Rebecca (1940)

Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson

Rebecca must be one of the great depictions of anxiety ever to appear on the big screen. Where some people dream of performing a role they haven’t practiced in front of a capacity crowd, or having an exam placed in front of them on a subject they’ve never studied, poor Joan Fontaine as 2 Mrs. 2 de Winter must, in her waking hours, be the mistress of a great British manor and the wife of its temperamental, standoffish, mysterious master (Olivier). Without any experience or breeding, with nothing to recommend her but the ameliorating beauty and mostly silent company she gave Maxim on his drives around Monte Carlo, she has been launched into a situation for which she has no answers. The language of Manderley is as foreign to her as if it were in Urdu or Magyar, and so she is easily dominated by the expectations she presumes her husband has but also by the clear expectations that the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Anderson) absolutely has. Little by little she falls into traps that weren’t even traps to begin with. A beautiful ornament is smashed and hidden in a desk drawer. She answers the phone in Maxim’s house and says, “I’m sorry, Mrs. de Winter has been dead for over a year.” The dog Jasper runs down to the beach and, against Maxim’s protests and condemnations, the second Mrs. de Winter (as Fontaine’s character is known) follows him. A costume party begins in agony as she chooses an original one based on a portrait on the walls which was never of a “favorite aunt” at all.  And so on and so forth, until Mrs. Danvers very nearly convinces her despairing new boss to jump from an upper-story window. Rebecca is a ghost story without a ghost, a horror movie without horror. Absence is parlayed into nervousness, and over the course of ninety minutes sustained nervousness can be strongly affective. In the boathouse, for example, endless and relentless talk of Rebecca creates a jolt when we see her moving for the first time. It’s not her, of course; it’s Maxim’s memory of her, with the camera moving to show us where she was moving once, but it’s utterly brilliant all the same. She’s not real enough any more to be corporeal but she’s very much real enough to be the wispy solid of memory. The second Mrs. de Winter mentions in Monte Carlo that she’d like to be able to bottle up memories like perfumes, whose scents are material but invisible. The perfume – the reek – of Rebecca hangs over the whole of Manderley, and it seems no other aroma can rid the house of it.

Mrs. Danvers is unusually devoted to Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter. Hitchcock’s films understand voyeurism as few other directors’ do, and his best films are meditations (often active and lethal ones, but meditations nonetheless) on the pleasure of looking. Rebecca, as much as any Hitchcock joint until Psycho, recognizes that the pleasure of looking is as much about sex as it is about knowledge or gaining the upper hand or even plain curiosity. I’m sure that in the ’40s it would have been terribly simple to ascribe to the help a profound adoration of the last mistress and to leave it there, and for all I know some servants felt that way. Yet that seems terribly simplistic given the way that Mrs. Danvers, in a scene electric with sexual tension, shows off the West Wing to the second Mrs. de Winter. “Would you like to see her clothes?” Mrs. Danvers says with her deep, monotone voice. She rubs a fur coat against her cheek and then does the same against the second Mrs. de Winter’s, who starts but is less repulsed than one might expect. (Maybe Joan Fontaine wasn’t surprised, but I sure was.) “Would you like to see her underwear?” And out of a beautiful set of drawers – the kind made from concentric circles which are pulled out from the wall, not the plain rectangular types for plebeians – there are several gauzy white sets of underwear. It’s a power move straight from Wall Street. Under one negligee Mrs. Danvers notes how fine the material is; you can see my hand right through it, she says to the second Mrs. de Winter, demonstrating that you can indeed see it. Throughout the film Mrs. Danvers has exerted her power over Mrs. de Winter, using her familiarity with Manderley to destabilize the young ingenue (Fontaine was 23 in 1940) who gets no support from her husband; by baring so much and indulging her mistress’s consuming curiosity, Mrs. Danvers does everything but smack the second Mrs. de Winter with a riding crop. Later in the film, Maxim reveals to his wife that Rebecca was involved in scandals so great and depraved that even he, the man who killed her (yeah, yeah, spoilers, but this movie happened before Pearl Harbor did) will take them to his grave. It’s not hard to imagine that by the standards of the day a charge of homosexuality would have sunk his wife as surely as a sabotaged sailboat would, and Mrs. Danvers is all too close to the model of the lesbian we see in contemporary discourse. She burns down Manderley to ensure that Maxim and his new wife cannot live happy lives there, and burns up in the flames of Rebecca’s room just as Rebecca’s linens (and beautiful coats and undergarments, presumably) do too. When one’s sexuality is categorized by psychologists as a mental disorder, it’s not much of a leap to assume that one will do something typically ascribed to the insane. Mrs. Danvers, in the end, is a little disappointing, although much of the last half-hour or so is a little disappointing.

The film veers sharply away from the second Mrs. de Winter in its last half-hour, as a boat runs aground near Manderley and the remains of Rebecca are found in her sailboat, which has been tampered with in such a way that the boat would sink. In other words, either Rebecca killed herself in a very intricate way or someone did it for her. None of this, sadly, concerns the second Mrs. de Winter, who can do little more than look on in horror as Maxim careens from security to danger. It’s a shame, because Fontaine is marvelous in the role; she reminds me of Kathleen Byron in Black Narcissus without the crazy, meaning that the pent-up nervousness and chatter remains. She’s jittery, in a way, speaking too quickly, almost the way one would expect from a teenager, and her speech – so often unimportant in Hitchcock women compared to, I dunno, their blondeness – is what makes her compelling. It makes her clearly the youngest, clearly the most immature. Compared to Olivier, whose diction is English-perfect, and Anderson, whose murmurs are so distinctive, and even to George Sanders, whose voice is instantly recognizable, Fontaine’s flutey voice is the voice of a child. One could scarcely want something bad to her; the things which happen to her are, on the whole, not so terrible; all the same, the threat that something malicious might befall her is the same kind of worry we’d get from a slasher movie. That Fontaine’s acting and not her mere situation makes us fear is a credit to her. Once the threat is removed from her and placed on her husband, the redoubtable Olivier (whose brow furrows but whose courage never really fails), the potential for real shock, the crippling kind we get when an innocent is maimed on film, disappears.

 

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