has the benefit of du Maurier’s dialogue and Hitchcock’s direction at her command.
Interesting enough, in reading the tensions that had developed over the autonomy in making du Maurier’s story on screen between two head strong film makers, I imagined what the film might have been like in the hands of Val Lewton. Here is an excerpt from Leonard Leff’s book- “For Selznick who read a synopsis of the manuscript in late spring 1938, the story of the novel’s awkward and shy heroine seemed ideal. Selznick most impressive discoveries tended to be young women, including Ingrid Bergman, Vivien Leigh, and Joan Fontaine; furthermore, had had long been associated with the industry’s premier “women’s director” George Cukor. In certain respects a “woman’s producer,” attuned to the sensibilities and psychology of the American female (at least as purveyed by the era’s mass-circulation magazines), Selznick agreed with story editor Val Lewton that the second Mrs. de Winter “probably exemplifies the feeling that most young women have about themselves.”
From Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick-by Leonard J. Leff- Among the hundred of manuscripts, galley proofs, ad publish novels that poured into the East Coast offices of Selznick International every month, Kay Brown read only a few that she could enthusiastically recommend. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca became one of them. Rebecca is “the most fascinating story I have read in ages,” Born wired Hollywood, a certain best-seller. In the novel, a plain and innocent young women (the first-person narrator, whose name du Maurier never reveals) serves as paid companion to a crass American dowager visiting the Riviera. Gossip has it that the aristocratic Maxim de Winter has fled England to Monte Carlo in order to elude painful memories of his recently deceased, much-beloved wife, the fabulously beautiful Rebecca; yet almost inexplicably he proposes marriage to the unglamourous paid companion. Following a honeymoon in Venice, the newlyweds return to Manderley, de Winter’s mansion. Here, the young bride confronts not only the memory of Rebecca-which seems to permeate the estate and to preoccupy and torment its owner-but also her morose husband and the forbidding Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca’s devoted housekeeper.”
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock with a screenplay by Robert Sherwood and Joan Harrison (who produced Alfred Hitchcock’s anthology suspense crime television show.) Adapted by Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan from the 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier. Music composed by Franz Waxman (Suspicion 1941, Sunset Boulevard 1950, A Place in the Sun 1951.) whose score at times sounds like a classic B horror film by RKO with its eerie organ tremolos.
Cinematography by George Barnes. (That Uncertain Feeling 1941, Ladies in Retirement 1941, Jane Eyre 1943, Spellbound 1945, Mourning Becomes Electra 1947, Force of Evil 1948, The File on Thelma Jordon 1950, War of the Worlds 1953). Art Department/Interior Design -Howard Bristol, Joseph B. Platt and Eric Stacey. Art director Lyle Wheeler. Film editor James Newcom. Supervising film editor Hal C. Kern. Interiors designed by Joseph B Platt. Fashions by Irene.
The lighting for Rebecca creates a forbidden sense of place. The shadows distinguish where the secrets lurk, with the Gothic architecture and repressed desire.
“She” is in the innocence of white and Mrs. Danvers is always advancing in black…
Rebecca (1940) is auteur Hitchcock’s Gothic style thriller that often delves into the realm of classical horror, ‘old dark house’ or haunting ghost story triggered by the remnants of a beautiful dead woman’s hold on an ancestral manor house and the new marriage brought home to thrive in it’s shadow. As scholar Tania Modleski writes Rebecca is a ‘presence’ which is never actually present. The character of Rebecca is symbolic of a subversive female desire, and Maxim de Winter who represents the patriarchal rule who is terrorized and bound by her presence though she cannot be seen, her power remains intact within the walls of Manderley.
There was tension and discord between director Hitchcock who wanted control over the project and producer David O. Selznick. Though Hitchcock is one of the directors who manages to shake off any solid labels on his work, Rebecca is considered his first film noir. It was Hitchcock’s first American/Hollywood film, although it exudes that distinctly British style from his earlier mysteries. The melancholy tone of Robert E. Sherwood and Hitchcock regular Joan Harrison’s screenplay captures Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 disquieting Gothic novel perfectly.
Behind the scenes of Rebecca 1940 Alfred Hitchcock and Judith Anderson photo by Fred Parrish
Rebecca stars Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter, Joan Fontaine as Mrs. de Winter, George Sanders as Jack Favell, Judith Anderson as the sinister chatelaine Mrs. Danvers Nigel Bruce as Major Giles Lacy, C. Aubrey Smith as Colonel Julyan Reginald Deny as Frank Crawley, Gladys Cooper as Beatrice Lacy, Philip Winter as Robert, Edward Fielding as Frith, Florence Bates (The Moon and Sixpence 1942, Whistle Stop 1946, Portrait of Jennie 1948, A Letter to Three Wives 1949, Les Miserables 1952) as Mrs Van Hopper, Leo G. Carroll as Dr. Baker
The master Hitchcock and cinematographer George Barnes know how to create a moody, atmospheric landscape of suspense. In Rebecca, Joan Fontaine is given the role of an innocent and painfully shy young heroine who remains nameless throughout the film, as she is in du Maurier’s novel. I read that there were early drafts of the original script where the heroine’s name was Daphne as in the writer, but obviously the decision to keep her without a given name. She meets the brooding aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter played almost too effortlessly by Laurence Olivier who is the master of Manderley. They marry and Maxim brings his new bride back to his ancestral home. At first she is clumsy and awkward trying to find her way around as mistress of the house. The second Mrs. de Winter is bewildered and haunted by the unseen presence of the first Mrs. de Winter, the uncanny and beautiful Rebecca, who has died in a boating accident a year before. Mrs. de Winter is psychically tortured by the sinister Mrs. Danvers who was Rebecca’s faithful and adoring servant played by the always imposing Judith Anderson, who bombards Joan Fontaine with memories and tactile possessions of the dead woman, whom we never see. She is truly a phantom that haunts the film, the narrative and our heroine.
Considered for the leading role in Rebecca was Loretta Young, Margaret Sullivan, Anne Baxter and Vivien Leigh who was restricted by her role in Gone With the Wind 1939. Director Alfred Hitchcock won the Oscar for Best Picture his first and only Best Picture Oscar. George Barnes also won the Academy Award for his Cinematography. Judith Anderson was nominated for Best Supporting Actress as the menacing Mrs. Danvers, the only time in her career she was ever nominated.
Let’s not forget the other outstanding performance by Judith Anderson, that as Ann Treadwell in director Otto Preminger’s noir masterpiece Laura (1944) a ruthless woman who recognizes her weakness is wanting to possess through her wealth, the younger womanizer Shelby Carpenter played by urbane Vincent Price. Anderson turns out a poignant performance of a woman you love to hate yet she makes you understand the dynamic behind her loneliness.