The film, Rebecca (1940) can be categorized as belonging to either the genres of mystery or drama. Created by a master in his own writes, Rebecca, a pioneer film of Alfred Hitchcock, revolves around four main characters: widower Maxim de Winter, an aristocrat (Laurence Olivier), Joan Fontaine (second wife), Judith Anderson (Housekeeper; Mrs. Danvers) and Rebecca’s cousin (Jack Favell). The widower Maxim de Winter plays the major role. Accordingly, I would consider it as a classical, because of the following evaluation.
Rebecca is a mixture of different genres and styles, and it espouses a skillfully filmed melodrama though nothing outstandingly different from the ‘Master of Suspense’ Hitchcock’s other motion pictures. Falling smartly into the three-act model/ pattern, a common characteristic of many classical Hollywood film narratives, the film, entails firstly, ‘a simply based story of love’. Laced with the emotions of ‘feeling’ and ‘tenderness’, the film occupies the league of other great Hollywood romances (Bordwell and Thompson 340).
Secondly, it has the narrative’s basis on ‘the uneasy relationship between Joan Fontaine (second wife); as the second Mrs. de Winter and the stately home of her husband, the Manderlay (country house) inclusive of its servants. It is important to mention that a special unpleasant relationship henceforth exists between her and the housekeeper (Mrs. Danvers). Having come into the country house as the original/first wife’s (Rebecca) help house cleaner, she is quite obsessed with sophistication and beauty. This is espoused in her immaculate retention of the former Lady’s belongings and bedroom (Bordwell and Thompson 384).
She henceforth ‘battles’ with Rebecca’s hold not only on the country house’s servants, but also on her newly wedded husband, the aristocratic widower Maximilian. Furtherance to this is her husband’s obsession with the now deceased Rebecca; his fiery temper, which is enacted from time to time at her actually innocent actions. The use of different techniques such as film editing, use of music (musical application), and a variety of camera angles develop the main character’s claustrophobia as it soars into near hysteria.
Thirdly and finally is the narrative’s move towards a logical conclusion through the presence of police procedural narrative as well as partly drama themes. As characteristic of the ‘Master of suspense’ Hitchcock is filming uniqueness, this film also contains an element/ theme of tension, a more comfortable version of his latter thriller makings. Through his interweaving of drama, psychological terror and romance, Hitchcock was able to produce his undoubtedly most acclaimed work and as a result, there are many Oscar nominations (11), two Academy Awards (one being for ‘Best Picture’), and three of its actors got nominations for their supportive roles (Bordwell and Thompson 387).
The passage of time lessened the film’s luster, making it lose some of its hold as a top tier of the great director’s marvelous works. Partly, this is based on the film’s subject matter and tone. Though a true depiction of Daphne Du Marurier’s finest novel, Hitchcock initiates a few changes, examples being Maxim (novel version), shoots and kills Rebecca, while in the latter film version, he only contemplates killing her after her mockery of him. She, however, falls and fatally injures her head. As a necessity, this alteration was because of Hollywood’s Production (Hays) code that specifically recommended that a spouse’s murder had to be avenged. Thus, in the film, her death is an accident and not murder.
In addition, the novel’s ambiguous ending in the film is clarified with the country house (Manderlay) going up in flames, with Mrs. Danvers being a casualty. Based on a short-lived romance, the film’s narrative bases its plot on the replication of Rebecca’s role and character traits as the over-arching themes throughout the film. This is vividly espoused, as mentioned with her presence in all of Manderlay’s day-to-day activities and surrounding traits. Characteristic of his suspense, Hitchcock (in the film), unlike in the novel, bases his narrative on a nameless character in this case, the second Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) (Bordwell and Thompson 390).
The themes of mystery and suspense are thus well encapsulated in her imagery, as Hitchcock produces only two characters as to the former Mrs. de Winter’s (Rebecca) traits: - her dark, long hair, in addition to her incredible beauty. The second Mrs. de Winter is thus, characteristically portrayed as being inferior to the first Lady. Second is the lack of any imagery of the film title’s character in the form of a lack of pictorial representations (as either a portrait or picture) of the former woman. Furtherance to the suspense is Rebecca’s strong hold/ influence over the Manderlay’s servants.
The viewer is left to create his/her own construct of the former woman from cleverly interweaved symbolism of the character. As an example, the film portrays her as having both quite beautiful as well as sophisticated according to Mrs. Danvers. The intriguing aspect is the film’s various edge scenarios that are filled with both fear and paranoia; as expressed excellently by the second Mrs. de Winter. Mrs. Danvers, according to critical acclaim, best represents the theme of the primary antagonist (a villain) through her great portrayal of dislike for the new woman of the house (Bordwell and Thompson 400).
Her coldness and creepy nature are well espoused from the very beginning as she welcomes the newlyweds back to the country house. Her great obsession with the former woman, the first wife to Mr. Maxim, is best expressed through her meticulous preservation of the deceased woman’s bedroom even to the extent of her treasuring the deceased elegant dressing gown as well as inner wear. These feelings, as espoused by her actions and words, evokes in the viewers’ minds as to the true nature of her relationship with the former (now deceased Mrs. de Winters/ Rebecca). As is aforementioned, she came into the home with Rebecca initially and thus, they may have shared a more than platonic relationship (Bordwell and Thompson 389).
Her intensity, at the assumed intrusion of the second Mrs. de Winters, is briefly overshadowed by the brief moment in which she is locked into her former experiences (perception) during which the late Rebecca was alive in the Manderlay. Thus, perspective is utilized in the film through Mrs. Danvers affiliation of the country house with the late Rebecca. The film’s ending provides a perfect symbolism of the end of Rebecca’s ‘hold’ on the entire household, as is espoused by the deranged housekeeper’s setting ablaze of the Manderlay with her dying in it.
The character Jack Favell (Rebecca’s cousin) brings out the theme of allusion through his character portrayal of knowing the second Mrs. de Winter well (even intimately), as he had done so with the late Rebecca. Further still, he brings out the notion of ‘blackmail’ of Mr. Maxim when he presents an alleged letter from the deceased woman who was exited to meet him. Oddly, he is the late Rebecca’s relative, and thus the portrayal of excitement in meeting him when she had professed to her husband (Mr. Maxim) that she was pregnant by another man, adds to the theme of contrast.
Mrs. de Winter (the second wife) plays the role of protagonist throughout the film, as she is presented evidently from the beginning up to the end. However, it should be noted that Rebecca (initially Mrs. de Winter) also plays a significant supportive role of protagonist and antagonist in different measures; as the plot is weaved into her character traits and actions performed when she was alive. The other characters including Mr. Maxim, Mrs. Danvers and Jack Favell, actively play the role of antagonists and are making the life of the second Mrs. de Winter unbearable and painful (Bordwell and Thompson 395).
The Manderlay’s setting permeates the theme of symbolism, as it is filled with an oppressive nature to the second wife. The many items present, such as cobwebs, muslin hangings, flames, soft furnishing and the light radiated by a movie projector, best exemplify this. Hitchcock is able to expertly portray some of his brand motifs; these from the presence of a character exemplifying a horrible mother figure, to the fixation with clothing as is espoused by Mrs. Danvers’ fixation with the late Rebecca’s possessions and attires.
The film’s beginning, as portrayed by the presence of a woman’s voice-over (Rebecca) is symbolic of the surprising mixture of burning emotions with the presence of cooling effect as is epitomized by the narratives overall character effects. The words ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again’ are hugely effective in showcasing the subsequent actions/activities as is best espoused by the second Mrs. de Winter stay and experience during her stay at the country house. It is a re-portrayal of the former woman’s journey and stay within the same place (Bordwell and Thompson 392).
The ending also espouses as sense of finality, an end to the over-arching theme of Rebecca as portrayed by burning down of the country house, which was the action of the deranged Mrs. Danvers. Both her property and the mansion; the film’s greatest portrayals of the former woman’s presence and influence are burnt to the ground; obliterated from existence and thus fitting the ending of the film. Both the beginning and the end are able to interact and interweave as is espoused by the beginning’s voice-over and the statement made. The word ‘again’ is symbolic of the second Mrs. de Winter re-living the life, and experiences of the first lady.
The theme of gender is represented through a mix of positive and negative aspects as portrayed by the various female characters in the film. While the film is about abusive relationships, and power shifts within these relationships, the women’s individual uniqueness of character aids in espousing their collective gender roles. There is a portrayal of positive, friendly and helpful traits by the second Mrs. de Winter vis-à-vis the negative aspects as portrayed by the late Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers, the terrible Mrs. Van Hopper, and Mr. Maxim’s sister among a host of other characters (Bordwell and Thompson 396).
Though mistreated and feeling unloved, the second Mrs. de Winter provides a contrast with her employment of thought at aiding her husband cover up the murder of his wife. Furtherance is the various tricks and tensions encapsulated by the housekeeper’s attitude towards the second wife despite the second Mrs. de Winter’s futile efforts at filling in the void left by the deceased wife. The portrayal of women, in this film is that of great rivalry, mistrust, delicateness and power/will to carry on (Bordwell and Thompson 397).
In conclusion, the film is based on the central theme of dialogue between family members and different people within the society with a mix of unique visual touches, as is portrayed by Hitchcock. Therefore, the inevitable new and strange milieu, in which all the characters find themselves, elicits a sense of fear and uncertainty over the unknown. The power dynamics that are clearly brought out in the film leave all the characters desperately clinging to their familiar grounds, this in addition to being isolated and thus the resultant film. Lastly, film is an informative piece.