Rebecca: Welcome to the Haunted House

An unstressed counterpoint lies at the heart of Rebecca (1940). Take two women: one has a name—the name—yet she never appears; the other is there all the time, but she is not identified. The anonymous young woman is striving to replace the burnished, intimidating reputation of that absent presence, the beautiful and accomplished hostess Rebecca. This is, after all, the story of two Mrs. de Winters, fair and foul, life and death, and of a man torn between them.

The counterpoint offers romance, in which the shy, self-effacing “I” may find love and happiness, after being intimidated by the “society” she has married into. Beyond that, there is some hint of a murder mystery, or of the possibility of murder—a suggestion enhanced by the presence of director Alfred Hitchcock (just arrived in Hollywood after a string of celebrated English thrillers, and already famous as a master of murder).

But Rebecca is also a ghost story, or a restrained scheme of horror, in which a Jane Eyre figure senses a malevolent spirit in the attic or in the mistress’s old bedroom. Grant that possibility and it’s easier to realize that Rebecca has its own wicked witch. She is called Mrs. Danvers—though she has no first name—and the height of Judith Anderson’s chilling performance is that moment when she tries to will “I” into killing herself. I don’t think Hitchcock had ever seen evil more clearly.

This is also the story of a withheld honeymoon. Half crushed in her position as paid companion to the obnoxious Mrs. Van Hopper, “I” is rescued by an unexpected marriage proposal from a lately bereaved man. That is more an order than an offer, for Maxim de Winter does not treat “I” as his equal. He takes her up—he nearly kidnaps her—in a patronizing way, one that is not just impulsive but a sign of his own brittle emotional state. Maxim has lost his wife (or escaped her)—but was he in love with her? In any event, she left her mark on him, identified his wound of insecurity and made it lasting.

Mrs. Danvers is the manifestation of that emotional authority, with a deeper commitment to Rebecca than Maxim can muster. So “I”’s honeymoon (or sexual liberation, for she seems virginal) is blocked by this impasse. The sinister sexual atmosphere of the film derives from the Rebecca-“Danny” relationship that leaves Maxim an outsider. When Mrs. Danvers finds “I” in Rebecca’s room, she casts a spell from the past over the immature second wife. As Danny goes into raptures over Rebecca’s underwear (her hand feeling the inside of the fine lingerie), we are left in no doubt about the satisfaction the servant dreams of (it is a startlingly erotic moment for 1940—as if the censors couldn’t grasp it). There may have been a lesbian bond, for Mrs. Danvers is possessed by her lost mistress. By comparison, Maxim (despite that high-power, hard-firing name) is less than robust or confident. He orders “I” around, but does he know how to take her to bed? Has he been unmanned by Rebecca and damaged by her?

We should pay tribute to the psychic imagination of Daphne du Maurier in all this. Her novel, published in 1938, had been a best seller, and it made a great impression on producer David O. Selznick. The story seems to have had psychological resonance for Selznick as well as for the author. Du Maurier’s husband had once been engaged to a glamorous woman who loomed over the novelist, and Selznick was often daunted by his own wife, Irene Mayer, the daughter of Louis B. Mayer. (Anyone impressed by Rebecca the book should pick up du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel—published in 1951, and filmed first in 1952 with Olivia de Havilland and again in 2017 with Rachel Weisz—another novel about a romantic, immature man who finds a dark woman to love, even if he believes she may intend to murder him.)

Hitchcock had never gone so far inside his characters before. And that would prove to be his creative destiny. But he was not happy on Rebecca. He and Selznick fought most of the time, and neither felt satisfied, although the film would carry off the best picture Oscar. Still, something had given Hitchcock access to his fascination with the emotional alarm preying on individuals in regular melodramas. You can tell the story of Rebecca to someone before they see the film, but they’ll still be astonished when they feel the guilt and apprehension Hitchcock has delivered. That comes from the vulnerability of “I,” the malice in Mrs. Danvers, and the uncertain authority of Olivier’s Maxim. He owns Manderley, but he is an insecure master, desperate for the reassurance that a woman may bring him—or ready to be overpowered.

It’s not often addressed in criticism, but Hitchcock was un-American enough to dwell on the uneasiness or the unreliability of heroes. This tendency is there in Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, Notorious, Under Capricorn, and Strangers on a Train, as well as in Rear Window, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds. And it’s there in Rebecca, where the jostling among the several genres eventually subsides and you feel how Rebecca had overwhelmed Maxim emotionally until he almost needed to kill her.

That struggle reflects a personal triangle of forces behind the film’s production. Selznick was cock of the walk (this would be his second best picture in a row), but he was close to a breakdown. He would have a ton of money at last from Gone with the Wind, but that would only accelerate his disastrous gambling. He was having affairs—one of them with Joan Fontaine, the actress he had chosen for “I” when he could have cast Vivien Leigh, Margaret Sullavan, Loretta Young, or Anne Baxter. Was there a Rebecca in his life? Well, there was his wife, Irene, herself sexually troubled, furious about his weakness with money and his shaming infidelity, but so smart as a dramaturge and commanding as a person as to have a big influence on Rebecca, which—like most Selznick productions—had to survive its producer’s own chaos. The Selznick marriage was ending, and it was in 1941 that Selznick would encounter a young actress, Phylis Isley, and change her name to Jennifer Jones.

Hitchcock felt inhibited on the picture. He resented Selznick’s insistence that the film stay faithful to the du Maurier novel, and the two men struggled over Hitch’s habit of shooting only what he needed for his very controlled cut—it was Selznick’s habit to indulge in prodigious coverage and then supervise the editing himself. He was doing that on Gone with the Wind, where he ran different directors in and out and let everyone know it was his film. That was harder to achieve with Hitchcock, the most astute director he had ever met. So Rebecca proved a classic battle over authorship, between a romantic producer and a rather cold-blooded director.

Why was Hitchcock in America? In part, as someone afraid of fear, he was in California, with wife and daughter, to be safer from the wartime dangers overtaking Europe and his London. But Hollywood also offered the resources of a more sophisticated studio, including more money, star personalities (or actors who did not bother with the kind of English reserve that required behaving as if the movies were a little foolish), and the chance to have large sets in which space and decor could become external expressions of interior existence. That brings us to one of the most potent characters in Rebecca—Manderley, the house.

Hitchcock was essentially an indoor artist. He had a whimsical taste for unusual, slightly surreal locations—like Mount Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty—but he was most himself in beautiful but claustrophobic interiors. Homes in his films are direct expressions of his uneasiness with family: think of the staircase in Notorious, the house in Bodega Bay with the birds in the attic in The Birds, the extraordinary compressed courtyard in Rear Window, and that looming house in Psycho. Or think of Manderley.

This is an English manor house with large rooms and staircases and a sense of stealthy connection. The house itself is an engine of paranoia and traps, because it is ruled by Rebecca’s authority, as policed by Mrs. Danvers, who knows the house best. It’s a measure of what Manderley means when that self-satisfied cad Jack Favell (beautifully played by George Sanders) can simply step in through an open window. That’s an outrage as great as him putting his hand up “I”’s skirt. It’s also a tribute to the house that, even after it has been destroyed and exorcised, “I”’s voice-over has to go back there in dreaming. For Hitchcock, interiors were psychic portraits, and Rebecca is a landmark in his discovery of that creative self. Rebecca’s preserved bedroom (clearly she didn’t share it with Maxim) is an indication of the film’s sensibility. Then think of Psycho as a film about a preserved bedroom. It was in Hollywood, with its love of sets (and designers like William Cameron Menzies), that Hitchcock found his preoccupations and turned them into movie worlds.

Manderley lives on as a source of meaning, and it’s worth wondering what happens to Maxim and “I” after the film ends. Do they rebuild the house? Does she get a name at last? Are they going to be “happy,” or is Maxim de Winter an insoluble combination of status and repression? Can he grow up, or will he cling to Rebecca’s dark hold on him, just as Norman Bates never lets Mother go? I don’t feel too optimistic for them, but we are seldom cheerful about Hitchcock’s characters when their story is over.

So Hitchcock concluded that Selznick was an impossible boss, and Selznick decided that Hitch was a strange, willful fellow and not the sort of person you would invite home for dinner. But they had years together ahead, and Hitchcock would decide that Selznick was a model disturbed personality for him to study. (The aftermath of their association can be felt in the Selznick-produced Portrait of Jennie and in Vertigo and Rear Window, where Raymond Burr is given white hair to look like Selznick.)

Hollywood acclaimed Rebecca—the film received eleven Oscar nominations—and saw that a new career was at hand for Hitchcock. He had set a frustrated love story in a haunted house—different genres were married in a way that would become the director’s keynote. The dead live on in Hitchcock’s world: they sustain a psychic suspense that hangs over so many of his characters. Had there ever been another film in which a dead person meant so much? (Citizen Kane came along the following year, but Charlie Kane is such a vital ghost.) Hitchcock could see that “Carlotta Valdez” from Vertigo might be just a plot device, but he was a devout believer in spirits haunting life after their official departure.

He needed time to reach his full American self—that waits for the 1950s. But in winning best picture, in getting such a performance from Joan Fontaine (she is better here than in Suspicion, for which she was given her Oscar), and in opening up the paranoia of interior space, Hitch was gaining confidence in the principle that he was more significant than any Selznick.

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