THOUGH FAR FROM Alfred Hitchcock’s first film (or even his fifteenth), ‘Rebecca’ is likely the most crucial turning point in the director’s august career. He had previously directed financially successful films in Britain, some of which are still celebrated today (e.g. ‘The 39 Steps’), but it was ‘Rebecca’ that won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 19490 and launched his American career.
Compared with his pulse-pounding 50s output (‘Psycho’, ‘Vertigo’, ‘North by Northwest’), some viewers may find ‘Rebecca’ to be rather prim. Indeed, it is a decidedly British tale, migrating from a Monte Carlo hotel patronized by old money and their paid companions to a ludicrously overstaffed estate in southern England called Manderly. It is the home of one Maxim de Winter, a high-society type who abjures such middle-class trifles as children, chores, or a salaried profession; we enter it alongside his new wife, Mrs. De Winter the second (whose maiden name is never given), an ordinary girl woefully out of place amidst silk-gloved servants. Her status as a commoner is accentuated further by the appearance of a pin-striped and monstrously-lapelled in-law named Favell (George Sanders, preeminent among English archetypes in all of cinematic history), whose role is modest but pivotal.
A view of ‘Rebecca’ as blue-blooded and old-fashioned does not err. It is a film of retrospection, both in the literal plot as well as its presentation, harking to such ghostly precedents as ‘Topper’ (1936) in light-hearted moments and Henry James’ novella ‘The Turn of the Screw’ (1898) as it darkens. Yet such scenarios as these, so strictly meted out and miserly in ‘action’, were essential in developing Hitchcock’s signature style and knack for claustrophobia. To wit: implied tension is more excruciating than explicit acts; what happens off-screen is more terrible than what we can actually see; and our imagination is the greatest and darkest villain of all.
Consider the trajectory between ‘Rebecca’ and 1946’s ‘Notorious’, a highly topical film about hunting escaped Nazis a year after VE-Day and heavily weighted by sexual tension. These surface-level themes are wholly absent from ‘Rebecca’, where the young Mrs. De Winter is treated like a child and the outside world is utterly inconsequential. Yet in tracing the line back from ‘Notorious’ we can see how the blueprints match up: a plot with minimal physical conflict centered around a female protagonist, imprisoned in her own house and molested by specters of the past that stretch out suffocating fingers. That same dread is palpably clear in ‘Rebecca’. Absent of flashing kitchen knives or close shaves with crop dusters it reveals more clearly the foundation of Hitchcock’s enduring monument.
We never actually meet Rebecca in the film, but it doesn’t take long to learn that she is the deceased first wife of Mr. De Winter. And though we never so much as see her face, her wardrobe, embroidered handkerchief, precisely positioned toiletry, and her funereally aloof housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, ensure that Rebecca is present in every frame. Rebecca is the breath that whispers in and out of Manderly’s vaulted ribs and Mrs. Danvers her avatar, haunting the new Mrs. De Winters through the halls like a morbid Virgil. Another allusion is stronger still: up a long approach and perched upon the hilltop, Manderly resembles the sepulchral castle of Graf Orlock—the Nosferatu—the Victorian embodiment of repressed sexuality. In ‘Rebecca’ our monster is the imprisoning precedent of aristocracy, and it preys upon Mrs. De Winter mercilessly.
As Mrs. De Winter, Joan Fontaine has a guileless optimism that suits the role—young, naïve, but clever and sweet in a down-to-earth way that was enough to sweep Maxim out of his despair, for a time. Alas, this unaffected spirit also leaves her quite overmatched by the debonair Olivier, a natural fit for Maxim. He would be a playboy if he cared to, rather flip for all his good culture, possessing a fabulous wealth towards which he is breezily indifferent yet naturally in command. In his late 30s at the time, he projects a playboy’s vivacity but has enough gravitas to make us believe his fretful brow and weary eyes. The bond between Olivier and Fontaine never quite settles, though, and the psychological burden of Rebecca eventually becomes too much for Fontaine to bear. Her left eyebrow arches most delicately, her head shakes almost imperceptibly, and a shadow of a smile tugs at one corner of her mouth, disbelieving but striving for appeal like a tentative pet. It’s a camera-ready look that wins us early but is too shallow to keep us long.
Thus the film’s finale—a showy inquest, an increasingly dispossessed Maxim, and the suddenly scheming cousin Favell (that’d be George Sanders)—undercuts the creeping psychology of the earlier acts, where Olivier and Fontaine strove to establish some kind of chemistry undistracted by outside elements. The more actors on screen and the higher the stakes, the less convincing the central couple becomes. Only the implicit presence of Rebecca herself can bring them together in the end, despite all her specter did to destroy them.
‘Rebecca’ the film makes it through this rocky patch, albeit a bit worse for the wear, pushed on by Hitchcock’s macabre energies and pulled by an unsung secondary cast. The most choice of these is the De Winters’ accountant, Frank Crawley, played with a hangdog stoicism by Reginald Denny. He is a legitimizing and sturdy center amidst a melodramatic sweep of big personalities and bigger set-pieces, granting everyday audiences a perspective from which to watch the dreadful strains of their noble betters. But not yet to internalize those fears and take them home.