Revisiting Manderley on Rebecca's 80th anniversary: Shadows, suspense and subtext in Hitchcock's gothic thriller
It is Rebecca who gives the film its title, the aura which pervades the film's atmosphere; though she is dead, her presence is imposing and rich in ambivalence.
When Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca hit cinemas in the US on 12 April 1940, large sections of the audience were already familiar with its source material. The Daphne du Maurier novel had become an instant bestseller on publication just two years ago, despite critics dismissing, even disparaging, it for being a Jane Eyre knock-off. A naive young girl struggles with some of the same insecurities as Charlotte Brontë's heroine, after marrying above her station to a Byronic older man haunted by the shadow of his past wife. Both novels end in a similar way — with country houses burning. But these parallels don't do justice to du Maurier's unique story, which pulls us into an atmosphere of unbearable tension, akin to a Henry James novella.
In his adaptation, Hitchcock essentially provides Hollywood syntax to this neo-Victorian text. A full moon hides behind the veil of black clouds heavy with the threat of thunderstorm, as the nameless narrator recounts her dream in an out-of-shot commentary: "Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again." The camera slowly floats up from the tall iron gates of Manderley estate, right through the overgrown path drenched in thick fog, before revealing the silhouette of a grand mansion, which has certainly seen better days. "We can never go back to Manderley again. That much is certain. But sometimes, in my dreams, I do go back to the strange days of my life which began for me in the south of France..."
From the very first shot, you can't help but get drunk on the scent of mystery that envelops Manderley, like the fog surrounding it. We have no clue as to the period or place we're in as Hitchcock immerses us in this subjective account of a disembodied voice. For now, all we know is Manderley is a ghost from the past that the narrator does not want to revisit; yet we must if we are to know her story. But as the commentary ends, we'll soon be in the same uncertain position as our story's heroine, and must make sense of the whole thing by ourselves.
In a long flashback, we're introduced to a nameless young woman (Joan Fontaine) who meets the widowed Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) in Monte Carlo; they fall in love and before you know it, she becomes the second Mrs de Winter. Upon her arrival at Manderley, she discovers his first wife, Rebecca, died under mysterious circumstances. Rebecca's spectre haunts Manderley and everyone in it, from Maxim to the housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson). The second Mrs de Winter struggles to live up to the seeming perfection of the ghostly Rebecca, while the secrets of Manderley begin to spill out and threaten her marriage. Manderley becomes her prison — and only truth can set her free.
The second Mrs de Winter is an orphan who has no assets or income to speak of. When we first meet her, she is working as a travelling companion to the vile but wealthy Mrs Van Hopper. So, like Florence Pugh's Amy March declares in Greta Gerwig's Little Women, marriage for her is also an "economic proposition". She has no first name or maiden name because she is nobody — at least, that is how she is made to see herself by society. This inferiority complex stems from her social status, but worsens due to her non-reciprocal relationship with her husband.
She is referred to as "Mrs De Winter", "the new Mrs De Winter" or "my dear" and by other infantilising nicknames. Her already dissolving persona is absorbed into that of Rebecca's, a character whom you never see yet she is everywhere in Manderley. She tries to emulate Rebecca to make herself loved by her withdrawn husband, a man who seems to have married her not out of love, but out of a fear of loneliness. Hitchcock intentionally isolates Fontaine in the frame: it's her against the world. Continually compared and judged on what Rebecca would have done, she virtually becomes a blank canvas to project our vision of the dead, but deified, woman.
It is Rebecca who gives the film its title, the aura which pervades the film's atmosphere. She is not just another "madwoman in the attic"; though she is dead, her presence is imposing and rich in ambivalence. She embodies the paragon of beauty, intelligence, sensuality and perfection itself for those who knew her: Maxim, her cousin Jack Favell (with whom she had an incestuous relationship while married to Maxim), and the housekeeper Mrs Danvers (whose relationship with Rebecca is ambiguous). They orbit around her even after her death. Her presence haunts every shot: her bedroom, her clothes, and in the testimony of those close to her.
Mrs Danvers even leads a game of manipulation to make the new Mrs de Winter feel like an intruder in her own home, an intruder who can never possibly measure up to Rebecca. Maniacally maintaining the idea of Rebecca's eternal presence among the world of the living, she pushes the young woman to conform to her image of the former Mrs de Winter. Her obsession is such that she cannot express her love and admiration in any other form but blind devotion. It is this absolute nature of her devotion that turns Rebecca into an undying entity, an unattainable ideal. Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers makes Rebecca's presence palpable through her obsession alone.
In a flowing POV sequence, we follow Mrs Danvers as she shows the young woman Rebecca's bedroom just as she left it. As if it were a sacred sanctuary, every mirror, hairbrush and even the photograph of Maxim on the dressing table are all right where she left them. These imbue a physicality to the weight of Rebecca's absence. Mrs Danvers opens the wardrobe to pick out Rebecca's fleece coat and caresses it against her face before showing her collection of negligees. The young woman is dumbstruck, not sure if she should be intrigued or sickened by it. The housekeeper then recounts Rebecca's daily rituals, how she undressed herself, and how she would ask her: "Do my hair, Danny." All these intimate details, including the masculine nickname, hint at a queer relationship. The Hays code didn't allow for anything more than that. It even forced the film to change Rebecca's death from a murder to an accident. So, Hitchcock had to limit any lesbian subtext to suggestion. Hopefully, in Ben Wheatley's upcoming adaptation, we'll see a film with actual lesbian characters — not a suggestion of one or one in denial of their potential queerness due to 20th century homophobia. Certainly not as an archetype of the obsessive psychopath.
Hitchcock's staging plays with contrasts, to distinguish his protagonist from the rest. In the aforementioned scene, the pitch blackness of Mrs Danvers' dress seemingly pollute the immaculate paleness of the young woman and the room. This duality is even symbolised in the wedding bouquet of black and white flowers (the former representing the corrupting influence of Rebecca and the latter the "virginal purity" of the new Mrs de Winter).
Tension is built in the personification of Manderley's decor. The multitude of mirrors become a gallery of psychological horror, presenting the duality of characters in a film full of illusions. Even lighting and its side-effect of shadows are used inventively. When lighting is placed strategically below and directed upwards, subjects appear more sinister. Borrowing the aestheticism of German Expressionism, he casts sharp and directed shadows to increase the feeling of terror. Shadows are where all things evil and duplicitous hide. They both externalise and expand characters' intentions, sinister or otherwise.
The visions of producer David O'Selznick and Hitchcock often collided in this chilling portrait of an omnipresent absence. But we still ended up with one of the most oppressive psychological horror films of the 20th century. Rebecca won Hitchcock his solitary Best Picture Oscar in 1940. Its success meant he had truly arrived in Hollywood, with his best work still ahead of him.
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