Every week in October, Criterion Files will be bringing you a horror movie from the archives of classic cinema or the hallways of the arthouse. This week’s entry takes a look at Alfred Hitchcock’s Hollywood debut, Rebecca (1940).
While some would argue (and by “some” I mean Cole Abaius) that Hitchcock only made two films that could uncontestably be identified as horror – Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) – Rebecca is an interesting point of inception for themes covered throughout the auteur’s American career and is a film that engages in literary forms of the horror genre.
Especially when seen as a ghost story.
Rebecca as Ghost Story
Based on the 1938 novel by Daphne du Marier, Rebecca provides a fascinating spin on two literary genres: the ghost story and the gothic melodrama. In the first respect, the “ghost” of course is the eponymous title character whose visage we never see literally displayed onscreen in flesh and bone; in fact, the closest we get to ever seeing “Rebecca” is through an ambiguously interpreted painting (in other words, we never even see photographic representations of her). Yet her presence haunts the infinite corridors of the chateau Manderley: her belongings are left untouched as if they were objects of sacred ritual, and memories of her are recounted by Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier) and echoed by the staff of Manderley ad nauseum. In fact, when Rebecca’s true fate is revealed by Max in the decrepit house on the coast, the camera turns to a reverse shot while Max describes her actions – but this reverse shot is, interestingly enough, framing no human body. Instead, the camera moves along the wall, framing the implicit movements described by Max of the implied, apparitional, invisible Rebecca. This sequence is a revealing early example of Hitchcock’s tendency to allow the audience to let their imagination fill in the intended ambiguities, and it works incredibly well, our mind’s eye manifesting the ghost of Rebecca simply from the cautious guide of Hitchcock’s informed direction.
In its combination of horror and romance, as well as being a film geared towards a female audience, Rebecca belongs firmly in the subgenre of gothic melodrama, especially in the ways the expressionist architecture of Manderley operate to trap the unnamed 2nd Mrs. De Winter (Joan Fontaine) within a Freudian maze of sexual confusion, jealousy, repression, murderous secrets, and social disconnect. Manderley then becomes something of a haunted house, a mansion terrorized by the memory of Rebecca who refuses to be exorcized until the real cause of her death is known.
Rebecca and Feminism
While no female character of Rebecca fits as a pro-feminist role model, the film does provide – especially in retrospect – an interesting discourse on gender. The fact that the 2nd Mrs. DeWinter possesses no name is no mistake, for it signifies her lack of agency, control, and individuality throughout the film. But the second essential component to this is the figure of Max, who provides no stable characterization of the morally consistent male hero: he’s psychologically unstable, opportunistic, and even villainous to an astounding degree, all subversively contained within the powerful masculine guise of Olivier’s star persona. So while Fontaine’s DeWinter is never as headstrong or confident as we would like her to be, the male point-of-view (or, to use Laura Mulvey’s term, the male “gaze”) is arguably rejected here is it is constructed to be oppressive and loaded with nefarious intent, illustrated perfectly in the horrifying scene where the couple look back at footage of their honeymoon and Olivier’s sudden anger at Fontaine is accentuated with the intimidating backlight provided by the projector.
The “romance” of Olivier and Fontaine’s characters is hardly romantic, never concluding that coupledom provides a linear and conclusive route to contentment. Max from the outset seeks to wed Fontaine’s DeWinter as a buffer for his own insecurity, and fetishizes her for her youth (“promise me you will never be 36 years old”) rather than giving any interest in who she is or who she could be (which is why he expects that she drops everything to live with him, her past matters little). It is when Fontaine’s DeWinter finds out about the murder/”accident” that she “matures” through an implied loss of innocence, but this, interestingly enough, hardly provides her any more agency or independence despite her growth out of naivety, as in Rebecca’s court drama 3rd act where she hardly serves as anything more than a loyal statuesque woman standing in solidarity with the lies of her morally bankrupt husband. She becomes relegated to the sidelines not only amongst the lives of men, but in the narrative as well.
Then, of course, there is the portrait of Mrs. Danvers, caretaker of Rebecca. Despite this being a Hays Code-era film, there is hardly anything implicit about Mrs. Danvers’ lesbianism, especially in the famous scene which toured Rebecca’s bedroom as Mrs. Danvers fondles the late Rebecca’s belongings with palpable erotic tension, adding to Fontaine’s DeWinter’s sexual confusion in her tumultuous relationship with Max and adding a whole new obstacle to overcoming the ghost of Rebecca. While Mrs. Danvers’ (heavily) implied lesbianism is problematically linked to her role as a husband-less Quasimodoesque villain, the distinct layers of her homosexual desire are articulated in the film with a level of seriousness and detail that hardly finds a precedent in Hollywood cinema of this era.
Rebecca and Her Descendants
There is a lot to say about Rebecca’s role in introducing themes that will be revisited throughout Hitchcock’s career, from the queer undertones reverberated in Rope (1948) and Strangers on a Train (1951) to Hitchcock’s subversion of the persona of a male movie star (Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo (1958) and Rear Window (1954), Montgomery Clift in I Confess (1953)) to, finally, the narrative of substituting the presence of one woman for the ghostly lack of another (Rebecca’s first two acts basically lay the thematic ground for Vertigo). But the film that stands out the most when looking historically at Rebecca is not one affiliated with Hitchcock at all.
Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), released only one year later, contains a shocking number of similarities to Rebecca. As if told from the perspective of Kane’s 2nd wife, Rebecca features a gothic mansion whose corridors provide signs of loneliness and confusion (in other words, Xanadu = Manderley), and both films end with the final exorcism of the narrative’s central ghostly enigma, both connected by the same letter: Citizen Kane’s final image being the burning sled Rosebud, and Rebecca’s final image being the uncannily similar burning of a pillow labeled “R,” signaling the last of many deaths of the eponymous ghost. Rebecca is ultimately a rich intersection of many possible textual readings in terms of literary horror genre, feminist critical theory, and its ultimate influence upon later cinema. It’s an early work that proves essential to understanding the rest of the career of a great director.