Rebecca (1940)

Alfred Hitchcock | 2hr 10min

At a certain point in Rebecca, those unfamiliar with the novel might pause and realise that the young, blonde woman we have been following does not have a name. Initially “Madame” appears to be the most common moniker given to her, like a blank slate of vague respectability, and it is only by the time she marries wealthy widower Maxim de Winter that she is finally given a proper title – Mrs. de Winter, the second to take the name after his deceased wife, Rebecca. Stepping into her shoes as the first lady of the majestic Manderley manor leads to some initial confusion and disdain among the staff, and while she eventually starts taking more active ownership of the identity, the ghost of its previous owner still lingers. Even when not directly mentioned, Rebecca’s deathly shadow hangs thick over the manor, implicitly present within the very first line of Mrs. de Winter’s opening voiceover.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

As she recounts her sleeping vision, we approach the wrought iron gates at the edge of the estate, float through its bars, and navigate our way down its winding road in a single, long take. There, at the end of it, the burnt husk of Manderley imposes itself upon the lawns and silhouetted trees with a dark, Gothic beauty, bathing in the misty moonlight. Drawing the first-person narration directly from the prose of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, the writing has a romantic, lyrical quality to it, but this alone would not guarantee a successful film adaptation. It is rather through Alfred Hitchcock’s elegant camerawork and evocatively expressionistic mise-en-scène that Rebecca conjures the eerie memory of its unseen title character, imbuing the raw, suspenseful filmmaking on display with her elusive spirit.

After the montage of the misty grounds through the opening credits, Mrs. de Winter’s voiceover accompanies us as we float through the iron gates and down the road to Manderly, emerging behind gnarled trees like a haunted house.

Hitchcock approaches his narrative much the same way one would a ghost story, only ever revealing the artefacts of Rebecca’s post-mortem presence rather than her physical visage. The initial “R de W” marks diaries, pillows, and handkerchiefs, becoming a powerful motif of her enduring ownership over the estate, while the dour grief that persists in her wake is personified as the sinister Mrs. Danvers. Against Joan Fontaine’s naïve, anxiety-ridden Mrs. de Winter, Judith Anderson’s black-clad housekeeper is a force of unsmiling severity, never failing to remind her of whose shoes she is trying to fill – or in one particularly cruel scene, whose evening gown she is dressed in.

A remarkable camera movement much like Notorious, starting up close on the serviette marked with Rebecca’s initials, drifting to Mrs. de Winter’s face, and then pulling right back into this magnificent wide shot.

It is through the complex formal characterisations of the two Mrs. de Winters that Hitchcock’s investigation of their mystical connection manifests as a compelling, psychological paradox, simultaneously blending their identities while recognising the irreconcilable differences between the two. When the second Mrs. de Winter and Maxim move into the East Wing of Manderley, Mrs. Danvers notes the lack of an ocean view, positioning it in stark contrast to the West Wing where we learn Rebecca previously resided. It isn’t that Mrs. de Winter is restricted from entering those quarters, but she does silently realise that it would not reflect well upon her if she did, given others’ perception that she is trying to replace her beloved predecessor. Still, when she sees a light on coming from that section of the manor and movement in its window, the curiosity is too much to bear. The mesmerising suspense that Hitchcock is so known for takes hold here as we apprehensively approach the West Wing’s door, cross its threshold, and discover the shrine to Rebecca de Winter’s memory that Mrs. Danvers maintains and worships as if she were still alive.

“Everything is kept just as Mrs. de Winter liked it. Nothing has been altered since that last night.”

Rebecca’s untouched room kept like a shrine to her memory, appropriately gorgeous in its production design and Hitchcock’s manipulation of its lighting.

Outside of that untouched, opulent chamber, Hitchcock shoots the rest of Manderley with a handsomely menacing decay, carving out ornate sculptures, immense arches, and lavish furniture within its cavernous interiors. Perhaps even more visually sumptuous is his low-key lighting of the space, throwing shadows of flowers, bannisters, and even the pouring rain up against decorated walls. Further adding to the uncanniness surrounding Mrs. de Winter in her paranoia are those wonderfully Hitchcockian camera movements which anxiously creep around doorways, punctuate dramatic beats, and elegantly shift our focus between characters and their sophisticated environments.

Cavernous, Gothic interiors curated with haunting sculptures, chandeliers, and archways – cliche as it is, but the architecture of Manderly is very much its own character, embodying the spirit of Rebecca.
Expressionistic shadows thrown up across walls, a brilliant touch to Hitchcock’s mise-en-scène.
The shadow of rain pouring down the walls of Manderly when Mrs. de Winter first arrives, drenching it in a gloomy atmosphere.

At the point that Maxim finally reveals what unfolded on the night of Rebecca’s death, Hitchcock resists the urge to slip into a flashback, as he instead pushes his camera away from his actors to linger on the negative space she inhabits in his recount. Upon the lounge where she once taunted him, the same tray of cigarette stubs present from that evening still sits there, and as she rises and walks across the room, so too does the camera follow the invisible figure, manifesting her in its captivated movements.

Hitchcock’s camera lingers on this negative space as if watching a ghost as Maxim recounts the night of Rebecca’s death, tracking the camera across the room as he describes her movements.

Hitchcock is also among the few great directors who can place a cut just as well as he can move his camera, and the dreamy long dissolves in Rebecca that set gorgeous close-ups against Gothic interiors are a testament to this. Along with this inspired choice, he continues to build an air of mystery around the deceased woman in cutaways linking her to the angry, choppy ocean outside the West Wing windows, foreshadowing its significance as her resting place. Given this figurative association, it is a poetic exorcism of sorts which finally drives her out of Mrs. de Winter and Maxim’s lives, effectively killing her twice by opposing elements – once left to rot in the water, the second time burning in flames, destroyed along with the entire Manderley estate.

Cutaways to the ocean become a strong formal motif, foreshadowing the reveal of Rebecca’s ultimate fate.

Through a series of gripping twists in the final act, it becomes apparent that Rebecca is a far more complex figure than we could have ever guessed, transcending the vague symbols and hints which were previously our only reference points to her character. Perhaps even more than the devastating fire ripping through Manderley, it is the destruction of her incorporeal, enigmatic façade which finally affords the married couple peace in their union. On that note, Hitchcock puts Rebecca to rest with an understanding of the past which neither glorifies nor despises it, but which recalls it simply as it understood itself – a flawed, complicated being, destined to have its historical legacy twisted into simple but powerfully sensitive memories.

Sunk to the bottom of the ocean, and then burnt in a fire – an exorcism of Rebecca’s spirit that ultimately destroys her hold over Mr. and Mrs. de Winter.

Rebecca is not currently available to stream in Australia.

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