I have been wanting to write a post about Rebecca for some time now, as in the list of the top 10 most brilliant Hitchcock films, this one takes the #1 spot in my book. It is the perfect thriller and mystery, one that stays with you long after you’ve finished the last scene. For years after I saw the film for the first time, I couldn’t shake the image of Mrs. Danvers’ face as she watches a piece of the burning house fall down on her, and I must say that it still haunts me.
Those who are familiar with my blog know that I am a total sucker for anything related to the de Havilland sisters (either Joan Fontaine or Olivia de Havilland), but the brilliance of this movie has nothing to do with my bias toward Miss Joan. Her presence certainly doesn’t hurt, but I legitimately think that this is one of the best movies that has ever been made. I love to praise, but I never come out and say “This is one of the best movies that has ever been made” unless I really mean it. And I do here.
The genius of this movie is in its use of visuals above anything else. Hitchcock, in his first American production, not only employs his well-known skill with lighting, but also some very subtle but very spooky photographic tricks. One of my favorites is during the scene in which the Second Mrs. de Winter notices the flickering shade across the house, and Mrs. Danvers moves in to talk to her. After the SMdW becomes frightened and runs off, Mrs. Danvers continues to herself, “Listen…listen to the sea…” As the camera fades out, the image of Mrs. Danvers is eerily frozen onscreen for a split second. If this had been directed by any other director, I would say it was a flaw in the camerawork. But not in a Hitchcock film. His perfectionism didn’t allow for problems with camerawork. Moreover, the illusion is so spooky, that if Hitchcock for some reason didn’t intend for it to be there, he definitely succeeded in creating an almost anachronistically creepy tone for that scene.
All throughout the movie, Mrs. Danvers is just really, really weird. We see her creepiness right from the beginning, in a fantastic entry shot that sums up her character perfectly.
And just when we thought she couldn’t be creepier, she shows this almost erotic fascination with the dead Rebecca de Winter, showing the SMdW all the lingerie she keeps folded in her drawers. “Look,” she implores the SMdW, as she holds up a garment to her, “You can see my hand through it!”
I’m not sure how that scene got past the Hays Office.
(By the way, in this clip, look for Mrs. Danvers’ frozen frame that I referenced earlier in this post. It comes in at the very end of this clip.)
I’m not sure how a lot of things in this movie got past the Hays Office, actually. In one scene, Mrs. Danvers tries to lure the SMdW off the balcony to suicide. I suppose they were allowed more liberties because Mrs. Danvers is given an unhappy demise. Under the code, the audience should “never be thrown to the side of the crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin” (Motion Picture Production Code; Reasons Underlying the General Principles; Section I), which generally necessitated the ultimate punishment of any wrongdoing. Still, it’s a pretty racy movie for 1940, and it undoubtedly gave the Hays Office a lot of grief.
The film was a smashing success and was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, becoming the only Hitchcock film ever to win Best Picture. Joan Fontaine’s future of “firsts” with Hitchcock continued when she won the Academy Award the next year in Suspicion, the only performer who has ever won for a Hitchcock performance.
I leave you with a funny story about my connection with this movie. It was always one of my favorites, and I felt ashamed that I didn’t have a copy, so I ordered one on Amazon for a dirt cheap price (I was a starving college student). When the movie came, I thought the cover looked very strange…it was really flimsy plastic, and the cover looked like it had been printed from a computer printer. I thought “Oh, ok…it’s a bootleg.” I didn’t really think much of it, as long as the DVD worked, I didn’t care. So I put the DVD in…and Korean subtitles come on. I had ordered a Korean bootleg of Rebecca. I watched it so much that I began to pick up what characters corresponded to what words were being said, and thus I learned how to write some things in Korean, which is a pretty neat thing to be able to do, if you’re not Korean (which I’m not).
Thanks for reading, and thank you, Rebecca, for teaching me Korean!