What goes up, must come down. A look at two staircase scenes from two Hitchcock masterpieces.
One of the most sticking things about Hitchcock/Truffaut is Alfred Hitchcock’s willingness to criticize his own work. He is an honest critic, unafraid to say where things went wrong or discuss his dissatisfaction with a film.
A notable example comes during the two directors’ discussion of Rebecca, when Hitch says to Francois Truffaut, “Well, it’s not a Hitchcock picture; it’s a novelette, really.”
To those familiar with the history of Hitchcock’s filmography, this may come as a surprise, since, content aside, it was a milestone in his career. Rebecca was his first American film and a commercial success, thus becoming the first of the Hitchcock brand that would dominate Hollywood for the subsequent two and a half decades. Rebecca is also the only Hitchcock film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, and the first of Hitch’s five nominations for Best Director (he never won).
And for those of us who love this film and come back to it again and again (I count it as one of my top five Hitchcock films), it comes as an even bigger surprise because it is not only a great film but incredibly Hitchcockian! This begs the question, why did he not see it as we do?
The predominant reason seems to be that Hitchcock did not feel the same sense of authorship that he did for many of his other films. He shared that claim with his producer David O. Selznick, one of the most successful producers of classical Hollywood, and one who imposed his will and vision on a film with an iron fist. The year before Rebecca’s release, Selznick released another film adaptation of a popular novel, Gone with the Wind, which was a financial and critical success, setting a record at the Academy Awards. Because of his most recent success, Selznick insisted that Hitchcock remain as true to Daphne du Maurier’s novel as Hollywood norms would allow.
But, Hitchcock was not going to give in that easily. The two constantly battled, with Hitchcock shooting limited footage to not give Selznick too much flexibility. Hitchcock also benefited from Gone with the Wind’s success, which kept Selznick busy and away from the set of Rebecca. This period also marked the beginning of World War II, and Hitchcock, an Englishman in America, could not afford to antagonize a powerful producer and be thrown out of Hollywood. And so, when the film concluded, Hitchcock turned it over to Selznick, who conducted the film’s editing alone. For an artist like Hitchcock, it is no wonder he did not have fond memories of the film when Truffaut asked him about it twenty-two years later.
Yet, for those of us watching Rebecca 78 years later, we cannot help but view it as a Hitchcock picture. The style, motifs, and themes that define Hitchcock are present throughout the film.
There are many comparisons one could make between Rebecca and other Hitchcock films to make the case that the former film is, indeed, a Hitchcock picture. But, in order to make the best case, it seems most effective to turn to one film that, perhaps above all others, is the quintessence of Hitchcock, Psycho.
Perhaps the most important similarity between these two masterpieces is that a house is central to both. In the case of Rebecca, it is de Winter’s Manderley — the mansion famous for the elegant parties thrown by the deceased first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, whose spirit seemingly remains tethered to the mansion. Rebecca’s memory is constantly felt by the second Mrs. de Winter, who is unnerved by the mansion and its staff. Hitchcock reinvents this scenario twenty years later in Psycho, where the corpse of Mrs. Bates is preserved in the house perched on a hill beside the Bates Motel. Both of these women drive the plots of these films from beyond the grave and have living devotees who carry on as if they were living.
In Rebecca, the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers preserves Rebecca’s bedroom just as she kept it, and goes there to feel close to the departed. In Psycho, Norman Bates goes ones step further, and actually preserves his mother’s body and keeps it in her bedroom. And rather than just channel his mother through her belongings, he actually becomes her.
This relationship between Rebecca and Psycho is partly explored in Corey Creekmur’s video essay, “Manderley Motel,” in which he places the two scenes side-by-side. Both as he writes in the description, concern “uncanny houses and… two unnerving residents, Mrs. Danvers and Mrs. Bates.”
The above video by Creekmur inspired me to put together a video of my own, one comparing a staircase scene from each film. As any fan of Hitchcock knows, staircases are essential to his work, whether it’s Shadow of a Doubt, Notorious, or Rebecca and Psycho. Two months ago, I put together a list of five must-watch videos for Hitchcock fans. One of the videos on that list, “Alfred Hitchcock’s 39 Stairs,” is a supercut of Hitchcock’s many stair sequences.
Roger Ebert once asked Hitchcock about the role of staircases in his films, to which Hitch, in his deadpan style, replied, “I think staircases are made to go up and down.” After his little joke, Hitchcock went on to say that his use of staircases was mostly an aesthetic choice since they can be very pleasing to the eye and are an ideal way to capture movement. They’re also, I might add, an ideal way to build suspense.
The below video embodies many of the comparisons I mentioned above and delivers one message: watch out for Mrs.