Blogathons, Films I Love, Romance

The Second Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon: Rebecca (1940)

Hitchcock blogathon 5

This is my entry for my Alfred Hitchcock blogathon being held in a few days time. I can’t wait to read all of your entries. If you would like to join in there is still plenty of time for you to do so. Learn more and sign up here. See you all on the 6th and 7th of July. 

There are not enough words available for me to be able to use to accurately describe how much I love the film RebeccaI consider it to be one of the best Gothic films ever made, and I consider it to also be one of the most engrossing and visually interesting Alfred Hitchcock films. 

Rebecca is a haunting, gripping, suspenseful and creepy film. It is also a film that lingers on in the memory long after you’ve finished watching it.   

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Mrs. Danvers upsets the new bride. Screenshot by me.

The film features Joan Fontaine delivering one of her best screen performances, that of the shy, tormented and emotionally fragile young woman who attempts to take the dead Rebecca’s place as mistress of the Manderley estate(based on Daphne Du Maurier’s house in Cornwall, which was called Menabilly). Judith Anderson delivers the other standout performance in the film as the sinister and obsessed housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. 

Rebecca was Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film, and it was also his first film made under contract to the producer David O’ Selznick. The film was based upon the novel of the same name written by the great Daphne Du Maurier in 1938. The novel is one of my favourites and I especially love how vivid and intriguing it is.

Rebecca is a book that really draws you in. I think that Hitchcock’s film does the same thing. He also did a terrific job of capturing the eerie atmosphere of the novel. He makes us actually feel the oppressive presence of the dead Rebecca de Winter, and he does so without ever showing us her face.

We don’t need to see Rebecca in flashbacks or photos to know what she was like, instead we learn what we need to know about her just as the new Mrs. de Winter learns it. We  also only become aware of Rebecca’s lingering presence and influence just as the new wife becomes aware when she takes up residence in Manderley.   

Besides being extremely atmospheric and intriguing, this film is also a real character piece. It is the unseen Rebecca who is the most memorable of all the characters in the film. The memory of Rebecca haunts most of the main characters who we follow throughout the film.

We also learn more about Rebecca’ s personality as we see why the various main characters loved her or hated her. We also learn that while she may have beautiful on the outside, on the inside she was anything but, and she also did a great deal of damage to people.

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Rebecca is always present in some way. Screenshot by me.

The second Mrs. de Winter is shown constantly comparing herself to Rebecca. She fears that she can never become the type of woman that Rebecca was, a woman who is beautiful, accomplished, fearless, confident and strong. She is intimidated by Rebecca and by the beautiful, large and well run home which Rebecca organised and arranged.

The second wife isn’t alone in being unable to escape Rebecca. Other people who knew her cannot escape her either. Maxim is unable to stop experiencing his mixed feelings for Rebecca(he both loathed and loved her)and he is also haunted by what happened in her final moments of life. Maxim has become a tortured soul desperately seeking peace and salvation(which he finds in the form of his new wife).

Mrs. Danvers is devastated by the loss of Rebecca, and she is haunted by the memory of this young woman who was so full of life and whom Mrs. Danvers loved, adored and doted upon. Jack Favell is haunted by the memory of the passionate and vibrant Rebecca; a woman who shared his temperament and tastes, and with whom he had a long running love affair. 

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Maxim and his new wife talk about Rebecca. Screenshot by me.

Rebecca may well be dead, but she lives on in the memories of all who knew her. The memory of her reaches out from beyond the grave to crush the happiness of those left alive. The living may find some amount of happiness, but try as they might, they can never truly escape the memory of this woman,they also cannot forget the things she said and did while she lived. 

We don’t need to see a photo or portrait of Rebecca to be able to form a picture of her in our minds as we watch the film. We know she was beautiful, we know she was a woman who commanded and received constant attention and admiration by all who knew her, and we know that she was a teasing and manipulative woman too. When I read the book or watch the film, I always picture Rebecca as looking like a cross between the actresses Vivien Leigh and Margaret Lockwood. 

Interestingly Vivien Leigh desperately wanted to play the second Mrs. de Winter in this film, alongside her husband Laurence Olivier as Maxim. Vivien even made a screentest for the part. I have to say that having seen the screentest I’m afraid that she is all wrong for the character.

Vivien displays none of the shyness, the fragility, or the naive quality that the second Mrs. de Winter needed to have about her. I think that Joan Fontaine was undoubtedly the right woman for this particular role. Had they gone down the flashback route with the film, then I think Vivien would have been perfect for the role of Rebecca.

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A rare happy moment for the couple.Screenshot by me.

The film begins in Monte Carlo. The brooding, middle aged, wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier)is about to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff. Maxim is stopped from jumping by a young woman(Joan Fontaine, playing a character who is never named in the book or film)who sees him and is concerned about what he is about to do. 

He later discovers that she is staying at the same hotel that he is. He finds that she is working as a paid companion to the odious Mrs. Van Hopper (a scene stealing Florence Bates). Maxim and this young woman gradually begin to befriend one another and fall in love. 

She loves him because he is kind to her and genuinely takes an interest in her, and because he allows her an escape from her current life and social station. He loves her because she is pure, fresh, kind and innocent; with those personality traits she is the polar opposite of his dead first wife, a woman who haunts his memories.

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The couple arrive home to be greeted by all the staff. Screenshot by me.

They marry and return to England, to stay in Maxim’s family estate of Manderley. Once in her new home, the second Mrs. de Winter must try and fit in with her husband’s upper class lifestyle, and also try and compete with the lingering memory of his dead first wife, Rebecca. The first Mrs.de Winter drowned in the sea, but there is actually much more to her death than we first believe.

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Rebecca’s monogrammed stationery. Screenshot by me.

Traces of Rebecca linger in every part of the house. Rebecca’s bedroom is kept exactly as it was when she lived. Her clothes are still hanging in the wardrobe, the furnishings, menus and the flower arrangements in the house are all still hers.

The study is still filled with her monogrammed stationery and address books. Staff and friends also talk about Rebecca quite often, and their words remind the second Mrs. de Winter of the great differences between herself and Rebecca.

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Rebecca’s monogrammed pillowcase. Screenshot by me.

The housekeeper of Manderley is Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) and she is a sinister, creepy and highly manipulative woman who is obsessed with Rebecca, and she feels very threatened by the presence of the new Mrs. de Winter.

The young woman is scared of the housekeeper and she also becomes more and more nervous as her worries and feelings of inadequacy grow. She keeps comparing herself to Rebecca and she starts to think she is no good for Maxim. At one point Mrs. Danvers even tries to take advantage of the young woman’s fragile state of mind by attempting to persuade her to commit suicide.

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Jack drops by and causes trouble. Screenshot by me.

A visit to Manderley by the suave and smarmy Jack Favell(George Sanders), who was Rebecca’s cousin and lover, makes it very clear to us that Rebecca had some major secrets. These secrets piques the interest of the second Mrs. de Winter. As the film goes on, hearts get broken, dark secrets are revealed, and nothing will ever be the same again. 

Joan Fontaine is superb as the fragile and tragic young woman trying so hard to stay strong, but who feels her control of her life slipping away.

I love how she also manages to convincingly convey the massive change that her character goes through, as she gradually transitions from shy and fragile to becoming a much stronger and dominant woman standing up to Mrs. Danvers and to the memory of Rebecca.

Joan really makes you feel for this woman and she is totally convincing as a woman on the verge of a breakdown. Joan was Oscar nominated for her work here but she lost out to Ginger Rogers for Kitty Foyle.

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Joan Fontaine. Screenshot by me.

Joan would take home the award the following year for her performance in another Hitchcock film, Suspicion; in that film Joan plays a similar character to Mrs. de Winter with both characters being in great emotional distress, both of them are also fragile and consumed by fear and worry. Rebecca would go on to become the only Hitchcock film to win the director a Best Picture Oscar. 

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Laurence Olivier. Screenshot by me.

Laurence Olivier is excellent as the tormented Maxim. He convincingly conveys this man’s changing nature, being relaxed and happy with his new bride one moment, and becoming short tempered, distant and sad when he is made to think of Rebecca.

I quite like Laurence and I think that he is a good actor, but he’s never been a favourite of mine. I have also never understood all the hype surrounding his acting skills. I think he is very good in this role though and he subtly conveys so much to us with his eyes and expressions. 

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Judith Anderson. Screenshot by me.

Judith Anderson steals every scene she is in as Mrs. Danvers. Watch her eyes and her body language, she says so much without uttering dialogue. This is one of her best performances for sure.

I like how Mrs. Danvers is a complex villain. She may well be scary and cruel, but she was made that way after becoming unhinged by the grief of losing Rebecca. Grief can do strange things to people, and it has really damaged this woman. 

George Sanders also steals all the scenes he is in. He also provides a tiny bit of comic relief as the sarcastic and interfering Jack Favell. This was the first film that I ever saw George in and I became an instant fan of his.  He plays Jack as a man for whom words are weapons. He has great fun in the role and gets to deliver some brilliant lines. 

The film is shot in black and white and this really adds to the gothic atmosphere. The cinematography by George Barnes is beautiful and memorable. I especially love the cinematography in the scene where we see Rebecca’s bedroom for the first time, and also the scene where Mrs. Danvers tries to make Mrs. de Winter jump to her death.

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Exploring Rebecca’s beautiful bedroom. Screenshot by me.

The film also features some stunning lighting and some interesting camera movement. There are scenes where the camera pulls back from Joan Fontaine and I think that was done to make it seem like Rebecca is in the same room with her, watching her, moving around her and sharing her space. Joan Fontaine is also filmed in a way that makes her appear small in comparison to her surroundings and other characters.

I also love the score by Franz Waxman. I think that the score captures the romance, the dread, the mystery and the eerie aspects of the story perfectly. 

If there is one thing about both the novel and the film that really annoys me, it is that the second wife is never named. I get why this was done (to make her seem insignificant in comparison to Rebecca), but I really think that could have still been achieved if the character had been given a name. 

My favourite scenes are the following. Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter meeting for the first time on the clifftop. The “I am Mrs. de Winter now!”scene.  Maxim’s marriage proposal. The scene where the second Mrs. de Winter goes downstairs wearing the same dress that Rebecca once wore. The scene where Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter watch their honeymoon video. Chasing Jasper on the beach and finding the cottage. The confession scene. Exploring Rebecca’s bedroom. Jack trying to blackmail Maxim in the car. 

It has often been noted that the story of Rebecca bears many similarities to Jane Eyre. I think this is true. Maxim and his second wife are so similar to Jane Eyre and Rochester. Maxim is desperate to escape a hellish past and find peace and happiness with a pure and decent woman (just as Rochester is). The second Mrs de Winter is quiet and shy, and she has been bullied and used by many people, in Maxim she finds someone who loves her and will be kind to her (just like Jane). Both the second Mrs de Winter and Jane also become very strong and determined women as their stories go on. It’s fun to study the film and spot the similarities and to compare characters and situations. 

This is one of my favourite Hitchcock films. It is also a film that I never get tired of watching. If you enjoyed this film and the book, then I would also recommend an excellent miniseries adaptation of Rebecca. The series is from 1979, and it stars the great Jeremy Brett as Maxim and Joanna David as the second wife. The series is very close to the book and is allowed more time to develop the characters. I also quite like the 1997 miniseries starring Charles Dance as Maxim. 

What are your thoughts on this Hitchcock film?

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23 thoughts on “The Second Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon: Rebecca (1940)”

  1. A great review of a great film. I agree with you that this is one of the best Gothic films. Also, I think that even with all the “restrictions” imposed on Hitchcock here, there are still so many evident trademarks of his emerging here, such as interesting camera movements as you noted. I also agree that Vivien Leigh would have been perfect as Rebecca, rather than second Mrs de Winter, because I also imagine someone like Gene Tierney in this role too.

    The only pity I have with this film is that, reading the novel, it appears very morally complex and interesting, whereas, the film, naturally for that time, could only portray the main heroes as completely morally impeccable at the end. Therefore, the film is too straightforward and less interesting in that way (though, through no fault of its own).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much. Glad you enjoyed reading it. I agree with you about the book being more morally complex, it is one of my favourite novels and I love the complex characters, the mystery and the darkness. I think Hitch did a very good job adapting it, but I agree with you about the morality of the characters. Also Rebecca’s death had to be changed too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The family watched this last year. It was the first viewing for my husband and daughter and the first in many years for myself. You could have heard a pin drop! Hitch, his players and the setting engrossed us. Waxman certainly didn’t hurt!

    Even knowing Hitchcock’s accomplishments to this date, it was quite an impressive American debut and he set the bar high for the rest of his career. I look forward to another viewing in the not too distant future.

    Thank you for hosting this blogathon. Looking forward to a lot of great reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So happy to hear how much you all enjoyed this film, and how it reeled you all in. Every shot and scene is perfectly put together. I agree with you that this is an impressive US debut for him. I’m looking forward to reading your entry, and those of everyone else too.

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  3. I love the film too. It is Gothic at its best.

    It was a good idea never to show what Rebecca looks like. I always envisioned her like Hedy Lamarr, simply impossibly beautiful. Where did you see the screen test with Vivien Leigh?

    Judith Anderson’s performance is a tour de force. Creepy how she fondles dead Rebecca’s underwear, but at the same time we feel pity with her.
    It’s unfortunate that the circumstances of Rebecca’s death were changed but then it’s understandable though I do think Maxim’s guilt in the novel added an extra layer of depth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The screen test is on YouTube, just type in Vivien Leigh Rebecca screen test. Joan’s screen test is on there too. I agree about the death, but I still think it works because he is still so torn up about it. Totally agree with you about Judith Anderson.

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      1. I have just watched Leigh’s screening for Rebecca, and it made me laugh a bit because my impression is that Leigh character there is such a strong-willed woman that she could bully Mrs Danvers herself. When Maxim says: “it is as though you afraid of her” [Mrs Danvers], I really burst out laughing. No one will intimidate like that any of the Vivien Leigh characters. Even when she looks innocent, you can sense this power within her, and therefore you are so right, she would have been all wrong there.

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  4. A buffo and comprehensive review of an all-time classic, one I always rate as one of my absolute favorite Hitchcocks, even with his magisterial burst in the 50s. You cover all the bases here, and as far as the film’s allure and artistry it does all go back to the du Maurier’s Gothic treasure. I always get a big laugh with Mrs. Van Hopper’s character, am enthralled with Fontaine, Olivier, Sanders and of course Judith Anderson, whom you rightly note steals ever scene she appears in, including the goose-bump inducing segment when she goads on Fontaine to jump out the window. Waxman’s score and Barnes’ cinematography are magnificent and among the best ever recorded on film. Not so sure they were right to choose this as Best Picture in 1940 over Ford’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH, but I’d say they are just about equal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Sam! It’s hard to narrow down Hitchcock’s films and decide which ones are best, but if I was going to try and do that, then this film would be very near the top of the list. Mrs. Van Hopper is hysterical but so annoying.

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  5. I’m a fan of the film and even bigger fan of the novel, and enjoyed these reminders of why I love both. I agree; Sanders made more of the part than existed in the book. And Olivier, whom I usually find insipid and artificial, fits this role so well (probably because Maxim is unlikable). I’ve always thought of Anjelica Huston when I picture Rebecca–someone with much stronger features than Leigh, but I get the forcefulness. What I think so fascinating about reading this book over time is how much my attitudes have shifted. My sympathies have shifted more toward Rebecca, and less toward this small-minded, prudish, controlling husband. She was no saint, but she’s not the killer in the story.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know what you mean about the character of Rebecca, While I mostly hate her because she caused so much misery and used people, I do feel a bit of sympathy for her. She was clearly in a marriage that was unhappy. In this time it was very rare for wives to divorce their husbands, so unless Maxim divorced her she was trapped in a situation she hated.

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  6. Not seen this one Maddy but I’m sure to one day as I work my way through his works especially with how much your love of the film shines through. These four “S” films are all on my to watch soon list – Saboteur, Suspicion and Sabotage and Secret Agent. Plus there’s surprisingly quite a few others I need to to get too. Great movie time ahead.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I highly recommend it. I envy you starting out on your Hitchcock journey. The four you’re going to see are all good, but I like Sabotage and Suspicion the most. The actor Norman Lloyd who plays the bad guy in Saboteur is still with us now aged 103!

      Happy viewing. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. 103 that’s amazing. I love it when you look up actors and see them still alive. I did it yesterday looking upr Marsha Hunt, still going at a 100. Unfortunately it goes the other way too and you see so many go so young. Anyhoo I will entainment myself with those two Hitchcock’s first. Thank you.

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      2. It’s always lovely to find an actor you enjoy watching is still with us. A few times I’ve been convinced someone has been dead years, only to look them up and discover they are still going strong. Have fun with your Hitchcock viewing.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I have long loved ‘Rebecca’ and think it is among Hitchcock’s absolute best works. Joan Fontaine was really very suited for the role as the second Mrs. DeWinter and I find that she made a fine couple with Olivier’s Maxim.
    I feel like the film portrays Maxim as a weak man which can be frustrating because he is sometimes blind to his wife’s uneasiness. He knows of her inexperience and, like you mentioned, was attracted to her because she was so different from the other people in his world. However, he offers her limited companionship and blindingly trusts Mrs. Danvers to keep a watch over the goings-on of the estate. Perhaps Maxim is in a sort of dream state over the events with his first wife, however, which makes him appear more powerless due to his underlying feelings of guilt.
    It would have been a great thing to have given the second Mrs. DeWinter a name. 🙂

    Thank you for writing such a lovely review about a remarkable film!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading! Glad you enjoyed it. I think you’re right about Maxim’s state of mind. I also think that he knows how devoted Mrs. Danvers was to Rebecca, and although he hated his wife, he doesn’t have the heart to turn out Danvers. So he just lets Mrs. Danvers carry on as normal and is blind to the effect she has on his new wife.

      I’m so glad it’s not just me who wishes the second wife could have had a name!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Loved reading your review of one of my favourite Hitchcock films. I have a very fond memory of watching Rebecca with my grandmother as a kid many years ago and it had such an impact on me back then. I agree with you that Hitchcock’s shaping of Mrs Danvers as a complex villain works well, and I don’t think anyone other than Judith Anderson could have played the role. Joan Fontaine is also superbly cast and she beautifully conveys the character’s emotional fragility and lack of confidence. And yes, doesn’t George Sanders rob every scene he’s in!? But he seems to do that in almost every film he’s in! Thanks so much Maddy for a great write-up.

    Liked by 1 person

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