When asked to name a few of the terrific thespians which graced the screen for Alfred Hitchcock during the director’s illustrious career, John Stewart, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier are but some of the faces which come to mind. However, the roles awarded to female performers and the quality of said actresses were often every bit as excellent, if not more so depending on the film. What on the surface level comes across as roles which limit female characters to being pretty and mere companion pieces, sometimes far more socially inept than their male counterparts, are in fact the true gems of the illustrious director’s oeuvre. One such film which has at its core a woman and all things womanly is Rebecca, but let that not be an indication to readers that the film’s mood is softer or lacking in grit. For what it is worth, Rebecca just might be one of Hitchcock’s most underrated films.
The picture stars a very young and beautiful Joan Fontaine as a character whose real name goes unmentioned throughout the entire story. She is working as a paid companion for a wretched old woman, Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates), who sneers orders all day long, viewing Fontaine as nothing more than a pretty-faced slave. Too shy to ever stand up for herself, she takes in the verbal abuse as best she can, thankful that she at least has the privilege of discovering marvellous locations the likes of Monte Carlo, where the couple is currently staying. It is during this visit the protagonist makes the acquaintance of Maxim De Winter (Laurence Olivier), or simply Max for short. He is a member of the wealthy elite, living in a famous mansion called Manderley. His wife, known as Rebecca, died not too long ago and many say that Max is still haunted by the loss given that he loved her so. Despite these rumours, our heroine is taken by the dashing, sophisticated Max and the latter, for whatever reason, is smitten by in return. It is not long before the two marry, which luckily sees the young newlywed taken away from her former employer, although any indications that the immediate future shall be brighter are squashed from the moment they arrive at Manderley. The chief housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), a cold, unwelcoming figure, who was terribly fond of the former Mrs. de Winter, does not take kindly to the new one. And then there is that worrisome notion that Max never got over his the death of his previous wife…
Rebecca is based on a beloved novel by Daphné du Maurier, an author whose work would inspire Hitchcock yet again some years later when he made The Birds. The story behind the production of the movie is that the studio’s head producer at the time, the legendary David O. Selznik, could be a tough man to work with. He and Hitchcock, who had only just arrived from England and desired to make a splash by working within the Hollywood system where it was widely understood the best crews and equipment were found, had some disagreements about how to adapt the story overall and how certain major scenes should play out. Hitchcock’s tactic to have the production go his way (mostly) was to never shoot anything whenever Selznick paid a visit to the set, which was not as often as he would have liked, but shooting was also occurring on a larger, much more elaborate production, Gone With the Wind, and so Hitchcock had a decent amount of time to work on the film as he saw fit. In that sense, it seems right to consider Rebecca as more of a Hitchcock film than a Selznick film, hence increasing its importance within the director’s gigantic filmography and another reason to study the film from the perspective that Hitchcock very much adored studying the female psyche in his films.
Needless to say, a lot of the film rests on Joan Fontaine’s shoulders. Laurence Olivier naturally plays an important part in the story, but the vast majority of the film, with the exception of the final third which steers a little bit of course, is all about Joan Fontaine’s new Mrs. De Winter. Fontaine was a natural beauty and very young at the time, which gives her a very youthful, innocent look. Her image is one of a woman who has not seen very much in life, who certainly has not experienced much beyond what she learned from her father who passed away recently as well as whatever that witch of a woman, Van Hopper, will allow her to experience. The unpredictable turn of events that lead her to become Max’s wife is of course welcoming, but so are they frankly shocking and quite overwhelming for her character. Fontaine plays the part exquisitely at this stage in the film, balancing sweetness with wide-eyed school girl personality. It is a performance filled with an innocence that is sure to earn the viewer’s empathy, which is of course the point.
Naturally, as in all Hitchcock films, things are not as simple as merely adapting to a totally new surrounding, which itself is nothing easy under the established circumstances. Once the action sets itself firmly in the elaborately decorated, almost imposing castle that is Manderley, the real struggle begins which tests Mrs. De Winter’s strength of character in ways that surprise and demonstrate Hitchcock’s appreciation for psychologically complex plots. Yes, it begins with the protagonist’s efforts in adapting to her new home, but the scope of the struggle is far more vast. As wife to Max de Winter, she is the object of his desires (the way she speaks to her does sometimes make one think he treats her a bit like a child even), but in her mind, Max is wrestling with memories of a wife he dearly loved. That alone adds a significant amount of pressure onto her slim shoulders. Living up to the image, the idea, the memory of a former wife is excruciatingly difficult. Need she attempt to emulate what the style and mannerisms of the former Mrs. de Winter or simply be her own self? Clearly, judging by the people who work and visit Manderley, being herself means continuously falling out of line with the behaviour of the majority, all of whom are much more sophisticated and cultured in that uptight British sort of way audiences either love or hate.
Mrs. Danvers does not help matters either. She preys on the heroine’s innocence and naivety, leading her down a dangerous path where the standards she believes she has to meet are incredibly high, so high that perhaps they are impossible to meet at all. She is not Rebecca, nor will she ever be her, not in the eyes of Mrs. Danvers (which is obvious), but nor in the eyes of her husband Max. Mrs. Danvers never lets up her psychological torment, however, going on and on about how perfect the previous Mrs. de Winter was, how everybody simply adored her, how beautiful she was, how…perfect she was. Here is where the richness of the script and Hitchock’s direction come into play, in that the film’s central figure, a pretty woman from a modest background, feels compelled to live up to horrifically high standards that in the end should not mean as such as she has been made to believe they do. Max has married her for a reason. He deliberately chose her and nobody but her. That much should be obvious, but Mrs. Danvers corrupts the young wife to the point where the obvious is camouflaged in a vast canvas of falsities. Her physical appearance, not to mention the image her overall demeanour projects are put into question when they never should have in, to begin with. The story should resonate loudly with what a lot of women have had to live through in the decades since and still do till this very day. How many are convinced by everyday forces frequently beyond their control that they must strive for more because of some nearly unattainable ideal? In the case of Hitchcock’s film, that unattainable ideal is a woman who literally no longer exists except in the memories of a select few, and people who how memory, especially ones which begin fade, can distort one’s perception of reality, just like the images of woman as projected by advertisement’s distorts the reality of women who then sacrifice for something a goal that does not speak to who they really are. It is a brilliant example of a psychological thriller exploring a real-life, recognizable issue.
In the end, the film must of course wrap things up nicely enough so as to not leave the audience on too much of a downer. Of course, Max loved his new wife for who she really was all along and thankfully she learned that before her efforts to replicate Rebecca’s image soured their harmony beyond repair. Perhaps more importantly, the plot develops in a way that has the heroine suddenly become the more powerful character and, above all else, a more admirable one than Max after some uncomfortable truths concerning the husband see the light of day. Specific plot points which dictate the final third aside, the most endearing factor is that once the honesty of Max’s affections towards his Fontaine’s character is made clear, she is, in turn, a greater character than she ever was before in the entire film now she knows is it her true self her lover wants, not the memory of Rebecca. Unfortunately, a lot of real women keep on trying to emulate a prepackaged image, lacking that smoking gun that should warn them to just be themselves. Hitchcock brought a lot of supremely talented actresses to his sets and awarded them with some roles that are in truth more provocative than many he hired male actors for. Rebecca is arguably among the finest examples.