****/**** | Image B+ Sound B+ Extras C+
starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, Judith Anderson
screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison;
adaptation by Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier
directed by Alfred Hitchcock
by Walter Chaw
She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.
--"The Idea of Order at Key West," Wallace Stevens
Let's take a moment to talk about water.
Hitchcock returns to a few things obsessively in his films (the glasses, the doubles, the theatre, the wrong men--the blondes, to be sure), but let's talk, for the purposes of Rebecca, about how Hitch interprets water, in particular passages over water, and how water, like the bird, is to him akin in its nature to women. Though hardly the earliest example, start with Young and Innocent, in which the body of washed-up Hollywood actress Christine Clay (Pamela Carme) quite literally washes up on a beach, discovered by birds before two young women (also birds, n'est-ce pas?) happen upon the scene, their screams overdubbed by the shrieking of gulls.1 It's a bit of a cheat to say that Young and Innocent is the dry run for any number of later Hitchcocks, because decades of close reading have made it clear that Hitchcock was an insane person working through the same clutch of issues and deep-rooted neuroses throughout his career. Still, I would offer that Young and Innocent is the direct antecedent to not just Rebecca, but North by Northwest as well, what with their matching protean protagonists and climaxes above abysses, the heroic couple reaching out to one another in an odd statement about a woman's choice in this world: marriage or nothing. In Young and Innocent, much like in Rebecca, two women are offered that binary. The older woman maintains, in both examples, her bewildering anti-social attachment to feral sexuality and so is returned to the mimic sea; the younger, less experienced second woman agrees to be swallowed up instead by marriage. Young and Innocent is a romance for it, but I'd argue that by the time of Rebecca, a mere three years later, Hitchcock is already suggesting that a woman's choice in the world is between one kind of sucking abyss or another. Whatever Rebecca is, in other words, it ain't a romance.
Rebecca's eponymous protagonist is ephemeral. In fact, Rebecca de Winter is beyond the power of the omniscient Hitchcock to capture, save for a clever tracking shot recalling her death and a few obscure images of waves breaking over crags.2 It's telling that our introduction to Byronic hero Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) has him standing, Heathcliff-like (Olivier was then fresh from smash hit Wuthering Heights with Merle Oberon), on the edge of a cliff, contemplating leaping into waves breaking over crags. Rebecca, we'll learn later, was probably whispering in his ear--just as Mrs. Danvers (the great Judith Anderson), Rebecca's agent, whispers sweet suicidal longings to Maxim's new wife (Joan Fontaine). Fontaine's character, referred to as "X" due to her unnamed status, has been identified by Tanya Modleski (author of the seminal article "The Terror of Pleasure: The Contemporary Horror Film and Postmodern Theory") as the "da" in Freud's "fort/da" game, i.e., she is that which replaces what is lost. Freud's game is an illustration of the compulsion of a young child to emblemize the lost mother with another object so as to imagine some control over his/her separation anxieties. X is the substitution Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) creates in order to gain control of the lost Rebecca--the un-castrated female existing wholly in the Lacanian imaginary. Or so Modleski would like you to think. Here again, as in Young and Innocent, there is the attempted, partially-successful reintegration of the castrated female into society. And again there is the murdered woman, unpredictable and omnipresent after having been consumed in chaos, surfacing to claim restitution. Tellingly, the indoctrinated female--X, in this case--is likewise merely a surrogate for that which might never be contained in domesticity. Perhaps realizing the transformative power of submersion for Hitch's women, Maxim gives X a raincoat to protect her from water (rain). ("You never can be too careful with children.") If only Marion Crane were offered the same protection in twenty years' time.
Introduced as a woman who has no foundation, X has lost her parents and spends her life meekly attending to the monstrous Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates). Likewise, Maxim de Winter is without home, himself supposing that his demesne, the palatial Manderly, is a place he "never shall see again." Upon meeting and courting the dimensionless X, however, Maxim, through X, illiberally seeks to fill this empty vessel with the traditional images of hearth and home, and in so doing artificially conjure the illusion of the same. In X, Maxim has found an antithesis to the jaguarondi3 Rebecca to act as an ironic proxy to Rebecca herself. Maxim admits that he substituted the corpse of another woman for that of his wife, calling the substitute "some unknown woman, unclaimed, belonging nowhere." Maxim's act of deception also describes his relationship--however unkindly--with the flaccid, malleable X, in that he has again substituted Rebecca with some displaced personage in the hopes that she will be mistaken for her in his mind. Like the nameless corpse, X is doomed to remain a Kafka hero in the face of an overwhelming and invisible oppressor: sustained by an illusion of identity while defined only through the projected grace of an Other.4
By the end of both Young and Innocent and Rebecca, the female surrogate is inextricably linked to the identity and trials of her man. Rebecca Bailin's comments on the suicide scene in Marnie seem equally applicable to an analysis of the status of these two early Hitchcock females: "The scene is enacted from Mark's point of view (he discovers her missing from bed, then runs to find her in the pool--it is a scene of his fear)."5 X's merger with Maxim begins with his confession of his role in Rebecca's death. As he describes the events, X begins fashioning defenses and alibis protesting his innocence and offering to perjure herself to ensure their happiness. Maxim, morose, declares victory as Rebecca's, and yet, in truth, it is Maxim who has won by winning X's fealty--X being, after all, Rebecca's doppelgänger. As the cross-examination of Maxim at his trial grows uncomfortable, X becomes agitated (as agitated as Maxim) and faints...well, feints fainting, drawing attention away from her husband and to herself. She cements her personality now as "of Maxim." During the recess following X's collapse, Maxim leaves X in the backseat of a cab with strong drink.
Like Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) and her poisoned tea in Notorious, once X's identity is compromised, her complicity is assured/celebrated (sealed?) with a narcotic. (Recall, too, the shot of brandy forced on Melanie after she's nearly pecked to death in The Birds. Or how about the lighted milk in Suspicion?) The etherizing of the feminine, like Eliot's patient upon a table, robs the woman of one of the three things with which Maxim proclaims Rebecca was blessed: "Beauty, breeding, and brains." Forced intoxication is tangible evidence of a patriarchal order's desire to strip chaotic variables of their will so as to change them into Mark Rutland's race horses: beautiful, well-bred, and broken. We'll say more about this in Notorious when Alicia is regarded through a pair of binoculars at a racetrack--suddenly rendered, through intrusive voyeurism and the man she loves (and the men who love her), a prize horse. Hitchcock has come now to equate marriage with breaking beautiful, well-bred creatures, possibly for no other real purpose than sport and ornamentation. I make this argument not to get all feminist up in here, but to suggest that charges of misogyny in Hitchcock are gross oversimplifications. I'm of the idea that he was more an artist of the Madonna/Whore complex, the Keatsian consummation sublime, which is at least the correct gross oversimplification.
At its core, Rebecca is also a telling of the Amor and Psyche myth, tying it in this way to Cocteau's forthcoming Beauty and the Beast and clarifying the myth's essential core of subversion of traditional sensibilities in favour of chaos and carnality. In the myth, Psyche, a beautiful young woman, enrages Venus, goddess of love, when mortals begin to worship her as the loci of desire. Venus sends her son, Amor (Cupid), to kill her, but, like Snow White's Woodsman (another telling of the myth), he falls in love with her instead, and secrets her away to a private mansion. Psyche is then made a prisoner in isolation, forbidden to know the identity of her husband; weak, lonesome, she leans over with a candle (and knife) while Amor sleeps, discovers his beauty where she's suspected a demon, and burns him with a drip of wax. He leaps away as she falls in love, and now they're lost to one another. Rebecca posits Psyche as X and Amor as Maxim--thus Venus, vengeful, invisible, is Rebecca, the goddess omniscient and omnipresent. As Amor, Maxim is the demon husband haunted by a secret that renders him distant and absent. At the same time, he arouses desire in women, notably Mrs. Van Hopper, with her juvenile and suggestive love notes. When the night of Rebecca's murder is recreated in a long, brilliant tracking shot, the camera lingers on a framed painting of the ocean, a shell posed beneath it in evocation of Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus". Rebecca is born in the ocean and, just as it's revealed that Maxim is not her creator, Venus is similarly without father (the Greek "Aphrodite" means "foam born"). When X, earlier, breaks the little bust of Cupid on Rebecca's writing desk while gaining forbidden knowledge, she identifies first Rebecca as a female gothic with a woman detective, then her attachment to Psyche through her curiosity and transgression. Breaking Cupid prefigures the end of the myth and the myth's epilogue.
The myth resolves with Venus sending Psyche on a series of trials to overtly win the Goddess's forgiveness...and to covertly destroy Psyche's beauty. Eventually, the Goddess relents before Psyche's doggedness and Amor and Psyche are joined in marriage. The humiliations that X endures in Rebecca represent the trials of Psyche: Stripped of ego, of name, X is emptied in preparation for being filled with the rhetoric of Maxim's rules. The film ends with union, with the exorcism of Rebecca's supernatural sway over the living, seeming to fulfill Northrup Frye's broad criterion for romance. But then Manderly burns. Tied inexorably and homoerotically to Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers, the demonic servant, destroys the mansion which leant grounding and "hearth" to Maxim and, eventually, to X, who proclaims that she is Mrs. de Winter and that Manderly is hers now. We're reminded of the opening voiceover that has X lamenting "last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again...we can never go back to Manderly again." Beginning, as the film does, post-ending, the opening leading down a winding path to the ruined shell of a traditional idea of homestead and security, critiques the events that follow. The film is overgrown, brambled, deceptive; X remains an enigma, Maxim and X are untethered, and Rebecca is transfigured not just by water but by fire, too. By burning Manderly through her agent, after Mrs. Danvers was unable to convince X to leap to her death, Rebecca has at last succeeded in uprooting Maxim, confirming X's lack of identity in the process (by destroying the focus of her identity) and validating Hitchcock's sneaky career throughline that, yes, chaos reigns. It's no wonder Hitch was attracted to the novel. No wonder again that he would return to Du Maurier two decades later with the even more nihilistic (and this time also Oedipal) marriage melodrama The Birds.6 Never read this way, I'd suggest that Rebecca's conclusion is every bit as empty and haunted as the apocalyptic non-ending to The Birds. It's a Modernist text more than it is a Romanticist. I do love it so.
MGM debuts Rebecca on Blu-ray in an AVC-encoded, 1080p video transfer in the film's original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. It's a noticeable, if not startling, improvement over the studio's "Premiere Collection" DVD (albeit evincing the same stutter during the prologue). Grain is abundant--particularly in the darker passages of the film--yet supple and translucent, while outside of a few hot whites dynamic range is excellent, providing depth to the chiaroscuro imagery. A handsome presentation of a lovely film--good enough that all of Hitch's staginess and nods to theatricality are brought through with fidelity and wit. Par for the MGM course, the monaural mix gets configured for 2.0 playback in DTS-HD Master Audio. Franz Waxman's sweeping score sounds splendid and there's newfound clarity to the dialogue track, though I thought I detected a slight reverb artifact that occasionally detracts. I want to say, too, that MGM's cover art, pulling one of the central tableaux of the film as Mrs. Danvers tries to talk Rebecca into jumping out a high window, does an incredible disservice to the picture and to Hitchcock's legacy by reversing the image. Hitch placed objects in power to the right of the frame and objects in subservience to the left. Flip this shot and you reveal yourself as a Philistine and a world-class fucking jackass. Say what you will, but by cropping Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" instead of letterboxing it, you lose like six apostles--and when you flip it on its Y axis, you stash John, Peter, and Judas on the right. Buddy, it's not arbitrary and, more, it's not up to you.
Rebecca ports over all the special features of the MGM DVD, starting with Richard Schickel's lamentable commentary track. A quick disclaimer: When Schickel recently confessed that he didn't love movies, never did love them, and didn't understand people who did before trundling along into Internet critics, he was participating in a panel discussion during which I was cited as an example of someone who might be a pretty decent critic without having a print outlet. I say this because, when I tell you that Schickel's commentary for Rebecca is vapid, listless, possessed of frequent silences, and sprinkled with the occasional implication that Schickel, if he's seen this film before, hasn't seen it in years, I do so without any personal rancour for the man. Simply put, Schickel's involvement in this film makes as much sense as Shyamalan's involvement in The Birds DVD. When you're asked to record a commentary track for one of the movies directed by one of the very few directors as important to the medium as Alfred Hitchcock, you don't phone it in. Among the many "Schickelisms" coined herein, he declares that Manderly burning is "wonderfully appropriate end for this unhappy house" and makes a lot of stupid comments about George Sanders, who plays Rebecca's cousin Jack Favell. Schickel is blue-collar in a tweed coat. He masks his complete disrespect in Burl Ives homilies and appeals for agreement. Everybody's wrong for subjecting this film to him--why not invite James Naremore? Why not get someone to read from the late Robin Wood? Last thought on this troll: There's no requirement to love film and no requirement to love Rebecca, but one or both would be lovely, commendable qualities to exhibit on a feature-length yakker for Rebecca.
Standard-def video-based supplements begins with "The Making of Rebecca" (28 mins.), which assembles various talking heads to speak in broad terms about Hitchcock bristling under the constant, obsessive micromanagement of Selznick. Donald Spoto documents in his Dark Side of Genius that the players tried to reassure Hitch that this was Selznick on good behaviour, to no avail. The equivocation of this piece is that it's better read as a Selznick epic romance; my contention remains that it's this experience (and the relative failures of Hitch's next three works), combined with the death of Hitchcock's mother, that essentially formed the Hitchcock capable of his first, truly American masterpiece, 1943's Shadow of a Doubt. (Rebecca is really only Hitch's first film made in America, after all.) Think of the film as a crucible. "The Gothic World of Daphne Du Maurier" (19 mins.) tells you all you never wanted to know about the author of Rebecca and the short story upon which The Birds is based. There's also an isolated music-and-effects track (in DD 2.0) and some mildly sexy-feeling screen tests of potential 'X'es Margaret Sullavan and gorgeous, ripe Vivian Leigh (opposite hubby Larry). But the coolest thing on here is a trio of vintage radio plays starring Orson Welles and Margaret Sullavan (60 mins.); originally-desired star Ronald Colman opposite Ida Lupino and Judith Anderson, reprising her role (59 mins.); and, finally, Larry and Viv (60 mins.). Audio interviews (4 mins.) with obsequious, ascot-wearing Peter Bogdanovich and self-obsessed Francois Truffaut reveal general misconceptions about the piece that have formed the popular assessment, while a theatrical trailer in SD (2 mins.) betrays none of the wit of Hitch's future spots. Gone is the 22-page Robin Wood essay from the Criterion platter--not to mention the six-page insert from MGM's own box set. Originally published: February 13, 2012.
1. This follows a prologue where we see Christine fighting with her husband that is very much the unseen ultimate argument from Rebecca. Hitch, see, had access to Du Maurier's galleys for Rebecca, being a friend of Daphne's daddy Gerald. It seems clear that the opening of Young and Innocent is the dry run for the Rebecca project that he would use as his ticket, and his cudgel, to O. Selznick-land. return
2. There's a brilliant scene as Mrs. Danvers speaks rapturously about her former mistress in which she goes to "listen to the sea" and Hitch freezes her silhouette against giant curtains, dissolves into these crashing waves, dissolves again into Rebecca's monogrammed appointment book, then swoops out to reveal X, distraught, trapped here with Rebecca--in the flesh, as it were. return
3. I refer here to the animal that Marnie's Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) has tamed and killed (and stuffed), and which he equates to new girlfriend/patient/prisoner Marnie (Tippi Hedron), to whom he hopes to do the same. return
4. This is, of course, also Judy's (Kim Novak) fate in Vertigo. The perversion of that film being that it's boyfriend Scottie's (Jimmy Stewart) desire that she not only pretend to be someone else, but pretend to be a dead someone else...oh, and she's aware of the necrophilic fort/da and wants to do it anyway. return
5. Bailin, "Feminist Readership, Violence, and Marnie." Film Reader 5:30 return
6. Remembering that the first attack on Melanie Daniels in the film occurs after she's decided not to play a trick on Mitch and, instead, make her love birds a present to Mitch's little sister/daughter-stand-in. This not only satisfies the hints of The Birds in Young and Innocent with its predatory gulls and child's party, but satisfies too this idea of passages over water (Melanie is travelling across the bay when she's struck) as periods of transformation for Hitch's women from the unknowable carnal, into the masque of civilization...and back. return