not in our stars, but in ourselves
3/52: A movie from a director you love
Yes, yes, how Film School 101: I love Alfred Hitchcock. Sorry not sorry. I don’t know if he’s my all-time favorite director, but I do love him. There’s more to him than just icy blondes.
By 1939, Hitchcock had made nearly thirty films in his native England. Hollywood’s wonder-producer, David O. Selznick, signed him to a seven-year contract. Selznick focused on producing “prestige” pictures – you might have heard of one called Gone With the Wind – and he intended Rebecca to be just that. He knew Hitchcock was talented and all, but Selznick intended to have the final word. (There’s a reason Lt. Archie Hicox tells Winston Churchill, in Inglourious Basterds, that Goebbels sees himself not as Sam Goldwyn, but as David O. Selznick.) Selznick was certainly an unstoppable force, but Hitch was a pretty immovable object himself. He was willing to compromise if it suited his directorial, artistic intention – but no further than that.
Rebecca is therefore a sort of hybrid of the two: Selznick’s insistence on grandeur for the sake of grandeur, Hitchcock’s insistence on sly jokes and the eroticism of death. The source material, Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name, suits them both. It’s mostly faithfully adapted in the film (Selznick insisted): a sort of updated Jane Eyre about an unnamed narrator (played by Joan Fontaine; if she is ever addressed as anything other than “my darling” or “the child,” it’s as “the second Mrs. de Winter”), an inexperienced young woman who meets the mysterious Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) while working as a paid companion for a vulgar rich woman. Maxim takes a liking to her, marries her, and takes her back to his estate on the sea in Cornwall: Manderley. The second Mrs. de Winter learns that her predecessor, Rebecca, was a beautiful woman who drowned at sea. Manderley is full of Rebecca’s monogrammed linens, her correspondence, her trinkets and treasures. Jealously guarding Rebecca’s legacy is Manderley’s housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) – someone whose devotion to her former mistress is more than mere loyalty or professionalism. Mrs. Danvers regards the new Mrs. de Winter as an unwelcome interloper, someone who will never compare to her beloved Rebecca – and the second Mrs. de Winter fears the same.
While Hitchcock is often known for the mystery element of his films – even if the mystery is itself a sort of Macguffin – there’s not much mystery here. Not in the sense of needing to solve something, anyway; in that Brontë sense of a seemingly sentient house, the knowledge that everyone else knows something that you don’t, the fear of what’s lurking beneath. I’ve often thought of Rebecca as the ur-Vertigo. It’s about ghosts, about the futility of trying to escape the past, and about the entanglement of death and sex. Other Hitchcock movies tend to be rooted slightly more in the real world. Only very slightly, sometimes, but these two are the most ghostly of the bunch.
I think they have other things in common, too: the sympathy for women’s lot in life. A lesser director wouldn’t have shown quite so much of the second Mrs. de Winter’s struggle to assert herself, to believe in herself, to see herself as worth a damn. We see it throughout. Hitchcock shows us Fontaine’s pained expressions, as she tries desperately to make Max talk to her like a grownup, as she fights the rising panic when she has to speak to Mrs. Danvers, as she realizes she’s unwittingly made a fool of herself in front of the servants. He shows us – a year before Orson Welles used the huge-mansion-to-emphasize-feelings-of-smallness in Citizen Kane – the second Mrs. de Winter cowering in her enormous, foreboding “home.” Vertigo offers quite a bit of sympathy and insight into the hopelessness women face, but I’ve already written about that a couple of times.
Furthermore, they’re both about the tremendously destructive power of memory. Memories aren’t just film strips playing over again in a Hitchcock character’s mind: they’re post-traumatic stress, they’re avenging furies, they’re possessing forces of apparently demonic strength. It’s often quite seductive and beautiful, in an eerie way, as Guy Cogeval describes the scene in which the second Mrs. de Winter gets the grand tour of Rebecca’s bedroom, courtesy of Mrs. Danvers:
Franz Waxman’s score becomes Debussy-esque, all open fifths and clarinet arpeggios, punctuated by notes played on the theremin and the shimmer of the harp. The episode could have come straight from the grotto scene in Pelléas et Mélisande; when Mrs. Danvers flings open the drapes covering the high Gothic window, one thinks of Pelléas’s exclamation of amazement as a ray of moonlight illuminates the grotto: “Oh! voici la claret!” … [Mrs. Danvers] is celebrating a rite of memory. Lost in her ecstasy, she twirls about in a plus que lente necrophiliac waltz. … Only Hitchcock could have indulged in such whim: in terms of narrative economy, the scene is superfluous – it is absolute stasis, apparently gratuitous, akin to a favourite device of the ancient Greek bards, chanting their poems, lyre in hand, eyes rolling skyward.
(Yes, I’ve used that quote before.) It’s a scene full of eroticism, of decadence, of Romanticism (that ray of moonlight) before the Gothic reasserts itself.
And of course, it’s all about death: Mrs. Danvers has preserved Rebecca’s room exactly as it was the night she died, exactly as Rebecca liked it, complete with a sheer négligée under her pillow. Slavoj Žižek was talking about Vertigo in this passage – but we can see that Hitch’s conflation of Eros and Thanatos is clearly visible in Rebecca, nearly twenty years earlier:
The ideal love-object lives on the brink of death, her life itself is overshadowed by imminent death – she is marked by some hidden curse or suicidal madness, or she has some disease that befits the frail woman. […. H]er death does not entail a loss of her power of fascination; quite the contrary, it is her very death that “authenticates” her absolute hold over the subject. Her loss throws him into a melancholic depression, and, consistent with romantic ideology, the subject is able to pull himself out of this depression only by dedicating the rest of his life to the poetic celebration of the lost object’s incomparable beauty and grace. It is only when the poet loses his lady that he finally and truly acquires her, it is precisely through this loss that she gains her place in the fantasy space that regulates the subject’s desire.
One suspects that Selznick didn’t quite know what he was getting himself into with that seven-year contract. That’s what I love about Hitchcock, however: twisted, tragic, obsessed with power and submission and sex and death. Even though Rebecca is a relatively early entry in his five-decade career, and even though it’s not quite as purely Hitchcockian as he perhaps would have liked, it has quite a few of the leitmotifs that he would revisit time and again in later movies. Those themes and variations exist in nearly every film, from his British silents to his Hollywood blockbusters; and if that isn’t a sign of The Master, then I don’t know what is.
P.S. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: just imagine if Hitchcock and Vladimir Nabokov had been good friends and collaborators. I imagine it all the time.