REBECCA (1940)

220px-Rebecca_1940_film_posterWell if it isn’t our old friend Sir Lawrence. And brooding over a deceased family member? What else is new! Maxim de Winter (Olivier) is staring over a cliff at the rocky sea when he’s spotted by Joan Fontaine’s character, a young personal assistant to a wealthy woman. Upper class de Winter lost his wife Rebecca to drowning a year ago, but despite his gloominess, they fall in love and she is soon the new Mrs. de Winter. When he takes her home to Manderlay, his Cornish estate, she struggles to assume the role of lady of the house. There is more to complicate the transition than just a class difference. Rebecca seems to have been everything that Mrs. de Winter II cannot be and her memory is omnipresent throughout Manderlay. Particularly troubling is the chilly contempt Rebecca’s servant Mrs. Danvers shows her new employer. Hints of sinister secrets accumulate as she takes on her new life.

Midway through this film, which I quite enjoyed, I looked at Mouse and remarked that I didn’t know what the leading lady’s name was. He didn’t either. We tried to think back on the film in full to see if the second Mrs. de Winter’s first name is ever mentioned, and couldn’t think of any time it was. Upon further research, I discovered that, in fact, Fontaine’s character is never named. I actually found this a really powerful device because the entire story hinges on her feeling like she cannot compete with the memory or legacy of Maxim’s first wife Rebecca. The fact that she is never even afforded a first name in the entire story helps drive this point home. As audience members, the invisible Rebecca looms large in our imagination, almost serving to overshadow the actual woman whose life we are following. This creates a feeling of ill ease and intrigue, and is part of what makes Rebecca such a fascinating tale.

I’m glad you pointed out that the protagonist is never identified with a distinct name. I don’t know if I would have picked up on it myself, but it is a great way to deprive her of her own identity.

Rebecca is a story in the classic gothic tradition. Elements of theme and plot seem borrowed right from Wuthering Heights: the desolate country mansion, the unrefined newcomer among the well-bred, but most of all that faint suggestion of some sinister- even supernatural- happening. Vincent Price and Roger Corman fans may see Rebecca as a highbrow antecedent to The Tomb of Ligeia, with its deceased wife as a baleful presence in the life of a saturnine widower. The mansion overlooking a rocky seaside, and woman delivering the voiceover intro would later be borrowed as tone setters in Dark Shadows. This is not the fun loving Hitchcock from The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. No, this is the Vertigo Hitchcock, full of psychic turmoil and dark forebodings. The lighting in Rebecca is so severe at times it is like the cinematic equivalent of holding a flashlight below one’s face around the campfire.

I really liked the character of Danvers as portrayed by Judith Anderson, but there thing I was unclear about was whether her veneration of Rebecca was based on an erotic fixation. Apparently in the source novel, she was much more like an extremely protective mother figure, but that didn’t come across in the film. Also, can we agree that the “I was mad enough to kill her, but I didn’t kill her, but then she accidentally got killed” plot turn is an obvious cop out?

I agree fully that the plot turn is a cop out. It means we can all still love Mr. de Winter, and not wrestle with the complexity that would emerge if his new bride were to stay squarely affixed to his side knowing he killed another woman. I also want to echo the statement about Danvers. Her obsession with Rebecca seems to be sexual in nature. There is a strange scene where she even shows the new Mrs. de Winter some of Rebecca’s lingerie! I mean, come on now!

I like Hitchcock’s explorations of psychic turmoil. I wonder if there are more works of his in a vein like this. The images burned most indelibly in my head are those of our protagonists starting off over cliffs into the sea – the sea which swallowed Rebecca (and, while on vacation, the sea at large, I suppose). These scenes reminded me of The Last Unicorn, one of my favorite films of all time. A lonely man living on a craggy hillside in a manor/castle, staring out at the ocean in mental anguish. I wonder if the makers of The Last Unicorn (which you must see if you haven’t) ever saw Rebecca.

There are more Hitchcock films I have not seen than ones I have, but I think the obvious answer to your question, Katy, is Vertigo. And I haven’t seen The Last Unicorn since its theatrical release, when I was in kindergarten.

I gotta say you need to watch The Last Unicorn as an adult, Mouse. Also, dear readers: an excellent treat for you all in addition to watching this fine film would be to watch the comedy sketch Mouse sent me with Jez and Mark from Peep Show – it’s their take on an alternate introduction to Rebecca. And it is nothing short of incredible. Please watch the original, then check this gem out. Top notch.

Finally, with films this good I have to say I think black and white movies are starting to grow on me.

Also nominated in 1940:
All This, and Heaven Too
Foreign Correspondent
The Grapes of Wrath
The Great Dictator
Kitty Foyle
The Letter
The Long Voyage Home
Our Town
The Philadelphia Story

Next film: Gigi (1958)

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