In 1940 came a film which has generated much discussion, despite Hitchcock’s insistence “it’s not a Hitchcock picture” in his interviews with Truffaut.
Adapted from the Daphne du Maurier novel, Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first film in Hollywood, and his first in contract to David O. Selznick, the producer-tycoon behind such epics as Gone with the Wind (1939). Rebecca is a contentious film in that, it remains sceptical of male and female relationships and especially highlights the plight of a woman in an oppressive aristocratic setting. This is a common topic of many of Hitchcock’s earliest films and within Rebecca it meets its zenith. It also remains one of the more overt instances of queer storytelling. Though the iconic Mrs Danvers’ (Judith Anderson) predilection for Rebecca may have been missed by the audience at the time (though that is impossible to know for sure), the monstrous housekeeper has become something of a classic Hollywood touchstone for repressed female sensuality.
Women get a bit of a hard ride in this dreary but captivating tale. Joan Fontaine, playing the unnamed second Mrs De Winter is at once pitiful in her marriage to Maxim De Winter (Laurence Olivier) who seems intent on keeping her as his “little girl” whilst brooding over the titular Rebecca, his first wife.
Rebecca is a film which, in its critique of male and female relationships under the patriarchy, tests the second Mrs De Winter’s endurance of her flawed marriage and sets Rebecca free from the constraints of Maxim’s intense expectations. It resists painting Maxim as the cold-blooded murderer of Rebecca (as in the novel), she is simply instead a victim of his inability to love anything other than a wife over whom he can exert total control, but we are under no illusion by the end of the film that Maxim and the second Mrs De Winter’s marriage is near to irreparable in the aftermath of the film’s events. As a modern viewer, it is irksome to see the film tiptoe around making Olivier be completely villainous (Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) paid similar caution with Cary Grant), but with news of a new adaptation on the way (as ever), perhaps we will see more careful consideration for how men often feel emasculated, resulting in tragic consequences.
Returning to Mrs Danvers, you can imagine that at the time, her devotion to Rebecca could be happily be dismissed as servile devotion to the lady of the house, but upon the spine-tingling reveal that she keeps Rebecca’s undergarments and expensive clothes enshrined in the house for her to fondle and touch, we are under no illusions of her feelings for the late Mrs De Winter. Indeed, in the TV mini-series of the story in 1997, Dame Diana Rigg as Mrs Danvers really drives home her desirous intentions, perhaps in view of a potentially more receptive contemporary audience.
The pleasure in viewing Rebecca from Mrs Danvers’ perspective is that of a woman’s film or melodrama through a queer lens, even if Hitchcock would never admit it or even consciously know of it. When the film is viewed from her perspective, we can understand and sympathise with her pain, even if her cruel reception to The Second Mrs De Winter is uncalled for. Maxim suffers in his marriage to Rebecca and thus finds another woman, less powerful than his femme fatale wife and eventually moves on. He remains a well-off man within a patriarchal society while Mrs Danvers’ loses everything to a relationship that was fraught with the difficulties of class hierarchy and ambiguous sexuality.
Through Hitchcock’s disregard for Rebecca later in his career and his preference for the unsentimental and humour in his original adaptation (an early draft had Maxim and his anonymous wife meeting on a channel steamer, with Maxim bringing on her seasickness by blowing smoke in her face) Selznick’s instance on being faithful to the original text eventually won out. Selznick, it appears had some understanding of the psychology of the women in the novel, resulting in a natural sympathy for the second Mrs De Winter for an audience. In a note sent to Hitchcock, he explained the importance of maintaining the ‘feminine’ voice in Rebecca:
“…her nervousness and her self-consciousness and her gaucheries are all so brilliant in the book that every woman who has read it has adored the girl and has understood her psychology has cringed with embarrassment for her, yet has understood exactly what was going through her mind…just how bad a picture it would be without the little feminine things are so recognizable and which make every woman say. “I know just how she feels…I know just what she’s going through…”
The making of Rebecca could be regarded as a ‘trial by fire’ for Hitchcock as he began to learn how female audiences in America dictated box office success. In his long interview with Truffaut he addressed this: “…it’s generally women who has the final say on which picture a couple is going to see. In fact it is generally the woman who will decide, later on, whether it was a good picture.” And though Hitchcock may have been reluctant to indulge in “feminine literature”, it seems he did have aptitude for creating empathy within female subjectivity.