Rebecca (1940)

Last night I saw Rebecca again.

Really; I’m not trying to be corny, but that’s it. I was in the mood for a Hitchcock film, and having recently seen Pride and Prejudice again, I was also very keen on watching more of Olivier’s work. So Rebecca it was. Based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel, this was Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film, even though it’s set in England (in Cornwall, to be precise) and has an almost totally British cast.

Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson in Rebecca

The film begins with one of the most famous opening lines in literature: “Last night I dreamt of Manderley again,” with the camera moving slowly across the ruins of a palatial mansion, shrouded in gloom and mist. After an initial couple of minutes in which it is established that Manderley is now dead and gone forever, the story moves into flashback, to glittery Monte Carlo. Bossy, pretentious social climber Edythe van Hopper (Florence Bates) is holidaying in Monte Carlo with her young paid companion (Joan Fontaine—as in the book, this character’s first name is never revealed).

Mrs van Hopper and her companion at Monte Carlo

One evening at the hotel, Mrs van Hopper pounces on a passing guest, the handsome and wealthy George Fortescue Maximilian `Max’ de Winter, whom she recalls having met some years back. Her companion recognises Max as being the man whom she halted on the verge of committing suicide by leaping off the cliff. She doesn’t say anything, though. In any case, the nasty Mrs van Hopper is talking enough for the three of them, and is unforgivably nasty to her companion—so much so that Max, disgusted, leaves.

Max finds himself repelled by Mrs van Hopper - and fascinated by her companion

The next day, Mrs van Hopper has a cold and takes to her bed, leaving her companion to spend her time as she wishes. The girl, a painfully shy, somewhat butterfingered and ingenuous creature, is soon befriended by Max de Winter. They spend most of their days together, until one fine day Mrs van Hopper suddenly announces that she’s received news that her daughter’s got engaged—so they must leave.

Mrs van Hopper announces her daughter's engagement - and their imminent departure

Mrs van Hopper’s companion, distraught, makes an excuse to slip back into the hotel and rushes to tell Max, whom she fears she’ll never see again. Max ends up proposing to her, and the girl’s delirious with joy—so happy, in fact, that when Mrs van Hopper turns up and tells the girl (in Max’s absence) that she will never be able to take the place of Max’s elegant and well-bred first wife, the girl’s not bothered.

Mrs van Hopper turns nasty at the news of the coming wedding

They go off and get married, and after a wonderful honeymoon, Max brings his bride to his home, the brooding seaside castle of Manderley in Cornwall. Mrs de Winter is awestruck and even frightened by the house. Just about everything within Manderley intimidates her: the servants lined up to greet her, the long table at which she’s expected to dine, the spooky west wing, now kept locked up… and most of all, the obviously disapproving housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson).

The daunting Mrs Danvers welcomes Max and his bride home

It is Mrs Danvers who tells the new Mrs de Winter, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that she’s not a patch on Rebecca, the first Mrs de Winter. Rebecca, it transpires, had everything one could want of a perfect wife: brains, beauty and breeding. Max adored her, and after she drowned in a sailing accident the previous year—her body was found washed up at Edgecoombe, and was duly identified by Max—he hasn’t been the same.

Mrs Danvers tells Mrs de Winter about Rebecca

And Rebecca, realises Mrs de Winter with dismay, is still everywhere. The desk in the morning room has her monogrammed stationery:

Mrs de Winter comes across Rebecca's stationery...

The napkin on her plate is embroidered with Rebecca’s initials:

...and finds Rebecca's napkin at the dinner table

And she is too girlish, too clumsy and incapable of taking Rebecca’s place. Max himself treats her like a child. He doesn’t seem to want his new wife to make any attempt at being the `great lady’—in fact, he isn’t at all enthusiastic when she gets herself a fashionable new gown and does her hair differently. Rebecca, realises her successor, was inimitable; nothing she can ever do will match up to Rebecca.

Max doesn't care for his wife's new fashion sense

Max’s sister Beatrice (Gladys Cooper), a forthright and frank person who comes by on a visit, warms to her new sister-in-law, but admits that Rebecca’s death has changed Max. Max’s estate manager, Frank Crawley (Reginald Denny), when pressured by the new Mrs de Winter, admits that Rebecca was “the most beautiful woman he had ever seen”. He also tells her that Mrs Danvers was devoted to Rebecca.

Crawley tells Mrs de Winter about Rebecca

And there are other people and other places too that begin to prey on our timid heroine’s mind. Down by the seashore, much to Max’s annoyance, his new wife discovers a cottage now occupied by the half-insane Ben (Leonard Carey). The cottage, it turns out, was used by Rebecca off and on: she was an avid sailor and loved to spend time there. Ben asks, apropos of nothing, that “she won’t come back, will she?” and insists that he doesn’t know anything.

Ben insists he knows nothing - about what?

Then there’s the suave but slimy Jack Favell (George Sanders), Rebecca’s cousin, who turns up one day while Max is away. He’s on the best of terms with Mrs Danvers—whom he calls `Danny’—and seems to have had an affection for Rebecca that went beyond the merely cousinly. Favell persuades Mrs de Winter to hide the news of his visit from Max, because it’ll disturb him.

Jack Favell puts in an unpleasant appearance

The person most disturbed by all this is Mrs de Winter herself. Mrs Danvers shows her Rebecca’s old rooms, still maintained exactly as they were when she was alive. She shows off Rebecca’s dresses, the expensive furs gifted by Max; she recounts Rebecca’s cheerfulness and love of life; the parties the de Winters went to and hosted… Mrs Danvers, in fact, insists she can still feel Rebecca’s presence in the house. Her new mistress is not merely shaken by all of this; she’s close to panic.

Mrs Danvers waxes eloquent - and scary

But Max’s wife rallies around and tries to assert herself. All that she’s seen and heard has convinced her that she can never win Max’s love—that is Rebecca’s—but she can be mistress of Manderley. So she persuades Max (after much resistance from him) to let her host a costume ball. She’s undecided about what her costume will be, but Mrs Danvers makes a suggestion: a dress painted on a portrait of one of Max’s ancestors would be perfect.

Mrs Danvers makes a suggestion for a costume

Mrs de Winter agrees, and is too excited to let anyone but her maid know what she’s going to be dressed as. On the night of the costume ball, having stopped even Beatrice from seeing her, Mrs de Winter comes down the stairs in her costume—and runs into the wrath of her husband. Max is furious at her, and tells her to go change into anything she has. Beatrice, solicitous, explains: Rebecca had worn the same costume once.

Max raves and rants at his wife

And while Mrs de Winter, sobbing and half-hysterical, changes her clothes, there’s a sudden disaster by the seashore near Manderley: a ship’s in trouble. Max, his guests, servants and other people from the vicinity go down to the shore to help—and by the time Mrs de Winter arrives, a diver has gone down below the ship to help in salvaging it: and he’s made an interesting discovery. Rebecca de Winter’s sailing boat is lying below the waves, and there’s a body inside it…

This is probably too well-known a story for me to need to say more, but if you haven’t seen it, do so.
Hitchcock at his best. It did, in fact, win an Oscar for Best Picture.

What I liked about this film:
The atmosphere. Hitchcock uses vignettes: Rebecca’s dog Jasper sitting outside what used to be her room; the monogrammed pillowcase; the porcelain cupid that Mrs de Winter knocks over—to create a picture of a timid girl haunted by her husband’s past. And Mrs Danvers’s pokerfaced (yet deeply emotional) recollections of Rebecca are a fine example of the effectiveness of suggestion. I’d never imagined a memory of brushing someone’s hair as she laughed and talked could be so eerily recounted.
The acting. George Sanders is excellent as the oily Favell, as is Judith Anderson as the supercilious Mrs Danvers. And Laurence Olivier—another of my favourites—is brilliant.

Laurence Olivier in Rebecca

What I didn’t like:
Not much. Rebecca is, overall, a superb film. But yes, I do think Joan Fontaine’s acting could’ve been a little more restrained in a couple of scenes. There are places where I found myself thinking that even if somebody had been as shy, timid and eager to please as the second Mrs de Winter, she wouldn’t have behaved the way she did at times. Just slightly over the top.

Forgivable, though. Especially as the rest of it—the story with its sudden twists, Laurence Olivier, the supporting actors, etc—fits in together so well. Excellent, and much recommended.
By the way, I first saw Rebecca when I was a child, well over 25 years ago. And I still remember large sections of it, which just goes to show.

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15 thoughts on “Rebecca (1940)

  1. Rebecca is my favourite Hitchcock film. This film is such a great example of Hitchcock’s genius. The way he changed the details in the film to create suspense, the claustrophobic compactness of the setting, the ecomony in the story-telling, the atmosphere of dread and sexual tension, and above all the dreamy, ominous opening scene, “Last night, I dreamed I went to Manderley again…”

    Pure awesomeness!

  2. Wow, Rebecca!
    One of my favourite films! although I’ve never seen it after the first time, nearly 20 years ago. And then read the book. I attempted reading it again a few years back. But I just didn’t want to soil my memory (sic, I know!).
    I loved Joan Fontaine’s character though. But now as an adult, I can realise how clumsy she acts at times. But I know it from my own experience, that the more one tries not to act clumsy and not annoy others, the more it goes down the drain (to misuse an old proverb)
    Did you know, that Vivien Leigh wanted the role, which eventually went to Joan Fontaine. Even Laurence Olivier pressed Hitchcock to give Leigh the role. But Hitchcock was adamant!
    The scene were Mrs Danvers goes through Rebecca’s lingerie is so eerie. Many interpret Mrs. Danvers role as lesbian, which would explain her adulation of Rebecca and it explains the clichéd depiction of homosexuals in the film industry then. And she gets the justice often meant for homosexuals in the movies – death: the only salvation.
    I love grim silent heroes, but they are the characters, who if they had behaved well and opened their mouth at the right places, would hinder tragedies. But then, we wouldn’t have a plot, would we?
    But this raises the old question does Mr. de Winter love his second wife? Was his marriage proposal just an act of kindness towards an orphan?
    What about their love life? Is their passion in their relationship?

    Thanks for bringing up this movie and thanks for the wonderful review!
    Brought back old memories!

  3. sabrina: Yes, this one’s definitely among my favourite Hitchcock films – actually so different from much of his other work (films like The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Notorious, Topaz, Sabotage, Vertigo etc are so much more action-oriented (and male-oriented!); this one’s more cerebral, more evanescent, I think… and with a lot of things left unsaid, only hinted at. Splendid.

    harvey: I heard about Vivien Leigh being auditioned and rejected for this. I believe Olivier was pretty nasty to Fontaine on the sets because of that – and Hitchcock took advantage by telling Fontaine that everybody on the sets was anti her. All a ploy to make Fontaine, who was anyway not yet a big name in the industry, scared and timid – which was what Hitchcock wanted her to be in Rebecca. Sort of below the belt, I thought…
    Hmm, you do raise some interesting questions. Mrs Danvers does seem almost in love with Rebecca. On the other hand, the mere fact that she seems to dote on Rebecca not just as a woman, but as the wife of Max de Winter, makes me wonder.
    As far as the relationship between Max and his second wife is concerned, the first half of the film (until she discovers the truth) does suggest that he perhaps married her only because he felt sorry for her. After that, I think it’s pretty obvious that he’s deeply in love with her, and that her happiness means a lot to him. Though Olivier may have hated Fontaine for having done Vivien Leigh out of the role, he was a good enough actor to conjure up a believable affection for Mrs de Winter!

  4. Wow, the info which you’ve added was new to me. Hitchcock, supposedly, wasn’t much of a gentleman, when it came to handling his actors and actresses. people say he looked at his staff just as means to the end. Maybe that is why he got such good results ;-) (I know, not at all politically correct!)

    “On the other hand, the mere fact that she seems to dote on Rebecca not just as a woman, but as the wife of Max de Winter, makes me wonder.”
    I didn’t get you there. Can you please elaborate?
    BTW this lesbian angle is not my brain child. it is featured in the ‘The Celluloid Closet (1995)’ (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112651/). Makes quite an interesting see.

    As for Max’s love for his second wife is concerned, I was talking much more on psychological plane. Would a man, who once fell in love with a passionate woman like Rebecca, feel the same passion for a ‘girl’? Of course as ‘once bitten twice shy’ he may not again marry a woman like Rebecca. But what about his fervour for that certain challenge, that adventure? He might feel very protective towards his second wife, but is it the same thing as before? Are there times, when he remembers Rebecca and longs for her?
    Moreover, we don’t know Rebecca at all. We only know her from hear say. Why did she have these affairs with other men? How was her relationship to Max? When and how did they meet? How did she really feel inside? Was her self-confidence, her assertion, her sex appeal just a mask to hide a deep insecurity? Somehow, I’ve a feeling that we don’t know much about her. Although she is present throughout the story, she remains pretty one-dimensional. At times I’ve a feeling she is reduced to a nymphomaniac.

    Would be wonderful if you could throw light on this matter, from your point of view and your recent watching fo the movie.

  5. Some spoilers coming up!

    I’ve actually come across a discussion of the lesbian theory on the imdb message boards for Rebecca too. When I wrote about Mrs Danvers doting on Rebecca as Max’s wife (and, I should’ve added, as the mistress of Favell and other men), I meant that it made me think that if Mrs Danvers’s love for Rebecca had been sexual (or homosexual, to be precise) she would probably have been very jealous of any lovers Rebecca had – including her own husband. But that doesn’t seem to be the case; Mrs Danvers is obviously very fond of Favell himself, and grudges (self-confessedly) the second Mrs de Winter’s position as Max’s wife.

    As for Max’s love for Rebecca, he actually tells his second wife – when he admits what had happened – that when he proposed to Rebecca, she had told him that she would give him a home and a wife to be proud of, but that he shouldn’t expect more. He says he was so fascinated by her that he agreed, but within four days of their wedding, Rebecca was off with one of her lovers, and that was the end of whatever love he’d felt for her. So Rebecca’s relationship with Max is explained pretty well… from what Max says, and from what emerges later, it seems that Rebecca lived for the moment, and lived for life – which is perhaps why, when she discovered she was terminally ill, she decided to incite Max into killing her. Which also shows how much she hated Max (which, I must admit, isn’t explained. I’d thought she’d have been indifferent to him).

    See it again: it’s worth a rewatch!

  6. Interesting discussion!

    About Hitchcock’s treatment of his actors, he was known to have said that actors are cattle. When he was asked to clarify his statement, the sly master said “I never said all actors are cattle; what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle.” But what this tells us about Hitchcock is that he considered the director to be the true star of the medium — actors are merely tools.

    About Rebecca, I have always felt that Hitchcock was employing fairy tale motifs but subversively. Fontaine is, of course, is the little girl in the fairy tale. In the beginning, she is guarded by the dragon lady. However, she rescues her prince (in more ways than one) and the price returns the compliment by rescuing her from the dragon lady. The next fairy tale trope is the prince’s castle — Manderley; here, the castle becomes the dungeon. Notice the way Hitchcock shots this place.

    Mrs Danvers is an interesting character. She is the keeper of Rebecca’s memories and the class structure. There is no way she will tolerate a little nobody usurping Rebecca’s place. Ironically, she both upholds the traditional hierarchy and displaces the hierarchy at the same time. She is clearly in love with Rebecca — the trance-like, obsessive way she talks about Rebecca’s gestures, Rebecca’s clothes, and Rebecca’s aura is more than a princess-handmaiden sort of devotion.

    Despite posing a very perceivable threat, Mrs Danvers occupies a subliminal space; there is no real resolution to her character, if you think about it.

  7. “actors are merely tools.” So true of Hitchcock’s work; and, as harvey says, perhaps that’s why he got such good results.

    I like the fairy tale simile – really made me think! Sounds so plausible (and, I must admit, I prefer Rebecca as a fairytale of sorts compared to La Belle et la Bête, even though that is considered the classic.

    And you’re so right about Mrs Danvers… she is an interesting character, not likeable by any stretch of imagination, and (as you so rightly point out) without any real resolution to her character – but playing a major role in the story.

  8. dustedoff: u see I saw the film so long ago, i can’t remeber these details. Thanks!
    *Which also shows how much she hated Max*
    Well, maybe she expected more opposition from his side, when she had her affairs. maybe she wanted him to show more spine and sweep her away form her addictions and complexes. Humans are very complex, when it comes to love. people expect at times, that the partner is a cure for all his/her ailments. And indifference is a very, very difficult emotion. Being indifferent for a passionate person like Rebecca is nearly impossible.
    BTW the ‘The Celluloid Closet (1995)’ is an important and interesting Doku on homosexuals and depictions of homosexuals in Hollywood movies. makes an interesting see.

    thanks for your insights Sabrina, made good reading.
    Agree with you about no resolution of Mrs Danvers character.

  9. I’d read it a long time back, when I was a child (and, I fear, didn’t quite understand – or at least appreciate – some of the subtleties of the book). Am borrowing it from my mother to read it all over again…

  10. Rebecca is included in the list of classic movies that I’m really looking forward to see. I’m also looking for the novel by Daphne du Maurier… What made me all curious about it is the remarks and reviews given to the film. :)

  11. I re-read the novel a few months back. Of course, it’s very difficult to get all the nuances of a book into a film, but I think Hitchcock managed to do pretty well with Rebecca. He does make a very important change in the plot – probably to make it more acceptable to contemporary filmgoers – but even then, it’s a good adaptation.

  12. I haven’t seen the movie but from what you have written, it sounds quite a lot like the original story. And the change in plot, well may be it was inevitable. After all a hero had to be a good person.

    I had read the first few pages of the book when I was in 11th std and then the book disappeared :-( I saw the book lying on a seat in the train. I was going home for holidays and we were one huge group travelling together. I had no idea whose it was. I started reading it and then our station came and had to get down.
    After coming back to hostel, I tried finding out whose book it was so that I could borrow it but I had no such luck.

    “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” and the description of Manderly has haunted me for over a decade.
    I had been searching for the book for such a long time, but every time I would go to a book store, it would be out of stock. I finally bought it last year and read it.
    It had an afterword by Sally Beauman and it’s quite an interesting read where she explores the different angles of the story.
    “Both female characters – one dead, one alive – derive their surname, as they do their status, from their husband. The first wife, Rebecca, is vivid and vengeful and, though dead, indestructible: her name lives on in the book’s title. The second wife, the drab shadowy creature who narrates this story, remains nameless. We learn that she had a lovely and unusual name and that it was her father who gave it to her. The only other identity she has, was also bestowed by a man – she is a wife, she is Mrs. de Winter.”
    “Mrs. de Winter dreams vividly twice in the story, once at the beginning and once at the end, each time the dream conveys a truth to her that her conscious mind cannot, or will not, accept.”

    She also quotes – “Du Maurier was wrestling with her own demons here, and when she gave aspects of herself to the two women who are the pillars of her narrative she was entering into an area of deeply personal psychological struggle. She gave her own shyness and social awkwardness to Mrs. de Winter. She gave her independence her love of the sea, her expertise as a sailor, her sexual fearlessness, and even her bisexuality (strongly hinted at in the novel, if not spelled out) to Rebecca.”

    There are few more discussions on it’s similarities, differences rather with Jane Eyre and then Rebecca’s rebel against the male dominated society.

    When I sat down to read the book, I thought Rebecca was the name of the heroine. It was only when I actually started reading it that the heroine remains nameless throughout. Must say it’s a very fascinating story.
    There are so many things left untold. Like Rebecca’s hatred towards her husband. The point that Harvey raised above does make sense. So, may be next time I read it, I’ll see something new in it and interpret lots of things differently.

    • Wow! That is so interesting, Archana – both of your story of how you first encountered the book, lost it, then finally got around to reading it; and the excerpt from the afterword. That made for extremely interesting reading. Thank you for taking the trouble to write it all out for me! Loved that. :-)

      BTW, have you seen the Hindi version of this one, Kohraa?

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