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Hitchcock's "Rebecca"

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Mar. 30th, 2011 | 10:48 pm

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 masterpiece “Rebecca” is a testament to filmmaking in the classic Hollywood style of the 1930’s and 1940’s. The combination of the Hitchcock touch and producer David O’Selznick’s dogged insistence that the movie remain as true to the book as possible make “Rebecca” a stylistic achievement. While Hitchcock will always be known as the unrivaled Master of Suspense, O’Selznick was a producer nonpareil. Together, their work won them an academy award for Best Picture of 1940 (against such formidable competition as “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Foreign Correspondent,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “Kitty Foyle” and “The Great Dictator”).

Hitchcock, much later in his career in an interview with Francois Truffaut, would rebuke “Rebecca” as being the least favorite of all of his movies. He cites the film’s lack of humor as the main reason (Robey, T. 2009). In truth, O’Selznick did not give Hitchcock the kind of artistic control that he was used to. While it must have been difficult for someone like Hitchcock to be kept on such a short leash, O’Selznick did add some of the touches that make the film memorable. For example, Hitchcock used economy when filming and only did as many takes as he needed until he got the right one. O’Selznick, on the other hand, loved having a plethora of takes to rummage through. His insistence on using master shots (much to Hitchcock’s chagrin) can be credited with some of the most memorable scenes in and around Manderley. The image of the new Mrs. DeWinter meeting the servants at Manderley for the first time is almost certainly helped by the the master shot in the large foyer. Also, the largeness of the house as it looms in the distance and then springs to life in full view helps the viewer to understand how intimidated and dwarfed the new Mrs. DeWinter feels.

It is hard for the average moviegoer to imagine why humor is an element that Hitchcock thinks “Rebecca” needs. The filmed version of Daphne Du Maurier’s book is quite simple and unfolds thus: A shy young woman of nineteen (we never learn her real name) is the paid companion to Mrs. Van Hopper, an American traveling in the South of France. On one of her rare moments away from Mrs. Van Hopper she wanders away from town where she sees a man who looks as though he is about to throw himself off a cliff. She intervenes and he gruffly tells her to mind her own business. Later that evening in the hotel, Mrs. Van Hooper directs the girl’s attention to the newly widowed and very handsome Maxim DeWinter who is walking through the lobby. The girl recognizes Mr. DeWinter as the gentleman she saved from attempting suicide earlier that day. Mr. DeWinter and Mrs. Van Hopper exchange greetings and he is formally introduced to the girl. Later, through a series of secret meetings, he romances the girl, proposes to her, and takes her back to his country estate called Manderley. The girl is quite insecure and worries that she will not fit into Maxim’s world. This fear is confirmed and preyed upon by the severe Mrs. Danvers, the head housekeeper who seems driven to keep Rebecca’s memory alive at any cost. She takes advantage of the girl’s inexperience to emotionally browbeat her into thinking that Maxim cannot and will not love her. It is only later revealed that Maxim actually despised Rebecca because she had many illicit affairs in their boat house, including one with a favorite cousin of hers named Jack Favelle. Maxim follows Rebecca down to the boat house where she reveals that she is pregnant and that she has no idea who the father is. She and Maxim quarrel and Rebecca hits her head on a large piece of tackle laying in the corner of the boat house. In a panic, he deposits her body in her sail boat, drills it full of holes and pushes it out to sea, hoping that it will appear as though she drown in a boating accident. Authorities later discover the boat full of holes and Maxim is called to testify at an inquest into her death. Mrs. Danvers is devastated by the news that Rebecca was murdered. When Maxim is acquitted of Rebecca’s death, Mrs. Danvers flies into a rage and sets the house on fire. The last scene is of Mrs. Danvers running from room to room in the west wing of Manderely (Rebecca’s old rooms) as the house collapses around her. The final shot is of Rebecca’s hand embroidered pillows going up in flames, the letter “R” being the only part of the pillow still visible.

The Master of Suspense does not disappoint in Rebecca. From the time the new Mrs. DeWinter arrives at Manderley until the country house burns to the ground, Hitchcock keeps the tension taut. The very first moments of the film open with Mrs. De Winter recounting a dream of going back to Manderely after the fire. Hitchcock uses one long, continuous track shot to take us down the path that leads to the ruins of Manderely. Much like Orson Welles would do later in Citizen Kane, we see the ruins of the estate from the outside only. We are temporarily barred from going in. Only later will we be enlightened as to the mansion’s tragic end.

Before the new Mrs. DeWinter comes to Manderely, we see her being dwarfed by her employer Mrs. Van Hopper. The fact that the new Mrs. DeWinter is physically much smaller than Mrs. Van Hopper underscores her demurring personality. Even the hotel she is staying in dwarfs her. It is only when she and Maxim meet for “tennis lessons” that she is allowed out in the open, escaping the confinement of the hotel and Mrs. Van Hopper. In her first months as Mrs. De Winter, her and Maxim honeymoon in Europe. They are shown scamping outdoors, enjoying the open spaces that will soon be denied to them.

Hitchcock establishes Manderely as a place of confinement. Though one of the finest show houses in the English countryside, it is a tomb of memories of the first Mrs. DeWinter. Hitchcock uses master shots when presenting the house to the new Mrs. DeWinter. Indeed, the viewer is overawed by the house when it is finally presented to us. We enter through the front door with Maxim and Mrs. DeWinter and are greeted by a gigantic entryway and a line full of servants. Before we have time to fully assess the situation, a figure clad in black from head to toe with stark white skin and a severe black bun glides into the shot. I use the word “glide” because Mrs. Danvers (Danny) comes into the shot from the left side of the screen. We were not aware of her presence and we only see her from the knees up. This adds to her otherworldly aura.

Hitchcock never uses a medium of long shot of Mrs. Danvers in this film (Nesbit, J.). She always enters the frame unannounced in much the same way that a ghoul or spirit would enter a room. Part of her ability to torment the new Mrs. DeWinter is her seeming omniscience. She knows everything about the house and she knows everything about Rebecca. These are two things that the new Mrs. DeWinter can’t and won’t know.

Hitchcock also uses the camera to convey the ghost of Rebecca particularly well in two scenes. I suppose that both would be considered track shots though the camera only sweeps up and down and side to side. The first scene is where Mrs. Danvers takes the new Mrs. DeWinter into the West Wing which were Rebecca’s former rooms. As Mrs. Danvers walks from the closet to the dressing table to the bed, she talks about how Rebecca used to like her hair arranged, how all of her clothes were the finest in England, how she had the softest, most delicate footsteps as she walked. Her descriptions are eerily matched as the camera places the ghost of Rebecca just in front of her and trails a little before her the entire time. It seems as though Mrs. Danvers is walking right behind Rebecca while relaying her habits to the new Mrs. DeWinter.

The second time that Hitchcock simulates the ghost of Rebecca through his camera work is when Maxim meets the new Mrs. DeWinter at the boathouse and describes the events of the night Rebecca died. As Maxim unfolds the story of Rebecca’s wicked ways, the camera closes in on his face while the high contrast lighting emphasizes his torment. Maxim describes where Rebecca stood that night and the camera tracks several feet away from him. Maxim describes her tilting her head back and laughing. We can almost conjure up her image in that empty space. She comes very close to Maxim to tell him that he is not the father of her child. The camera slowly pans back to Maxim. He strikes her and she stumbles and hits her head. The camera slowly, painfully pans over to the corner of the boathouse where she hit her head. It is an inventive ploy that is not used enough in modern movies. To have the camera taking simple steps to help highlight the narrative lets the viewer recreate the scene in their own mind. Without any visuals to distract, we can conjure up a scene that is far more chilling than simply being shown an image of the event.

The use of lighting in “Rebecca” is another way the Master of Suspense holds the gothic mood. The film is full of low key lighting that adds a powerful shroud of mystery to the proceedings. I can’t imagine that this film would have been nearly as powerful in color. The shadows are part of the story as much as the light. The secrets that Manderely holds would not be nearly as intriguing if the viewer could see the yellow sun coming through the Morning Room or notice the color of the embroidery on the new Mrs. DeWinter’s dress that she wears to the costume ball. The control of light and shadows gives Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” an edge over newer versions. How can a color film hope to compare to black and white when it comes to building mood and suspense?

“Rebecca” has stood the test of time. While Mr. Hitchcock may not have enjoyed the process of making this movie, audiences continue to thrill to the secrets of Manderely and jump whenever Mrs. Danvers appears on screen. David O’Selznick’s insistence that the movie remain as true to the book as possible has made fans of many people who originally read the book. In a line-up of classic suspense movies, “Rebecca” will always stand out due to its high production quality, phenomenal cast and director, and universally scary villain. It remains one of the true classics of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

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