An Analysis of Alfred Hitchcock's Thriller, Rebecca

I have chosen to analyze Rebecca in terms of Hitchcock's use of genre and how it contributes to, complicates or takes away from the film. It is Hitchcock's first American film, released in 1940, as he was brought from Britain by Producer David Selznick a few years earlier to direct the piece here. The story, in itself, is a mysterious narrative taken from the successful fictional work of Daphne Du Maurier. Although the film highlights the new relationship between Maxim de Winter and his young, skittish blushing bride, one would be hard-pressed to stamp the genre of "Romance" on the piece too quickly, for it is painfully obvious from the beginning that a cavernous distance exists between the newlyweds. Thus, the genre of "Romantic Thriller" could fit more appropriately. In fact, there is a slight anti-romantic gist to the story we watch, having the presence of some other, larger and more powerful woman looming over the new wife's head at all times. So, there is a romantic air to the film but it is more of a romance between egos and assumptions than of any heart to heart connections. We really don't have a grip on anyone's "heart," actually. It seems as if everyone is on audition, hoping to get into a part but not themselves. Not to mention the cool, distant and almost insensitive approach that Maxim takes in regards to his new wife. Although we see him kissing her on the cheek, or comforting her briefly, these signs of affection do not envelope us in their passion or attraction. It seems that many of Hitchcock's men possess these icy qualities, for such qualities do lend themselves to the power of the "Thriller" genre. Keeping a woman and all the confusion and emotions she possesses at arm's length is something that Maxim De Winter does wonderfully.

There is a dark, foreboding feeling to the couples' devotion that can be felt from even their first drive to Manderley in which it begins to rain on their heads while Maxim drives the convertible. A "Crime" genre could also be applied to the film, for the entire tone pulls us constantly toward the feeling of finding something out, uncovering a secret and the detection of a clandestine past squandered within the walls of Manderley like a man in the desert would use a water-finding rod to relieve his thirst; that "something" takes the form of the dead former Mrs. De Winter, Rebecca. Oddly enough, we never even catch the name of the "new Mrs. De Winter," she goes about as the heroine of an entire film without leaving an impression of what she is called anywhere, almost bringing to life the fact that our entire visit to her days at Manderely are really about the non-existent Rebecca, whose initials and signature are found lavishly stamped on stationary, scribbled on obligatory notes, monogrammed on fabrics and said allowed almost everywhere she turns, especially by the dreaded, dour Mrs. Danvers -- who clutches to her late boss's spirit and memory like a baby would to their mother's breast. The women in the film are rather childish -- speaking of the quality.

Here we have a young bride (Joan Fontaine) who is so displaced and alone that we are somehow reminded of a more twisted version of Little Orphan Annie arriving at Daddy Warbuck's house, or Shirley Temple in The Little Princess, curled up by a fire wearing clothes that she could never have dreamed of. It is "too good to be true," really. She dresses up in a gown that Rebecca used to wear, excitedly thinking that she will impress all the guests, only to be shamed and almost killed by her emotions of regret. The "little girl" act (compared to Rebecca's adult role) is also played out in the way she fearfully sneaks around the hotel to meet Maxim again, one last time, before she leaves to New York. Ironically, she meets him at the Princessa Hotel in Monte Carlo, (Princessa, not "Queen") as he gazed down to the crashing sea, almost taking one step too many; she pulls him back to life in her first appearance. We do not get the sense that the new bride has a woman's hand in either her marriage or her home, as neither did Rebecca as it turns out. But she doesn't know that, and is trained to look up to her puzzling predecessor. Just as a little girl would listen to a bedtime story, engrossed with all of her mind, this new bride watches her new life at Manderley, and what it brings with it, as if she were being entertained. She is extremely passive in her own life, while a dead woman, Rebecca, is given all attention from all angles of the story. The young bride waits for her husband to show her affection when he can, and goes along the haphazardly dotted line that has been laid out for her by the estate, trading in any identity she may have had prior to the union (although we do not get a sense that she really had one) for new current role. Mrs. Danvers, for being an old maid (literally), is quite infantile as well. She is a crucial character to the film because she is, when all is said and done, the real matron of the estate. She has no children of her own and seems to be like an orphan herself after the loss of Rebecca. Her jealousy, secretiveness and immaturity are highlighted in her trick playing both at the costume ball and afterwards when she tries to talk the new bride into committing suicide. These acts are all quite pathetic traits for an older woman (who should be wise and humble in the presence of young, untainted beauty) to carry.

We get the feeling that the only woman who had any attractive wholeness as a character was Rebecca, who we still do not know. This dead character holds Manderley down like a paperweight would on a stack of thin, wispy, old bills -- about to blow away into nothingness without her force. Then, we have the actual human issue of Rebecca, who manipulated Maxim into thinking she was having someone else's child. This "mother" subject is an interesting one because the environment of Manderely and its surrounding coast is so unmaternal, violent and cold. One would assume at the mention of an estate on the seaside that it would be a relaxing place for healing, strength and relaxation; yet this particular place is nothing of the sort. We even discover in the film that Rebecca was an extremely manipulative, unhappy woman and that she took great lengths to escape her life as Mrs. De Winter. She spent her happiest, most celebratory days at Manderely not in the banquet hall or party room, or within any of the walls of the estate itself, but in the small cottage on the rugged cliffs by the sea -- where she took her cousin and others to get away and plan a new life. The film takes on a definite surreal element when we realize that Rebecca was a scarred human being, merely a woman, and not this goddess/queenly creature that we have been deluded into believing she was for most of the film. Rebecca deals with delusions, with mental confusion and with ego.

It is really Maxim's ego and sense of bruised pride that the film is about, and the new bride is simply a pawn for us to fixate on while he stands, icy and stoic, in the backdrop, watching the women in his life uncover what he needs to know about reality. Maxim De Winter has been traumatized by nothing but recessive women it seems. Perhaps the ocean represents the real feminine pull within the piece, because to go looking for any wholeness within any female character that steps foot in Manderley would be a highly disappointing quest.

The entire façade of Manderely is like some sort of allegory, and even its most coveted inhabitant was a myth within the house herself, getting away to a real identity within another environment. It could be said that Manderley, and what it represented, drove her to death. She was, in all truth, simply a woman. Although we are meant, as an audience, to unearth a dramatic shock and/or dislike for Rebecca when we realize what she really did to her marriage, which we have been trained to respect in the film, it cannot go unsaid that we always retain some empathy for her character in the light of Maxim, who seems to have dark secrets of his own which we are not sure in trusting. In fact, "marriage" to Maxim seems to be something of a problem for everyone involved, including himself (for he is never really happy). Therefore, Rebecca also has the genres of "Crime," and "Mystery" without a doubt.

From the accounts of Ben, the homeless vagabond who monitored Rebecca's actions and life at the seaside cottage with more compassion and interest than her husband ever had in her life, we glean more intimacies about anyone in the film as yet, even more, I dare say, than the viewers are allowed into the life of the new bride at Manderley. Ben is a clever character within the context of the piece because he is the only one who truly does not fit into the sociological structure of any characters that we have seen so far. He is a wild oracle, a foreboding man whose words and presence cannot be ignored or erased. The entire feel of Rebecca is somewhat dreamlike, and surreal. Even the words from Du Maurier's novel itself, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again," open the movie -- leading us into the world of make-believe. It could be said to have aspects and elements of "Fantasy" as well. Everyone is acting out a role, yet it seems that Ben is the only one who is who he is. His fear of Manderely reflects a diseased presence within the estate, because Ben has no reason or ego to protect, he has no reason to lie. So, it can be said that Rebecca is a Fantasy, a Romantic Thriller and a Crime movie. Some strange people may feel that it could also be categorized as a Romance, but frankly I feel that if Hitchcock were not working under the pressure of David Selznick this "Romantic" category would be void. Hitchcock seems to have shared much of the piece with his producer, and I shudder to think that the director would have necessarily wanted the cheesy romance angle on the piece as much as it may be. From Peter Bogdanovich's Pieces of Time : "It is not insignificant that the three films Alfred Hitchcock directed for Selznick -- Rebecca, Spellbound and the Paradine Case are also Hitchcock's least personal and least interesting American films... In some way, the work was always either second-rate or a compromise between two opposed temperaments," Bogdanovich is admitting that there is a watery, murky element to the genre of Rebecca, it is difficult to pin down anything specific with the piece, really.

The direction of Rebecca is wonderful, but the viewer senses honestly that there exists some trepidation with regards to a firm identity on the story. It is, at times, a strange mix of Gone with the Wind and Psycho, (not yet made) meaning that it hems and haws over which path to take; it seems a bit afraid much like the new Mrs. De Winter. Maybe it works within the context of the piece for that reason. It is a film of its time in that it is highly dramatic, suggestive, lending itself to the soap-opera-esque (is that a word?) pull of such stories as Imitation of Life, and other segment style dramas. Hitchcock did take over the reigns, though, in the direction when he could; close ups, the slight use of montage portraiture and his typical use of brilliant staging saved the film from being a David Selznick piece entirely. Therefore, the question about the blend of the genres within the piece and how they contribute to, complicate, or take away from the film is an interesting one because it is an attractive mix to begin with between the director and the producer's senses of storytelling, as well as the original brooding, gothic novel of Daphne Du Maurier.

There is no sense of reality in Rebecca. The nameless, paper doll of a new wife is stepping into an identity of someone who once was, while Maxim does not seem to know in the least who he is or what he wants, again haunted by his former love. Even the secret he keeps of how Rebecca died and where her body lays could be construed of as a lie, a dream of sorts, because there is no reason after watching the film to think that he did not really murder her. In his confessional moment in the seaside cottage where the truth comes out of everyone in Rebecca, Maxim says something to his new bride that is very foreboding to the viewer in regards to the possibility of him being the killer of Rebecca, "You thought I was mad. Perhaps I was. It wouldn't make for sanity, would it? Living with the devil." This admission points to the possibility of murder, since most of Rebecca's actions at in his life were lies it seems that he could, arguably, lie about her death in order to live in truth. Just as Rebecca was playing the part of his devoted wife, we get the feeling through Hitchcock's directing that the new lady is merely a "part" as well; she has no name, after all.

Why could this film be construed as a "Romantic Thriller?" Is there anything genuine to back up the feeling of authentic romance, if everyone is just acting? Joan Fontaine's character is endearing, fresh and innocent. Her posture and facial expressions indicated that she has no self- esteem and could possibly crumble underneath too much pressure. This makes her the heroine, and is exactly what Maxim can handle as the damaged man, the cuckold that he once was. Her virginal, unobtrusive ways highlight the evil around her within the house: the jealous maid, the shady past and the scandal and pain that surrounded Rebecca. We, the audience, want her to stay with Maxim; he seems to be an appropriate protector for her, and she is unphased by the possibility that he could have murdered his ex-wife. For as lilywhite as she may seem, the new bride takes on the most trauma throughout the story, stepping into a snake's nest of a sad and torrid past. She seems to have no ego, unlike everyone else in the story. This makes her the eyes and ears of Rebecca, for it is through and for her that everyone else's drama takes place.

The scene that I have chosen to analyze closely is when Maxim has his new wife down at the seaside cottage and is confessing his story about Rebecca's actual death. He is nervous and particularly human, for the first time really; tussled hair and shaken-up pacing. We see what lies beneath the façade of Rebecca, we see the pain that she caused her cuckolded husband and, really, we understand why he may have killed her. It may be because we are seeing the confession through the eyes of the new Mrs. De Winter, who loves Maxim unconditionally. He smokes a cigarette and speaks quickly; he is panicked and drudging up his painful past for both the audience and his wife. The cottage is the only place in the film where there seems to be life without premise or lies involved; it could be seen as the heart of the movie; where people act out who they really are. It is also where Rebecca seems to have died, after having fallen and hit her head on some sea tackle. He is about to have to face the real world and is going over his story. Not only does he have a lie about how Rebecca died that he has been carrying, but his actual marriage to her was a sham as well, giving us an underlying catharsis for all of the idolatry given to her name and identity before this moment. This is the most romantic scene, to me, in the movie, because he is showing himself to be a wounded man and she is taking him in regardless. She admits that she always felt beneath Rebecca, and that she never could have lived up to her reputation, or even to her touch upon his fingers. This scene is a dramatic turning point for a bizarre dream-like reality that was Rebecca. At this point the detective urge comes forth completely from the audience and Hitchcock still leaves much to be uncovered and never answered. Because Rebecca is a film about ego, fronts, lies and facades, I have chosen an interesting point from Dudley Andrew's Concepts in Film Theory: "Representation is doubtless a humanizing term, for it suggests that texts exist in part by means of the relation they establish between readers (spectators) and a world of some interest. Although representation should not be thought of as the terminus of a film (as should no single aspect of what is always an interacting system), its peculiarity intermediate status tells us a great deal about the experience of watching a film." This pushes the viewer to look deeper into a story, and if they story itself is about representations, then, in some regards, the "joke" is on the viewer which is quite exciting, especially in a thriller or detective situation.

Rebecca is a fascinating work because it chronicles the early marriage of a woman who seems to be nothing more than a paper doll, a stand-in, for someone whose identity was unbeatable. Yet, upon further inspection, we realize that the paper doll, the only character in the film who has no name, is the only character in which truth and integrity can be found, and that what we thought was so valuable, glorious and meaningful was really a cheap and dirty life of lies. That fact, in itself, is quite saddening and tragic for her -- yet she is madly in love with Maxim de Winter and will go to all lengths to stop him from dying of sadness and despair. Her first scene in the movie is when she goads him off of a dangerous precipice, and this is her role for the rest of the movie. When she finally has him in all his truthful glory, Mandeley is burning down to the ground and the couple are left to start over after a blaze of destruction and unfruitful living in the halls of this great estate. The end is hopeful, however, because we hope that her purity will bring him into a better place.