The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: A shy ladies’ companion, staying in Monte Carlo with her stuffy employer, meets the wealthy Max de Winter. She and Max fall in love, marry, and return to Manderley, his large country estate in Cornwall. Max is still troubled by the death of his first wife, Rebecca, in a boating accident the year before. The second Mrs. de Winter clashes with the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, and discovers that Rebecca still has a strange hold on everyone at Manderley.
James: Before we start, I have to say that our project is working perfectly. I’ve seen Rebecca before and I liked it, putting it around the solid B mark. But thanks to our research so far, I found myself paying closer attention to everything that went on in the film.
Jason: You’re right, our Hitch study so far has prepared us in a great way for discussing these later movies. I found myself paying much, much more attention to the film, in all the right ways. I noticed themes and symbols that might have slipped right past me before, and I could bring a new appreciation for the more obvious elements.
James: Because I know about Hitch’s history and because I’ve recently seen his earlier films, I enjoyed this one a lot more. I’d go as far as saying I loved it. It’s great.
Jason: Rebecca is definitely one of the best so far, but it’s interesting to think of the reasons why that’s the case. As you know, I’ve been reading a Hitch biography as we go along, trying to keep on chronological track with the films we’re watching. The book goes into quite a bit of detail about Hitch’s struggle under producer David O. Selznick to make this film the way he wanted. It was Hitch’s first movie in America, and Selznick wasn’t sure how much freedom he should give his new talent. He ended up being interventionist about the whole project, demanding to see dailies and dictating how Hitch should shoot the film. Hitch wanted to add comic elements (shipboard seasickness as in Rich and Strange, a more plucky leading lady) and veer away from the source novel quite significantly, as he had done in the past with other novels, including another Daphne du Maurier novel, Jamaica Inn. But Selznick forced Hitch to “film the book” and “not some botched-up semi-original as was done with Jamaica Inn.” What’s fascinating about all this is that conventional wisdom says that Selznick’s constant interventions vastly improved the film and probably even altered the course of Hitch’s career, moving him more into the realm of psychological suspense stories. You might even say Rebecca is Hitch’s most straightforward film.
James: We’ll never know exactly how good or bad Hitch’s film would’ve been, but I got the impression that it wouldn’t have been anywhere near what we see now. I think Selznick came across as an ass, but I think the picture is better for it. The disc includes some memos he wrote to Hitch, and it seems that Hitch’s version was more comical, which I don’t think would’ve worked for this film at all. I think Selznick helped shape Hitch, as you said, and I think he’s better for it.
Jason: What I noticed most of all, overall, was that Rebecca feels very British. Apparently, Hitch didn’t stray too far from his native land right away. The language and characters and mood all feel proper and English. Also, it’s a very talky movie, and for that reason, I probably would say I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as The 39 Steps, but I did like it quite a lot.
James: For me, Rebecca is right on par with The 39 Steps, but maybe just a tad better for no other reason than Fontaine. Boy, she really blew me away with this film. I’ve never commented to myself so often about how well a character was portrayed. I mean, she embodied that role, there’s no doubt in my mind. I’d be willing to watch this one again just to see her performance. I don’t say that too often. I think Fontaine is one of the best leading ladies in any Hitch film. She was magnificent.
Jason: She’s the quintessential Hitch heroine. I agree.
James: I was blown away by her subtlety. She’s so young and naïve and unsure of herself. Her facial gestures, her slouching, the way she walks and talks . . . it all makes for a very convincing character. She’s beautiful, but for this character, it goes so much deeper than that. Her strong portrayal early on makes for an impact later when she finally stands up to Danvers and makes herself the head of the household. It’s a stark, powerful moment that wouldn’t have worked had Fontaine not nailed the character during the early parts of the film.
Jason: “I’m Mrs. de Winter now!” Yeah, Fontaine nailed the role of the curiously unnamed heroine. She’s a revelation, all the more so because (according to my bio) she was passed over in audition and was apparently a challenge on the set, as far as getting the right performance out of her. But she’s wonderful, in all the ways you mention: the slumped shoulders, the tentative glances, the nervous gestures, the breaking of the statuette. When she says of Rebecca, “I realize all the things she had that I lack,” you get the character in a nutshell. All this is especially interesting because apparently Laurence Olivier went to great lengths to campaign against the casting of Fontaine because his girlfriend, Vivien Leigh, also auditioned for the role. He made life miserable for Fontaine on set, and Hitch took advantage of that in the interest of the performance.
James: The introduction of the characters in the hotel lobby is perhaps the most telling introduction we’ve seen yet. In that one scene, I immediately understood all three characters: the pompous Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates), the shy leading lady (Fontaine), and of course, the smooth Max de Winter (Olivier). That scene is great, particularly with what I’m assuming are Hitchcock dialog elements. De Winters’ witty jabs are hilarious.
Jason: The opening sequence in Monte Carlo is a terrific way to introduce the characters, yes. The whole dynamic with Mrs. Van Hopper sets up our meek heroine perfectly. I have to admit that even though I found Mrs. Van Hopper to be a grating caricature, I liked the humor of her scenes (humor that disappears once they leave Monte Carlo). The chocolate scene is funny, but I particularly liked how clueless she is that no one likes her, even mentioning that one potential suitor kept ducking away from her because he must have had a crush on her and didn’t know how to approach her. The scene where Van Hopper reacts to de Winter telling her about his impending marriage is priceless. “Still waters certainly run deep.”
James: You know, you’re right about the film lacking humor after this opening segment. I hadn’t really consciously made that note. In a way, that’s a good thing because it helps add to the weight of her new position in life. One thing I noticed, particularly during the home-movie footage of the honeymoon, is that de Winter changes. In Monte Carlo, he’s a little lighter. A little happier. But when he gets to Manderley, he’s weighted down by the place. Side note: Did you notice in the home movie that the camera was on a tripod when the newlyweds were by the car, but the angle changed during the shot?
Jason: Those things usually are glaringly obvious to me. Good catch.
James: Can’t believe that made it through.
Jason: I thought it was interesting that the first time we see de Winter, he’s on the edge of that cliff, and it echoed Young and Innocent nicely, with the shot of a man overlooking a beach.
James: Rebecca is loaded with great pieces of characterization. For example, when Van Hopper is taking her cough syrup and quickly needs a piece of chocolate. Then, later, when the leading lady is in de Winter’s hotel room and he says, “I’m asking you to marry me you little fool.” Heck, just having her in his bedroom while he changed was most likely a Hitchcock element. At the time, I’m sure that was a bit “naughty,” which is even noted when he calls the concierge to send Van Hopper to his room. He repeats himself as if it’s risqué to invite a woman to his room. When he teaches her how to pour his coffee, that’s another hilarious moment. Is that just the way it was back then, or was that more of Hitch’s humor?
Jason: “Now that that’s settled, you can pour me some coffee. Two lumps of sugar and some milk, please. Don’t forget it.” I think that was a nod to a particular kind of husband/wife relationship that was probably going out of vogue, but it felt right for this pampered rich boy. And yeah, the proposal line is great. Another line I found interesting, during their courtship, is when the future Mrs. de Winter says, “If you find one perfect thing or place or person, you should stick with it,” and de Winter replies, “I’m a firm believer of that myself.” A little misdirection there, considering the ending, but it works. But when they’re married, did you happen to notice the birds (pigeons) sitting quietly in the background? Impending chaos? I was so happy with myself that I caught that.
James: Ah, I didn’t notice that. Nice! What I really loved about this film is that Rebecca plays a huge role, yet she’s never seen. She has a demanding presence in just about every scene. Added with the fact that the leading lady is never named, it makes for an interesting debate about which character (Rebecca or the new Mrs. de Winter) is the main character. Or rather, just which one was the story about? In a way, it’s Rebecca’s story told through the eyes of this young girl. That element of the film really spoke to me in this viewing. And toward the end, when de Winter is telling his new wife how he killed Rebecca and the camera follows the woman who isn’t there—I mean, that had a huge impact. She isn’t visible, but by that time I knew the character so well, I could actually see her there, laughing at her husband. Brilliant!
Jason: I wrote the same thing in my notes about the sequence where the camera—and Mr. de Winter’s memory—follows Rebecca’s ghost around the room in the cottage. You mention how powerful a character Rebecca is, even though we never see her. I agree, she haunts the whole film. (Hitch wanted to show her in flashback, which I think that would have been a terrible idea.) Similarly, I think Manderley is a character of its own, also haunting the film. “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” That opening line, along with the slow track through the intricate model work of the burned Manderley, gives the movie a waking-nightmare quality and immediately makes Manderley a haunted mansion. You’re right on with your thoughts about which Mrs. de Winter is the main character. That’s the great preoccupation of this movie. But I think you have to add Manderley to the equation. In a way, the haunted home hulks over both of them.
James: Manderley can be seen as the physical embodiment of Rebecca.
Jason: Tied up with all that drama is the severe Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). Did you notice how she seems to glide into rooms unexpected, often startling Mrs. de Winter just by her enigmatic presence? Hitch deliberately shot Danvers that way.
James: I didn’t notice that about Danvers. I thought it was interesting how she would always just appear, or Fontaine would turn and Danvers would be standing there. I think Hitch said that showing her walking would make her more human and he didn’t want that.
James: I really like the Mrs. Danvers character. She seemed less menacing in this second viewing, however. Less threatening. One thing I noticed this time was just how much she loved Rebecca. That part of the film really spoke to me this time. I didn’t feel that she was cold so much as just missing her dear friend and how she didn’t think anyone could take her place. I felt sorry for her, in a way.
Jason: Mrs. Danvers is a very interesting character, and I felt the same way you did: put off by her at first, and even angry with her stubbornness, but sorry for her by the time the film ends. She’s a tragic character, in love with a possibly murdered woman, and I think it’s very telling that Rebecca used her name as a false name when she went to the doctor. There was a lot going on between those two. I got the feeling of a deep, emotional past between them, a forbidden love. I liked her line, “Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?”
James: I’m not sure I see the hubbub in the scene in which Danvers shows Rebecca’s room to the new Mrs. de Winter. I can read between the lines and see the connection Danvers had with her mistress. And I know there was a deep caring that was more than just a housekeeper and the lady of the house, which was most likely love, possibly physical, thus making them lesbians. But from the stories I read or the reviews I’ve seen, you’d think it was in-your-face lesbianism. I read somewhere (it might’ve been in the DVD booklet) that films couldn’t show same-sex love and that it was startling that this scene made the final cut. But I didn’t see anything blatant. I don’t see why the censors would cut that scene. For those not wanting to see lesbianism, they could just see it as a strong bond the two shared.
Jason: I think she’s another very important character, and your thoughts about a possible improper relationship with Rebecca are right on. I thought it was quite clear, considering how she completely brightens and becomes almost a little girl when talking about her in her haunted bedroom. I gather that the lesbian hints were stronger in Hitch’s original treatment but were toned down. I still found them pretty clear, though.
James: Did you notice how small Mrs. de Winter is in Rebecca’s bedroom? It was just one more component of making her pale in comparison to her predecessor. That bedroom scene is very powerful, and I really like the way Mrs. Danvers tempts Mrs. de Winter to commit suicide (which, now that I think about it, ties the new bride with Rebecca with yet another theme).
Jason: I fully expected Mrs. Danvers to commit suicide at the end of the film by jumping out the same window, just as she coached the second Mrs. de Winter to do earlier in the film. When she whispers in her ear to jump, I thought, what an incredibly cruel thing to do, but it makes perfect sense later when she seems to be considering the same thing. I expected a suicide along the lines of those in Jamaica Inn and Murder!, but instead, the burning house falls in on her—appropriately, because she’s so tied with Rebecca and Manderley.
James: Did Mrs. Danvers think de Winter killed Rebecca? Did she not buy the suicide? I ask this because in the book, apparently, it was obvious that de Winter was the murderer. So in the book, I understand why Danvers would go to the extreme of burning Manderley. But for the film, I’m not sure how that stacks up unless she doesn’t buy the suicide idea. Now that I think about it, maybe it wasn’t suicide as much as her simply not wanting the new bride to take Rebecca’s spot, and thus the only way to keep that from happening is to burn Manderley. Yeah, that’s it. It has nothing to do with getting back at Max, it’s all about keeping Rebecca alive in her heart and not letting the new girl take over. I’m sure that was obvious to others, but I just figured that out. Hahaha.
Jason: Did you notice in Manderley the way the rain outside cast falling-water imagery on the walls and on Mrs. de Winter’s back, as Mrs. Danvers talks about Rebecca? The imagery recalls Rebecca’s drowning.
James: Interesting. I like that. Good job, ol’ chap.
Jason: But yeah, your thought process about Mrs. Danvers was the same as mine.
James: I really like how the mystery unfolds at the end of the film. It’s such a drastic change from what comes before. All the elements lead up to the events at the end and make it more powerful, but at the same time, the film to that point is good in its own right without this murder mystery. I also like the ambiguity of the whole deal. Was it an accident or a murder? While I certainly think he did it (based on the film alone), I like the way everything unfolds. It could be seen as an accident.
Jason: I agree with your thoughts about the resolution of the central mystery. There’s an ambiguity there that I hadn’t given a lot of thought to. Could it have been a murder? Mr. de Winter hated her enough to do it, and I could completely buy him not being entirely truthful with his new wife about it. Nevertheless, my first instinct is that it was indeed a fortuitous accident in the cottage, followed by a cover-up. He’s being so forthright in there, that I believe him. I love that we’ve come away with two different impressions of what really happened.
James: Yeah, I don’t know about the murder. I mean, he struck her and she died from that essentially (by falling from the strike). But I got the impression he had murder in his mind when he struck her. He was in a rage. He can say that he didn’t mean to do it since he flew off the handle and indeed the strike wasn’t meant to kill her. But I imagined that had she not fallen, he would’ve killed her anyway.
Jason: Interestingly, we also get a little variation on the “wrong man” theme in this scene, except this time it’s the “wrong woman”—de Winter knowingly identified the “wrong woman” in the aftermath of Rebecca’s death. Did you find it a little hard to swallow that another woman conveniently washed ashore at the same time? It’s also interesting that this is the second Hitch/du Maurier adaptation in a row to feature a shipwreck.
James: The special features detail the shipwrecks in du Maurier’s work. But you know, I didn’t find the extra woman hard to swallow. Actually, my first instinct was that de Winter killed her too. I never really followed through with that thought, but I imagined him covering up his wife’s murder by killing some random girl. You’re right, though. That is awfully convenient.
Jason: Fascinating that you think de Winter might have killed another woman to cover up his murder of Rebecca. Hadn’t thought of that at all. It’s a definite possibility—a little out there, and probably not the case, but interesting to ponder.
James: I’m sure de Winter didn’t kill another woman, but that was my first thought. If nothing else, it would hide the glaring coincidence of the random corpse.
Jason: Incidentally, I loved the revelation of de Winter saying, “You think I loved Rebecca? I hated her!”
James: That was perfect, an amazing switcheroo. We’re led to believe he was just like the rest of the Manderley folk. This switch totally made the last part more intense and actually makes multiple viewings into a totally different experience a la The Usual Suspects and Fight Club.
James: I also liked how infidelity played a more vital role in this film. I mean, infidelity has been a part (large and small) of other Hitch films, but it had more impact here. Maybe because we didn’t know about it until the end? Or maybe because all of the dark images came about because of the infidelity? I’m not sure, but it sure felt darker in this one. More powerful. More meaningful.
Jason: The specter of infidelity brings to mind the character of Jack Favell (George Sanders), who was “Rebecca’s favorite cousin” and tied up somehow with the secret clique of Danvers and Rebecca. What a slimy character he is, and a car salesman on top of everything.
James: Are we to believe that Rebecca was or wasn’t pregnant? It’s not terribly clear. Was she lying to Max about a baby, or telling the truth? If she was pregnant, I assume it was Jack’s kid.
Jason: I thought the pregnancy was a lie/rumor to hide the truth of the cancer.
James: If the pregnancy was to hide the cancer, what did her letter to Jake really mean? It did sound more joyous than “Hey, I got cancer.” Is it possible she was pregnant and had cancer? I seriously doubt she was telling Jake that she had cancer and she was going to lie to Max to get him to kill her.
Jason: I’m having trouble remembering the letter now. I’ll have to re-watch that. I guess it’s possible she had both. But wouldn’t the doctor diagnose both?
James: She had two doctors. One in London and one that Max used. So maybe she was pregnant. Who knows?
Jason: Favell’s machinations toward the end bring to mind Blackmail, and the dialog even has the same kind of self-satisfied, smirky ring to it.
James: What are you pointing to here?
Jason: I’m just talking about the scene in Blackmail where the blackmailer actually blackmails the couple, in the cigar shop. Had a similar feel to it.
James: I found it interesting that Frank Crawley (Reginald Denny) is supposedly upset that Rebecca turned down his advances while obviously sleeping around with others. I also liked how Frank doesn’t let Max tell him “the truth” about the whole thing. It makes me wonder if he knew about it but didn’t want to know for sure. Did he want to see Rebecca dead too because she didn’t accept him? Or was he just lying to himself and accepting the lie that Rebecca committed suicide?
Jason: Yeah, Frank is yet another interesting character harboring secrets. I loved his line, “Rebecca was just about the most beautiful creature I ever saw.” There’s a lot of deep-down hurt in his character, and his silent moment at the end is very effective. All your questions are valid, and I like that the answers remain vague.
James: I enjoyed de Winter’s sister’s humorous line about Mrs. de Winter’s hair. After Mrs. de Winter tries something new in the mirror, the sister says, “Oh no, that’s worse.” Hahaha.
Jason: Beatrice (Gladys Cooper) is yet another interesting character with a back story. She has another bitchy line: “I can see by the way you dress that you don’t give a hoot about how you look.”
James: So, Rebecca had infidelity, lingerie, and brandy. But no Hitch. No train. A touch of a bumbling cop at the end with the illegally parked car.
Jason: I think I did notice a Hitch cameo. I think he appears when Jack Favell is at the payphone talking with Mrs. Danvers toward the end. He leaves the booth and talks with the policeman, and I think Hitch walks by in the background, barely noticeable. I could be wrong, since we only see his back.
James: You are correct, dear sir. I didn’t catch it, though.
Jason: I watched some supplements on the Criterion set. I watched the commentary, watched screen tests, and walked through the Selznick memos. Also watched the Academy Awards footage—how great to see Hitch and Alma and Selznick and Fontaine and others!
James: Yeah, the Oscar footage was great. I liked how Hitch toyed with Fontaine by tucking between her and the camera. She looked so happy and cute, and it was interesting to see their relationship in that quick clip.
Jason: I was surprised to learn that Selznick originally wanted Nova Pilbeam from Young and Innocent for the lead, thinking she could be a star, but Hitchcock wanted an American girl. So Hitch said no to Nova. Poor girl. She could have been a star!
James: Nova might’ve worked, but I’m so glad they went with Fontaine. These supplements certainly made me realize just how hard it must be to cast movies.
Jason: Orson Welles, who portrayed Mr. de Winter in a radio adaptation (available on the Criterion disc), was quite influenced by Rebecca, particularly the model work that opens the film. Citizen Kane opens similarly on a model and ends in a fire. Welles even auditioned for the film role but was considered too ugly.
James: Welles was too ugly, but so were some of the women. I think that’s hilarious that some of Hitch’s memos actually said “unattractive” and whatnot instead of just saying unsuitable.
Jason: Yeah, a couple of those actresses—damn! Makes you realize how perfect Fontaine was for the role. You could see it clearly. She had it.
James: She nailed it so hard that I imagine that it was just her personality. She was a shy, naïve type of girl.
Jason: One interesting quote that came out of the commentary was that, throughout his filmography, Hitch is a very controlling presence behind the camera, overseeing characters who are very much out of control. So, a theme to keep an eye on is “loss of control.” For example, the commentary also pointed out the way Mr. de Winter treats his new bride in a fatherly way throughout the film, with a clear need to control her in a way that he could not control Rebecca. It’s obvious in his dialog and in his gestures, and I didn’t catch it while watching.
James: I hadn’t thought about de Winter being fatherly or controlling as a reflection on Rebecca, but looking back it’s totally obvious. That’s a good one.
Jason: Another symbol to watch for: Stairs represent death or murder. Oh, and I noticed this while watching, but a second viewing really made it obvious: This movie is filled with shadows. Perhaps they simply signify a sense of foreboding, establishing a “haunted” mood. There are also flowers everywhere, and they appear to symbolize Rebecca.
James: Stairs, huh? I did notice that a lot of bad things happened on or around stairs, but death? I don’t know about that. What death?
Jason: Not that they always represent literal death or involve a death, but sometimes they might carry the specter of death. In Rebecca, while Mrs. de Winter is gliding down those stairs in Rebecca’s dress, you’re thinking of the dead wife.
James: You were thinking of Rebecca when she walked down those stairs in that costume? Why? We didn’t know it was Rebecca’s costume too until later.
Jason: Actually, I was thinking of Rebecca from the moment Mrs. de Winter suggested the costume ball. She was clearly trying to be like the dead wife in order to please her husband.
James: Wow. I didn’t read that at all. I mean, in the end I know that happened. But when she suggested it, I figured something was up, but I didn’t know what exactly.
Jason: And when the truth hits home, that thanks to Danvers she’s wearing a dress just like the one Rebecca wore, it’s all too clear.
James: I have a feeling I could talk/write about this film for days. I enjoyed the suspense that was always just under the surface. Even without the mystery at the end, which spun the story into a new direction, I would say Rebecca is a great film.
Jason: A major milestone in Hitch’s career, no doubt. Interestingly, Rebecca competed against Foreign Correspondent, our next movie, for Best Picture of 1940.