“Her shadow between us all the time,” he said. “Her damned shadow keeping us from one another. How could I hold you like this, my darling, my little love, with the fear always in my heart that this would happen? I remembered her eyes as she looked at me before she died. I remembered that slow treacherous smile. She knew this would happen even then. She knew she would win in the end.” – Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
There’s a scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca that I find startling not for being scary or cruel or moodily mysterious, but for being so disarmingly matter of fact. We’ve heard different takes on the intimidatingly beautiful, now dead, Rebecca de Winter, the black-haired goddess with gorgeous taste in décor, lingerie, bedding and those three things every man and woman yearn for: “breeding, brains and beauty,” that her almost unearthly perfection is constantly uttered with a kind of hypnotized rapture. And with that rapture there is hatred, seething hatred – chiefly from her widower husband, Maxim de Winter (played by Laurence Olivier) – who sees this goddess as a gorgon, pure evil, and the destructor of not only his marriage, but his manhood, his very sense of self inside his own home – the grand estate called “Manderley.” Everything Rebecca touched left an imprint, people, pets, objects, clothing, writing desks, windows, even the sea couldn’t sweep her away, and she haunts every corner of the estate just as she haunts the minds of those who knew her. Maxim’s obsession is so deep that he’s infected his second wife (played by Joan Fontaine) with Rebecca-mania, and she, or rather, “I” (as she’s referred to in the movie and in the Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel), can’t move an inch without a reminder of the past beauty. We naturally feel for “I,” a lost young woman plucked away from her vulgar dowager employer by the wealthy, mysterious Maxim, (“I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool” he snips, with little charm) and is soon swallowed up by his house and the various obsessives around him, chiefly the looming housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. The second Mrs. de Winter (an often heartbreaking woman) is yearning to be loved by her cruel, often smug husband, and to escape the shadow of the ever-present Rebecca. She’s an orphan, insecure and frightened, and she’s grateful for a home, but can she have any sort of her own space within it? Can she start out anew with her husband? Well, no, she cannot. How can one escape the past and create a future when even one’s napkins are embroidered with the previous Mrs. de Winter’s omnipresent “R”? ”
But back to that stirring moment – when the movie is removed from Rebecca’s satiny, sensual bedroom (Judith Anderson’s impressively weird, hateful but clearly lovelorn Mrs. Danvers makes you love Rebecca, and you can practically feel the silk of her nightgown and nun-sewn undergarments) and into a more down-to-earth, clinical setting – a doctor’s office. There sits the doctor who diagnosed Rebecca (and who revealed to her that she had cancer, a very human condition) discussing his past patient without agenda, without romance. Indeed, he remembered her as beautiful and powerful, but he also says something about her that’s affirmative and almost simple, not in a trance as the others – that she was “wonderful.” He says: “I remember her standing here holding out her hand for the photograph. ‘I want to know the truth,’ she said. ‘I don’t want soft words and a bedside manner. If I’m for it, you can tell me right away.’ I knew she was not the type to accept a lie. She’d asked for the truth, so I let her have it. She thanked me and I never saw her again, so I assumed that …” He will be interrupted by those present, but continues his assessment of Rebecca, directing his take of this woman to her embittered husband. Something about how resolute the doctor turns and says to Maxim: “Your wife was a wonderful woman, Mr. de Winter.” It’s almost as if he’s saying, stop complaining, you moody bore. Wonderful is a term Maxim would never have used about Rebecca, as in excellent, great, marvelous, exceptional in an interesting way. Who knows what the doctor had heard from Rebecca about her marriage, perhaps nothing in regards to how her husband viewed her, but for all of Rebecca’s dreadfulness howled by Maxim to the second Mrs. de Winter (“It wouldn’t make for sanity, would it, living with the devil?”), perhaps she was actually as the doctor stated: strong, not one to be lied to and wonderful. But Maxim doesn’t want you to think that. The initial response when watching the movie (and reading du Maurier’s novel) is that Rebecca was living a lie, hiding a horrid secret, charming on the surface, but a horror to be married to. Listen to Maxim wail about her:
“Well, I went there with Rebecca on our honeymoon. That was where I found out about her. Four days after we were married. She stood there laughing, her black hair blowing in the wind, and told me all about herself. Everything. Things I’ll never tell a living soul. I wanted to kill her … ‘I’ll make a bargain with you,’ she said. ”You’d look rather foolish trying to divorce me now after four days of marriage, ‘so I’ll play the part of a devoted wife, mistress of your precious Manderley ‘I’ll make it the most famous showplace in England, if you like, ”and people will visit us and envy us… ‘and say we’re the luckiest, happiest couple in the country. What a grand joke it will be! What a triumph!’ I should never have accepted her dirty bargain, but I did. I was younger then and tremendously conscious of the family honor.”
Well, what does that say about him? He’s certainly a resentful coward. And what on earth was Rebecca hiding about herself that only he knew? Affairs? With men and women? Drugs? Debauchery? What? This is destructive to a marriage and scandalous then and now, but, my goodness Mr. de Winter, calm down. Everyone has their own take on Rebecca, and I’m always intrigued by the doctor’s summation – he’s speaking of this fabled woman as a person with a multi-faceted humanity, even a vulnerability for that moment, when she was faced with her own mortality. Did her strength near death come from knowing she’d haunt not only Manderley but the hearts and minds of seemingly every person she encountered? Was she that calculated and knowing? Did she know she’d never be forgotten? Did she know she’d even achieve a mythic power in death? Or did she merely want to die as she lived her life – on her own terms? Was she all of these things? If so, why does that make her evil? Even if she strayed? It doesn’t appear that Maxim was the most loving husband in the first place, and was consumed by appearance, that damn Manderley (you’re almost glad when the place burns down, though it’ll never erase Rebecca since the story is being told after the fact). But, who are we to believe?
No one, I feel, which makes the story so powerful and unforgettable. I find myself filling in the blanks or re-writing others opinions of this fascinating woman, wondering what their view of her says about them, not just the woman. She is the central character – ever present in the negative spaces – without a voice. A character whose narrative is being written by various friends, lovers, admirers, obsessives. It’s an utterly bewitching way to tell a story and craft a character – in Hitchcock’s movie and in Daphne du Maurier’s novel – a ghost so alive that she makes the others seem like specters without her. Even objects, shot so potently and at times, fervent, fetishistic (watch how Mrs. Danvers famously caresses Rebecca’s underwear), vibrate with the mark of Rebecca. The second Mrs. de Winter breaks a china cupid, walking through the house with enormous doors, terrified to touch such totemic things. She is so scared to tell anyone about breaking it that she hides the pieces in the back of Rebecca’s old desk. Later, a big fuss is made of this tiny mistake and a servant is almost fired when Mrs. Danvers spots the cupid missing. Such drama! Such closely-watched luxury! Maybe the second Mrs. de Winter subconsciously broke the ornament on purpose, and who could blame her? It is, after all, cupid, and cupid seems destined to die in this dysfunctional marriage.
There is so much to consider when writing about Rebecca – the film’s backstory with Selznick (this was Hitchcock’s first American film, and he and Hitchcock did not see eye-to-eye, in fact, Hitchcock didn’t think the film was fully his); the brilliant source novel by du Maurier, and du Maurier herself (a married woman who had female lovers but blanched at the term lesbian: “… by God and by Christ if anyone should call that sort of love by that unattractive word that begins with ‘L,’ I’d tear their guts out,” she wrote a lover); the feverish chronicling of two doomed marriages; the image construction of Hitchcock; the gothic power and mood (indeed by its first words uttered: “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”) But I’m thinking of the film’s great big question mark – who was Rebecca, really? We’re wondering as much as poor Joan Fontaine, who is so unsure of herself, so used to being addressed in such dismissive terms, that the beautiful actress makes herself not mousy, but drained by the force of Rebecca’s memory. She’s struggling to not just be equal to Rebecca, but to be even seen as a full-fledged woman (Maxim seems more comforted by their age difference and that she remain a big-eyed child). Looking at how women’s power and agency is such a terrifying force to (mostly) men in Rebecca, there are times I feel Rebecca’s fortitude is a continued rebellion – she’s howling from the grave, full of mischief and madness. She’s still upsetting the status quo.
Also interesting is that two, really, troubled people – Oliver’s Maxim and Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers (“Danny,” as she’s known to Rebecca, which gives her a more down-home other life we don’t know anything about) – are in their way dueling to own the narrative of Rebecca. One, Danny, keeps her atop the pedestal of perfection, and the other, Maxim, knocked her off after four days of marriage. How could anyone live up to such expectations? I’m more inclined towards cousin, cad and obvious lover, Mr. Favell (played deliciously by George Sanders), who witnessed Rebecca untamed, but then, who can trust him either? Oliver plays Maxim with such a combination of doomed suffering and selfish, spoiled intractability that he’s generally unlikable in the right way throughout the movie, and save for looking as a young Olivier looks (pretty) and for a few moments of his charm (his honeymoon footage with Fontaine’s second Mrs. de Winter is sweet), he’s not anyone we’re hoping Fontaine winds up with. The story has been compared to Jane Eyre, and it shares similarities except that we are not yearning for Maxim and his young bride to make it, as we are Jane and Rochester (no matter how insane). There is little romance here, and instead a vehement meditation on love and obsession over one extraordinary woman. Again, who is Rebecca? Thinking of Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil, “she was some kind of woman. But, what does it matter what you say about people?”