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My Journey Into Old Movies: Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca



Well, I’ve just officially started my yearlong journey into the land of old movies. I’ve also just finished watching my first Hitchcock film. I’ve always heard great things about him, so I’ll admit I expected this movie to live up to his name. When the movie began and I heard those first strings of music, however, I immediately noticed a knot form in my stomach, as if I was about to get a tooth pulled or take a final exam for school. I’m not sure why that was my first reaction, but I definitely did not start off excited to watch this movie. It’s also odd that even though I’ve seen very few old movies, that style of music used in older music, heavy on the string instruments and very lilting at the beginning, is still so very familiar to me. It was like even though I’ve never seen Rebecca I already knew the music as soon as I heard the first bar, and it triggered my ingrained irrational dislike of old films. Well, I guess that is something that I will be gradually investigating as I go through this journey. Anyways, on to Rebecca.

Our first introduction to Mr. de Winter is when our heroine, who’s name we never actually discover, stumbles upon him staring at the sea on a cliff in Monte Carlo. Thinking he’s going to jump, she runs towards him and yells in an attempt to stop him. I thought it was a fitting way to start off this particular gothic tale that centers on death and ghostly hauntings. Later, we meet Mr. de Winter again inside a lavish hotel as he runs into our heroine, a paid companion to a Mrs. Van Hopper, and her employer. A clear picture is drawn in this scene between the uppercrust lifestyle of Mr. de Winter, and the clearly middle to lower class station of the heroine. Hitchcock also brings up the subject of the much loved Rebecca, the previous Mrs. De Winter, in this scene. The same is conveyed as, over the next few weeks, the young woman sneaks away from her employer to meet incognito with Mr. de Winter, all the while using the excuse that she’s taking tennis lessons. Hitchcock makes clear from the very beginning, through their dress, manners, even the way they talk, the vast difference in the two character’s stations. While Mr. de Winters is always immaculately dressed and says the perfect thing, the young woman has a lightness about her. She dresses in lighter colors, for instance, than we see on upper class characters. She also wears her hair down and loose, rather than pulled back and rigid. She has a young, innocent air about her that Mr. de Winters admits to liking.

Laurence Olivier in Rebecca Photo: 20th Century Fox
Laurence Olivier in Rebecca
Photo: 20th Century Fox

One thing apart from the story itself that I found myself appreciating was the dashing heroic male used in older movies, embodied by Laurence Olivier playing Mr. de Winter. Compared to the male leads popular in today’s movies Olivier took care in how he dressed, wearing a suit and hat every day, rather than just on special occasions. His impeccable manners also stood out. His show of reverence for a lady, even one of a lower class, was charming and sexy in my opinion. I’d love to have a man run to my rescue just because I was clumsy enough to knock over a vase of flowers, or pull out my chair for me, or offer me his coat if it started to rain. I could definitely see myself growing used to that kind of chivalry.

Moving on, just before the young woman is forced to leave with her employer for New York Mr. de Winters makes the grand gesture of asking her to marry him. In keeping with her less cultured and more awkward demeanor, she doesn’t catch on to what he’s asking her at first, prompting him to reply, “I’m asking you to marry me you little fool.” Hitchcock includes these kinds of phrases a great deal when people are referring to the young woman, making the difference between her and Mr. de Winter’s dead wife Rebecca more noticeable. In the case of Mr. de Winter, or Maxim, as we are now to call him, I think this is done to imply that he still thinks of Rebecca as this perfect creature and the young woman as a pale imitation. We’ll learn whether this is true or not later.

Our first view of Manderley is picturesque, the huge estate appearing almost like a fairy tale castle, gleaming brightly from out of dark and depressing rain. Unfortunately, the new Mrs. De Winter makes a less than favorable first impression upon the staff, soaking wet from the rain, and looking disheveled and nothing like the proper mistress of such an estate. In essence, right from the start she is made very aware of her inability to ever live up to the perfect Rebecca, especially by the stern and cruel housemaid, Mrs. Danvers. This fact is heightened by the constant slip of the tongue when referring to Rebecca as Mrs. De Winters, when as of her marriage to Maxim, the young woman is in fact Mrs. De Winters.

Unlike our first view of Manderley’s façade, its inside is very dark and gothic in its architecture as well as the mood Hitchcock creates with low lighting, few daylight scenes with windows, and the dark narrow hallways that then give way to immense, oppressive main rooms. The inside of the estate almost reminded me of a museum with it’s grandeur and the sense that everything is very precious, made for looking and not touching. Even the public is allowed to come and view the house once a week, as if it is a kind of museum.

 Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce, and Gladys Cooper in Rebecca Photo: 20th Century Fox
Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce, and Gladys Cooper in Rebecca
Photo: 20th Century Fox

Needless to say, the young woman has a difficult time adapting to her role as the new Mrs. De Winters. The people she meets look down upon her, calling her names such as Cinderella (a nickname given by Rebecca’s favorite “cousin,” Jack Favell), or saying she was previously a chorus girl. They also point out how, compared with Rebecca, she doesn’t take much care with her looks, something they claim Maxim is very concerned with. I found this comment to be ironic when seen from a modern perspective. What these people considered casual dress would be appropriate for wearing to church in this day and age.

 Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson in Rebecca Photo: 20th Century Fox
Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson in Rebecca
Photo: 20th Century Fox

While she’s trying her best to fit into her new role and ignore the cruelty around her, she also has the very present ghost and memory of Rebecca staring at her from every room in Manderley. Everything in the estate has been kept exactly as it was when Rebecca was alive. Her old study is full of her letters and stationary, wearing the iconic “R” that Hitchcock marks all of Rebecca’s belongings with. Mrs. Danvers eventually shows the new Mrs. De Winter Rebecca’s old room, which is kept like a shrine. The clearly obsessed and possibly deranged Mrs. Danvers even caresses Rebecca’s old clothes as she shows them to Mrs. De Winter. What is a kind of nostalgic moment for Mrs. Danvers, is obviously very disturbing to Mrs. De Winter. After this touching scene with Mrs. Danvers, Mrs. De Winter gets angry and orders her to get rid of all of Rebecca’s things in the old study.

For most of the movie Mrs. De Winters is kept completely in the dark about Rebecca’s personality, how she died, etc. She is, however, warned by others about Maxim’s dark moods and temper. Maxim keeps his mouth closed in regards to his old life with Rebecca. We get vague comments like, “She wasn’t afraid of anything,” and “I suppose she was the most beautiful creature I ever saw.”

Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca Photo: 20th Century Fox
Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca
Photo: 20th Century Fox

He treats Mrs. De Winters as if she is a simple child. In one scene when they are about to go on a walk he tells her to put on a coat because, “can’t be too careful with children.”

Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca Photo: 20th Century Fox
Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca
Photo: 20th Century Fox

In a later scene, Mrs. De Winters joins Maxim in the evening wearing a more formal stylish dress. Maxim is confused by her change of dress, implying he prefers her more innocent childlike style. Later, Mrs. De Winters confesses to accidentally breaking a china cupid after Maxim has already been told by his staff and they’ve left to investigate. Maxim calls her a “little idiot,” making fun of her fear of Mrs. Danvers and inability to just tell the servants about it herself, acting more like an upstairs maid than mistress of the house. For a moment Hitchcock illuminates Maxim’s face while keeping the rest of the room dark, highlighting his displeased expression and making him look almost dangerous. We start to get the feeling that beneath his charming façade lies something dark and perhaps dangerous.

Joan Fontaine in Rebecca Photo: 20th Century Fox
Joan Fontaine in Rebecca
Photo: 20th Century Fox

This feeling of hopelessness and unworthiness grows almost unbearable when Mrs. de Winters tries to host a costume ball and bring some life back to Manderley. This idea backfires after Mrs. de Winters foolishly takes Mrs. Danvers’ advice to wear a costume of one of the grand portraits. It just so happens that this is the exact same costume that Rebecca wore just one year previous at her costume ball. Maxim is horrified, ordering her to change, and the distraught Mrs. de Winters runs into Rebecca’s room where Mrs. Danvers almost convinces her to jump to her death from one of the windows.

 Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson in Rebecca Photo: 20th Century Fox
Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson in Rebecca
Photo: 20th Century Fox

She even stands close to Mrs. de Winters, whispering like some insidious demon that Rebecca always wins, and Mrs. de Winter should just give in.

Up until now the movie seemed to move at a very sedate pace, with few exciting moments, almost like we’ve been taking a long stroll down this dark, cramped hallway. At this exact moment, however, a shift occurs in the story and in Hitchcock’s filming of it. It’s as if we’ve finally come to the big stately room that the previous hallway led to. The shipwreck that startles Mrs. de Winter out of committing suicide seems to jumpstart the movie into action.

Mrs. de Winter finds Maxim in Rebecca’s old cottage, standing out like a beacon amidst the thick fog. His perfect control and composure begins to unravel. He says things like, “we’ve lost our little chance at happiness,” “Rebecca has won,” and “Her shadow has been between us, keeping us from one another.” Everything is about Rebecca is finally revealed. We find out that Maxim never loved Rebecca, and in fact hated her. She was an evil, coldly calculating woman, incapable of love or tender feelings, which she reveals to Maxim on their fourth day of marriage. In an act reminiscent of Faust’s deal with the devil, Rebecca agrees to play the perfect wife if Maxim stays married to her, a bargain that will save the family’s honor from the ruin of divorce. Maxim agrees and lives a kind of hell with her until one fateful night.

Maxim recounts the scene when Rebecca revealed her illegitimate pregnancy in the cottage. Hitchcock shoots the scene as if the character of Rebecca is actually there, following her steps from the couch to Maxim. When she laughs and stumbles onto the tackle where she fatally hits her head, Maxim even slams the door fully open as if she has just actually hit it while falling. And so, we realize that with the recent discovery of Rebecca’s boat and her body will reveal Maxim’s lie when he initially confirmed that a random woman’s body was the dead Rebecca. Just when we find out that Maxim does indeed love Mrs. de Winter, and that all of his comments relating her to a child were actually reflections of his appreciation of her innocent soul, Rebecca figuratively threatens to take that happiness away. Upon returning to the estate, Hitchcock mirrors the scene where we first saw Manderley. However, in the present darkness with the flickering light from the windows it now appears demonic, as if it is possessed by Rebecca’s evil spirit.

Inquest Photo: 20th Century Fox
Photo: 20th Century Fox

The rest of the story plays out like a good detective novel, with the inquest, the questioning of facts and circumstances, etc. One important aspect I would like to point out is the theme of preserving youth and innocence, and the tragedy of its loss. At the inquest, only a day after the big reveal, Jack Favel comments to Mrs. de Winters, “You know, you’ve grown up a bit since I last saw you.” Indeed, Mrs. de Winters is suddenly dressing in more severe dark clothing, and her hair is pulled back and up away from her face.

Jack Favel also draws our attention back to the devil’s bargain she made with Maxim when he tries to do the same. He agrees to withhold key evidence in return for Maxim setting him up comfortably in the country. This time, however, Maxim refuses and lets the chips fall where they may. In a stroke of good luck, the doctor Rebecca went to see the day she died reveals that her real reason for visiting him was to discover that she was seriously ill with an inoperable cancer. When he gives her months to live, she replies with, “oh no, not that long,” convincing the authorities that her death was a suicide, and freeing Maxim from blame. It also revealed that she had meant for Maxim to kill her when she told him she was pregnant.

The movie ends with the insane Danvers setting fire to the estate. Thankfully Mrs. de Winters escapes, but we see burning beams bury Mrs. Danvers, and the scene closes with a shot of Rebecca’s bed alight in flames, a silk nightdress case lying in the middle with one of Rebecca’s signature “R”s embroidered on it.

I found the plot intriguing. The story reminded me partly of Great Expectations due to the details in the obsessive attempt to preserve Rebecca’s memory through her belongings, particularly her shrine-like bedroom. I instantly thought of Miss Havisham when I saw the bedroom. On the other hand, I was also reminded of Jane Eyre. The story focuses on the odd and socially inappropriate pairing of a young, penniless girl and a rich, dashing older man. Their love for each other is overshadowed by the haunting presence of a dead (in this case) wife and the many secrets surrounding her character.

I liked Hitchcock’s handling of the story, especially his treatment of Manderley. The two juxtaposing views we get of the entire estate are very appropriate, and I loved his creation of the gothic mood that permeates the movie. I will admit, however, that I had a bit of a hard time sitting through the slower beginning half of the movie, and grew much more focused on the film during the faster paced second half. All in all, not a bad start in my opinion.

Stay tuned for my journey into old movies next week where I’ll be discussing the 1940 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice!

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By on October 9th, 2014

About Rebecca Lane

Rebecca Lane grew up in the hot desert landscape of Tucson, Arizona where she decided early on she wanted to write, if only to mentally escape her blistering surroundings. She has always been enamored of the arts and literature. As a child she often wrote short stories, and rewrote the endings of novels that she simply could not abide. She received her Undergraduate degree from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she was lucky enough to also spend a year studying at Oxford University. While she began her journey dreaming of the day she would sing opera in a large Manhattan theater, she found in the end she could not stand waitressing and simply could not give up books and her hopes of someday writing them. She is currently working as a freelance writer/editor and earning her Masters in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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