This week’s Halloween film really exists in a world of shadows, a world where identity is continuously cast into question, & a world haunted by a formidable ghost. This is the world of Manderlay, Alfred Hitchcock & (apparently to a lesser degree) David O. Selznick’s film adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca.
Ghost stories concern memory, of course, & Rebecca is no exception. But memory is an unreliable faculty—we take memory to be an exact record of events, but memory is always subjective: what two people recall about the same event usually is different, whether the difference is great or small. The same is true about what we remember concerning a person, & particularly about one who is only accessible thru memory—the story we have constructed about that person in many ways says at least as much about us as it does about the actual remembered person.
This is the situation in Rebecca—not only does the character of the deceased Rebecca De Winter become the biggest presence in the story—despite never appearing onscreen, even in flashbacks—but the way that presence haunts those who continue to live at Manderlay, the sprawling De Winter estate defines each character. The new Mrs. De Winter—played brilliantly by Joan Fontaine—is cowed by the perception that Rebecca was everything she’s not: Rebecca was sophisticated & accomplished, & beautiful, with a sense of elegance & style; of course, Ms Fontaine possessed considerable beauty herself, but she is rendered unglamorous, at least by 1940s Hollywood standards, thru much of the film. Furthermore, she’s convinced that her husband Maxim is still desperately in love with Rebecca & that he constantly compares her to his first wife to her own disadvantage. The fact that Ms Fontaine’s character has no name other than “the second Mrs De Winter” of course speaks volumes about her situation.
Of course, (& this is a bit of a spoiler), the second Mrs De Winter completely misreads her husband’s feelings, to a large degree because he is so secretive & guarded. In fact, Maxim De Winter (played by Sir Laurence Olivier, also very good in this role) despises his first wife’s memory, as he despised her—yet he also lives in fear that Rebecca will be able to strike at him from beyond the grave, destroying his life & any potential for happiness. In fact, this fear precludes any possibility at happiness, either in his life overall or with his new bride once “the honeymoon is over” & they return to Manderlay.
The other character who is largely defined by her memory of Rebecca is the stern housekeeper Miss Danvers—a strong portrayal by Judith Anderson. In fact, Danvers almost completes the equivalent of a love triangle with Maxim & the second Mrs De Winter, in that her passion for Rebecca also reinforces the Fontaine character’s sense of inferiority, & in turn makes it even easier for the second wife to believe that she can never approach Rebecca in her husband’s eyes.
The cinematography in Rebecca is really quite breathtaking, & in fact George Barnes won the 1940 Academy Award for Best Black & White Cinematography—Barnes was a veteran by 1940, with his career having begun in the late ‘teens; he also worked on such notable films as Meet John Doe, Jane Eyre, & Spellbound (I believe this was his only other collaboration with Hitchcock). Perhaps the most notable visual feature is the film’s use of shadows—they dominate the scenes at Manderlay: shadows of all the characters (& especially Miss Danvers’, which seems to elongate supernaturally against the walls), but also shadows of plants & objects. Manderlay is indeed a shadow world: dominated by Rebecca’s shadow, which has in turn rendered the living occupants of the mansion into shadows themselves, shaped by their “memory” of Rebecca.
Daphne Du Maurier described her novel as being about “the relationship between a man who was powerful and a woman who was not.” This is certainly carried on in the film adaptation; the difference in age between Maxim & his second wife is stressed both in the plot line & visually, as Olivier is given graying hair, while everything about Fontaine, from her clothing to her hair style to her awkward bearing speak of an ingénue. In fact, the Fontaine character really falls under everyone’s power—not only Danvers, but also the butler Fritz, dominate her (tho the latter is domineering in a somewhat less sinister fashion). Furthermore, as regards her husband, the story bears distinct hints of the “Bluebeard” tale—the husband’s secret, the forbidden room (in this case a seaside cottage), & the husband’s involvement in Rebecca’s death. Not to give too much away for those who haven’t seen the film, but this role is downplayed in the film adaptation, simply because this was necessitated by the Hollywood Production Code. Given this disparity in power & Maxim De Winter’s brooding proclivity for secrets, one has to question how much hope for this couple there may be—as we know from the beginning narration (the whole film is told as a flashback), the Fontaine character continues to be haunted by Manderlay into some indefinite future.
Rebecca was awarded the Oscar for Best Picture in 1940, in addition to its award for best black & white cinematography. It was nominated for a total of 11 award, including Hitchcock for best director, Fontaine for best leading actress, Olivier for best leading actor, & Anderson for best supporting actress. All of these nominations were richly deserved.
Although it may not be standard Halloween fare, Rebecca is an adult ghost story, a fascinating & compelling of memory & identity. You can watch it at midnight eastern time on Turner Classic Movies on Friday October 24th, & of course it’s available from Netflix as well as any well-stocked video rental shop.