Rebecca, the classic thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock, stars Laurence Olivier as the brooding and mysterious Maxim de Winter, and Joan Fontaine as his second wife, haunted and tormented by the lingering presence of the first Mrs de Winter, who seems to haunt every inch of the grand Manderley Hall which the de Winters call home.
When Daphne du Maurier delivered the finished manuscript of her new novel to her publisher in April 1938, her editor Norman Collins proclaimed it to be “everything that the public could want”. It was published in London in August of that year and immediately became a bestseller, with around 60,000 copies printed before it crossed the Atlantic for its New York release the following month. It was brought to the attention of David O. Selznick by his East Coast story editor Kay Brown, and he purchased the film rights for the not inconsiderable sum of $50,000.
Selznick was committed to staying faithful to the novel, but he hit a roadblock with Joseph Breen’s censorship office. In du Maurier’s original work Rebecca’s death is not accidental, but there was no way the on-screen Maxim could be shown to kill his wife and get away with it. Neither could she commit suicide, as this was similarly frowned upon. Selznick agreed to tinker with these elements of the story, but his troubles weren’t over yet.
In July 1938 Selznick signed a contract with Alfred Hitchcock, bringing the director to work in Hollywood for the first time, and in September he was assigned to Rebecca. Daphne du Maurier was uneasy at the prospect, familiar with Hitchcock’s typical lack of respect for his source material from his work on Jamaica Inn (1939), but as she had declined an offer to write the screenplay Selznick moved ahead with the picture. However, when Hitchcock turned in his first treatment of film in June 1939, Selznick was less than impressed. He wrote to Hitchcock that he was “shocked and disappointed beyond words” at what the director and his team had done with the material, and demanded that they return to the drawing board with a more faithful eye towards the original novel, with playwright Robert E. Sherwood joining Hitchcock and Joan Harrison in order to complete it.
The second Mrs de Winter is so overshadowed by the first that we never even learn her name. She lacks both a strong identity of her own and the space to explore any semblance of one before her marriage, constrained as she is by her overbearing companion Mrs Van Hopper and her strict adherence to society rules. After her marriage she is so wholly consumed by the gloomy house and its constant reminders of Rebecca that her behaviour and thoughts are entirely shaped as a response to it. The second Mrs de Winter moves amongst the ghosts of her predecessor’s life; when she wipes her tears, it is with Rebecca’s monogrammed handkerchief. The housekeeper Mrs Danvers, who was utterly devoted to Rebecca, seems to loom out of every shadow. Even the family dog Jasper, rather than being a creature of friendly companionship, guards the entrance to Rebecca’s rooms as though he waits before a tomb.
When the second Mrs de Winter finally enters Manderley’s west wing, which hasn’t been used since Rebecca’s death, it is though she has stepped into another world. With the curtains thrown wide, Rebecca’s rooms are light and airy, free from the gloom that hangs over the rest of the house like a malicious cloud, and on her night stand is a photograph of Maxim, looking younger, fresher, less tormented. Knowing the truth of the first de Winter marriage, it seems that we are seeing this idealised bedroom (and the woman who dwelled within it) through the lens of both Mrs Danvers’ adoration (she shows Rebecca’s things with an obsessive reverence) and the second Mrs de Winter’s worst fears about the woman she constantly compares herself against.
The second Mrs de Winter’s entrance at the costume ball she has implored her husband to host goes disastrously, as Maxim reacts with horror when he sees her dressed in the same costume Rebecca had worn at the previous ball. She has been tricked into wearing it by Mrs Danvers, who wants nothing more than to sabotage her for trying to take Rebecca’s place. After a ship runs aground near the house, Rebecca’s sailboat – along with her body – is found by a diver. A bereft Maxim confesses to his wife that instead of loving Rebecca he had in fact hated her – their entire marriage having been a sham – and she had been accidentally killed after an argument between the two. The woman who was buried in the family tomb was not his first wife, but another woman who’d washed ashore and been deliberately wrongly identified by Maxim as Rebecca.
The inquest into Rebecca’s death reveals that she had cancer, and would have died soon regardless. It appears that she wanted Maxim to kill her, as he believes she wanted to continue to torment him after her death. Although Maxim didn’t murder her, the actions he took on her night of her death weigh on him terribly. He repeatedly tells his wife throughout the film’s third act that Rebecca has “won”, and he will never be able to be happy. Previously this is because of the guilt he carries around the circumstances of Rebecca’s death, but the end of the film also sees the end of Manderley Hall, burned to the ground by the maniacal Mrs Danvers, who, driven mad by the inquest’s verdict of suicide, would rather destroy it than see Maxim happy there with anyone else. She is last seen inside Rebecca’s bedroom as the inferno rages, and the film’s final shot is of the pillow she lovingly embroidered for Rebecca, the camera lingering on the perfectly stitched ‘R’.
Every performance in Rebecca is wonderful, but for me it’s Joan Fontaine who steals the show. Her growing paranoia, her terrible fear, her desperation to be loved – each are deeply palpable, and in a role that could have been hammy Fontaine is delicate whilst never being brittle. Although she did not win Best Actress at the 1941 Academy Awards, losing out to Ginger Rogers in a particularly competitive year for the category, Rebecca would scoop the Best Picture and Cinematography awards. Hitchcock would show disdain for his first Hollywood picture in later years, but Rebecca is undoubtedly a classic, and our obsession with her has endured the eight decades since du Maurier’s novel was first published.