Hitchcock 101

Day Three, 1940 - 1941

by PopMatters Staff

14 June 2010

New to Hollywood, it didn’t take long for Hitchcock to master his surroundings, winning the Best Picture Oscar with his first American film. Then, it was on to a series of iffy studio experiments, including perhaps the most bizarre entry in his oeuvre, a screwball comedy starring Carole Lombard!


In his famous 1962 interview of Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut asks, “Are you satisfied with Rebecca?” After a pause, the director offers this comment on his only film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture: “Well, it’s not a Hitchcock picture.” He goes on to explain himself by referring to the film as “novelettish” (it is based on Daphne DuMaurier’s 1938 gothic novel), throwing it in with a tradition of “feminine” literature popular at that time. No doubt another contributing factor towards Hitchcock’s dismissive attitude about the film was that the project was so tightly controlled by producer David O. Selznik. In fact, Selznik, who insisted the film stay faithful to the source, rejected Hitchcock’s original screenplay adaption because of Hitchcock’s changes to the story. Though the director himself may not have considered it as such, Rebecca is, of course, very much a Hitchcock picture embodying many of the same themes, techniques, styles, anxieties, and subtexts that mark so many of his films.

Rebecca tells the story of an inexperienced young woman (Joan Fontaine) who is never named. She meets the older, brooding, and wealthy Maxim DeWinter (Laurence Olivier) in the south of France. Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca (who, though named, is never seen), drowned in a sailing accident the year before and, according to the girl’s American employer Mrs. Van Hopper (fabulously portrayed by Florence Bates), he is “a broken man,” devastated by the loss. Nevertheless, the girl and Maxim marry after a brief courtship and return to Manderley, his family estate in Cornwall.

But the honeymoon is short-lived: Rebecca’s mark is everywhere, her monogrammed initial on everything functioning as a psychic tattoo always reminding the new Mrs. DeWinter of her predecessor’s very present absence. Like the monogram, all conversation about Rebecca is also in shorthand, with everyone assuming Maxim’s new wife knows the whole story, when in actuality, she knows nothing but the few tidbits Mrs. Van Hopper (a questionable source at best) threw her way. All of this, of course, works to undermine the already insecure bride’s confidence with no little help from the resentful and sinister-looking housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who “simply adored Rebecca” (and nearly succeeds in coaxing the second Mrs. DeWinter to committing suicide). The marriage grows increasingly strained as Mrs. DeWinter’s obsession with the mysterious Rebecca leaves her consumed with self-doubt and insecure about Maxim’s love for her.

The air of mystery and suspense suddenly turns into an actual investigation when the discovery of Rebecca’s sunken sailboat containing her body (assumed to have been buried in the family crypt for the last year), has everyone questioning how she really died. Rebecca’s lover, Jack Favell (George Sanders), disputes the initial suggestion of suicide and proposes that Maxim murdered her because she was pregnant with Favell’s child. Maxim confesses to his wife both that he hated Rebecca and that he struck her in a rage when she revealed her pregnancy, causing her to stumble and fatally strike her head (he then stashed her body on the boat and sunk it). Eventually, they discover that Rebecca was not pregnant, but dying of cancer. Everyone accepts that suicide was the cause of death, even Maxim, who concludes she goaded him into killing her (this change from the novel in which Maxim shoots Rebecca, was necessary because the censors would not have a man get away with murder unpunished). Finally, a crazed Mrs. Danvers burns Manderley to the ground and the film closes with flames consuming Rebecca’s bed and a tracking shot to a closeup of a burning pillow embroidered with an “R.”

In Robin Wood’s Hitchock’s Films Revisited (1989), he identifies a series of five basic plot formations, a “continual recurrence and variation of a number of simple embryonic structures,” employed by Hitchcock. Wood throws Rebecca into the obvious categories: The Story About a Marriage (like Sabotage, Mr. and Mrs. Smith,and Suspicion among others) and The Story About the Guilty Woman (along with Notorious, Psycho and Marnie). Rebecca’s guilt is obvious, but not simple: she is deceptive and unfaithful, and so threatening in that she wields her sexual power as a weapon and refuses to be held in check. Both in life and in death, she emasculates Maxim and all the other men in her sway (Mrs. Danvers reveals during the investigation, “She used to rock with laughter at the lot of you!”).

But the second Mrs. DeWinter is also a “guilty woman,” at least in her “over-identification” with another woman. Her obsession with Rebecca, the way she constantly measures herself against her predecessor and finds herself wanting, consumes her. Even before she and Maxim are married, in the excitement of her sort-of secret outings with Maxim, it is not of him, but of Rebecca that she dreams. As she tosses and turns in her sleep, the voice she hears is Mrs. Van Hopper’s ever-repeating incantation: “She was the beautiful Rebecca Hilliard, you know…They say he simply adored her!” The project of this film is for the second Mrs. DeWinter to fall in line (as the first one never did), to reject Rebecca, and properly indentify herself in relation to her husband. In other words, her identification with Rebecca doubles her guilt: in identifying with her, she repeats Rebecca’s lawlessness.

It seems, as well, that Rebecca can be included in two other narrative categories. As the last third of the film focuses on the investigation of Rebecca’s death, spurred on by Favell’s claims that Maxim murdered her, the film falls into The Story of the Falsely Accused Man. For that matter, Maxim’s self-torment is based on his (mis)understanding of the role he played in Rebecca’s death so, in another doubling effect, he is both accused and accuser.

Lastly, Rebecca is also, in its way, The Story of the Psychopath. Mrs. Danvers is no Norman Bates, to be sure, and yet there is no denying that her refusal to relinquish Rebecca does bear a resemblance to Norman’s attachment to his mother in Psycho. The acceptance of a lesbian attachment, at least on Mrs. Danvers’ part, is beside the point. Mrs. Danvers’ is surely disturbed: she keeps Rebecca’s room as a shrine and claims to hear Rebecca’s footsteps in the hallway. She substitutes the second Mrs. DeWinter’s body for the first, reenacting the latter’s nightly bedtime ritual. At the Manderley costume ball she suggests to the unsuspecting bride that she wear the same dress Rebecca wore the year before. Finally, she attempts to kill in Rebecca’s name by pushing the second Mrs. DeWinter to consider suicide. All these scenarios foreshadow Norman Bates (and in a woman no less, when Norman himself dressed as a woman).

By this argument then, Rebecca stands in as a most horrifying mother figure, possessing her “children” and obliterating (or nearly so) their identities. That Rebecca was literally an aberration as a mother when she lived is connected to her rampant sexuality: Her “baby” turned out to be cancer, presumably related to her reproductive system since she genuinely thought at first she was pregnant. In all these things, Rebecca is a mother of death.

The second Mrs. DeWinter actually had no shortage of terrible mother substitutes throughout the film, beginning with the vulgar Mrs. Van Hopper, on whom she depends for survival (economically). Mrs. Van Hopper had been trying to make a connection with Maxim all the while they were in Monte Carlo and is furious when she is usurped by her upstart employee. Mrs. Danvers, too, is a mother figure to the second Mrs. DeWinter, who tries repeatedly to gain her approval and acceptance. But, of course, she is an agent of Rebecca.

Because of the May-December romance between Maxim and his new bride and his many admonishments that render her childlike (“eat your breakfast like a good girl,” “you can never be too careful with children,” and “promise me never to wear black satin or pearls, or be 36 years old”), most critics read Maxim as a father figure and the story a female Oedipal trajectory, wherein the girl displaces her mother and marries her father. But from a psychological perspective, Maxim was thoroughly emasculated (castrated) by Rebecca. It wasn’t just that she was unfaithful: she had turned his devotion to “family honor” against him to such a degree that he was forced to participate in his own cuckolding. His attempt to reassert his authority and prevent her from further sullying that family honor with an illegitimate child to inherit the family legacy drove him (he believed) to kill her, hide the body, and defile the family crypt with the body of some anonymous woman who happened to drown around the same time. And, in the end, she even took that act of perceived power away from him: by Maxim’s own admission, Rebecca made him “kill” her (taking away his agency in the act); then she made him admit his mistake about that other body, in effect saying he could not identify his own wife. Finally, Mrs. Danvers, as Rebecca’s agent, destroys Manderley, the symbol of the DeWinter family’s authority. In all these repeated cuts at Maxim’s identity, his emasculation might be said to preclude him from the psychic position of the father and more closely align him with the position of the mother and her “lack”. Of course, such a reading makes the second Mrs. DeWinter’s trajectory infinitely more troubling, but then, as the final image of the film suggests, it is Rebecca who gets the last word.

Renée Scolaro Mora

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