#134. Rebecca (1940)

This movie fucked me up with a plot twist right in the middle, I had to lean back and pause the movie and re-think some shit, while at the same time it was bending me outta shape in a pleasant kinda way with just the presence of Joan Fontaine, the nameless hero.

The movie’s tedious, but I think the tedium’s deliberate, always withholding something. It’s got more of a personality than Hitchcock’s earlier movies on the List. He’s always been good at establishing a suspenseful mood, something dreadful or cryptic, but here it seems for the first time like he’s modeling the mood after the personality of its namesake, the dead but everpresent Rebecca. The movie’s got this beautiful gothic mood (foreshadowing to the campier gothic vibe of Psycho) and seems more focused on that mood than 39 Steps or Blackmail or The Lady Vanishes. Hitchcock’s such a workhorse at this point in his career, churning movies out one after another, I’m kinda wondering if the emphasis on mood and tone here isn’t a response to his boredom with plot, with story.

So apart from just being a really good movie, it also feels like a shift for Hitchcock. Darker than his earlier work. More meditative and ornate. There’s something here that feels more like…opulence. Grandeur, but without the spectacle.

It just feels very adult.

Based on Daphne Du Maurier’s novel (she was reluctant to sell the rights to Hitchcock after he adapted her earlier novel, Jamaica Inn, into what I guess was a mediocre feature), the movie itself is serious in a way that Hitchcock’s earlier movies aren’t. Rebecca is the most ambient, psychological, character-driven of the four Hitchcock titles on the List to date.

rebecca fontaine
The amazing Ms. Fontaine.

Joan Fontaine plays a nameless young woman who marries a guy named Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) and moves into his massive gothic estate, called Manderlay, where she’s waited on, and manipulated by, a dour, judgmental, secretive housekeeper named Ms. Danvers (Judith Anderson). And that’s basically my paraphrasing of the first paragraph of Wikipedia’s plot synopsis — which gave me pause because I hadn’t realized that Joan Fontaine’s character didn’t have a name.


Coincidentally, it then came up in conversation at work a few days later. Pavel’d just seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread earlier that weekend and, after three straight days of tumescence, was settling down to work on his review of it for Punch Drunk Movies and, as’ll happen when you’re writing about a movie that really rings your bell, he was 700 words over his limit. Started talking about it, urgent, and went on this whole schpiel about its parallels to Rebecca.

In Rebecca Joan Fontaine falls in love with an older wealthy man, Maxim de Winter, who’s widowed, and still not quite recovered from the death of his wife (the eponymous Rebecca) despite falling in love with, and then marrying, a young woman he meets at a hotel. He brings his new bride back to his beautiful home where she’s studied by a dour older woman and lives in the shadow of her husband’s obsession.

phantom thread
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is about a young woman, Alma (played by Vicky Krieps), falling for an older wealthy man, and getting married, moving in with him and then finding herself scrutinized and manipulated by a stout and humorless older woman while living in the shadow of her husband’s obsession.

Pavel ‘splains me summore. Goes on to talk about Fontaine’s character having no name. Almost no identity under the shadow of the house’s earlier matriarch. While we never see or hear Rebecca herself in the course of the film, she nonetheless dominates the title. She looms over the estate, holds her widowed husband’s heart in her hand, and carries — even in death — the loyalty of her servant Ms. Danvers.

In Phantom Thread, the heroine’s name is Alma — the name of Hitchcock’s wife and lifelong collaborator.

There’s other stuff, and it’s been mentioned in just about every major review of Phantom Thread

I liked Rebecca a lot, but its bleakness and relative quiet did occasionally push my attention down toward my cuticle or something in the corner. Had to rewind it a couple times. But maybe that’s a generational thing. My friend Pablo’s got a three-year-old daughter and was just telling me about how much she loves Pixar movies, but that can’t stay focused through the earlier Disney stuff, like 101 Dalmations, where there’ll be a seven- or eight-second shot of a character just walking down the street, whistling. It’s not energetic enough to hold her eye.

Maybe I’m kinda the same way when it comes to suspense pieces. Like I’m a millennial and need my action beats and plot shakeups every ten minutes.

rebecca hitchcock
Olivier, Fontaine, and Hitch on set.

What Rebecca finally feels like is the very deliberate, patient, nuanced and confident execution from storyteller who’s just now stepped onto a new plane of certainty about the degree to which he can manipulate his audience. A challenge to himself. To make a movie that feels at once sprwaling and claustrophobic. I would say that his later masterpieces like Rear Window, Psycho, and The Birds achieve their status because Hitchcock — if I maybe divide his career into thirds — had found a way of marrying that early-period sensibility, as the Crowd Pleaser, with the style and sensibility of these mid-period Thought Provoker movies [Rebecca, Gaslight, Notorious, Rope, Spellbound]. Because for all the strength of Blackmail, The 39 Steps, and The Lady Vanishes, there isn’t a single character in any of those movies that feels powerfully distinct. Hitchcock renders his characters likable or not, touches us with their villainy or purity, but his greatest strength in those years of his career was weaving together stories that were so intriguing, so propulsive, that the relative flatness of the people involved doesn’t seem so offensive. They might, if anything, complement it.


rebecca shadow cotten
Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt

Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock’s first American movie, serves as a pregnant widow between the two forms — I think that Americana was so interesting to him, the difference between Americans and Englanders, that he was galvanized to bring those characters to life. maybe that’s why, at the end of his career, he looked back most favorably on Shadow of a Doubt over all of his movies. I think it introduced him to a new strength: characterization.

Speaking of Shadow of a Doubt: I think Laurence Olivier’s performance here as Max is as solid as his shot as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (I wonder if an actor feels more rpessure than usual to be playing beloved literary figures), but the two characters also feel a little too similar. A handsome young aristocrat, brooding and mysterious, with a temper he can’t quite control. It also seems like a lesser version of Joseph Cotten’s character, Uncle Charlie, in Shadow of a Doubt.

Olivier delivers a powerful monologue at about the halfway point of Rebecca, a confession of sorts, that’s as powerful as Cotten’s monologue halfway through Shadow, where he compares people to swine and the world to a trough [editor’s note from the future: and those mid-point monologues, in turn, resemble, Charles Boyer’s long manipulation scene in the middle of Gaslight (1944)].

Ultimately Rebecca’s a wonderful time, a masterpiece that — save for a slightly-too-lackadaisical pace — holds up, and lends an added layer of intrigue for anybody going chronologically through Hitchcock’s ouvre.


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