Ghosts, Tension, and Women in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca

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Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson in Rebecca (1940) – Image Courtesy of IMDb

With a remake on the horizon for Rebecca, the 1940 Gothic Romance that took home Best Picture at the Oscars, we examine the original from Alfred Hitchcock.

The man invented cinematic language and craft at every turn, becoming one of the most important directors in the history of film in the process. In a lengthy career that spanned decades, it remains upsetting that the master of tension and suspense only ever won Best Picture once, for his 1940 film Rebecca. Ironically enough, the 13th Academy Awards was still unlucky for Hitch, who went home empty-handed after losing the director’s prize to John Ford.

Title Card for Rebecca – Image Courtesy of IMDb

His winning film, Rebecca remains a masterpiece that transcends the era in which it was made. Now that the film is more than seventy-five years old, the costumes and production design scream period feature, despite the film and novel never specifying a time period for the events in question. Shot in Black-and-White by the esteemed cinematographer George Barnes, the film embraces the gothic feel in such a way that the world feels like it was plucked from a paperback bin at your local bookstore.

While some might say Rebecca has reached its creative apex in American culture, Hollywood often looks to the past for potential reboot ideas. Sure enough, Rebecca‘s time has come with a new film now in production from Netflix and director Ben Wheatley. To be honest, the cast looks good so far, with Armie Hammer set to star as Maxim DeWinter (Laurence Olivier in the Hitchcock version) and Lily James as an unnamed protagonist (Joan Fontaine). We could certainly do a lot worse.

The idea of remaking a Best Picture, let alone one directed by Hitchcock, seems like a tall task. With that in mind, let’s dive into the original Rebecca and understand why it has fascinated audiences for decades.

Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in Rebecca (1940) – Image Courtesy of IMDb

More from Alfred Hitchcock

The film version of Rebecca follows a young maiden (Fontaine) who meets the charming and handsome Mr. DeWinter (Olivier) while on a trip. The two have a whirlwind romance, and despite Mr. DeWinter losing his first wife just short of a year earlier, our maiden becomes his second wife. Yet when they arrive at Manderley, the DeWinter estate, she is met with open hostility from the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson).

The open disdain from Danvers would be one thing, but something far fouler hangs over the air in Manderley. At every turn, Mrs. DeWinter must see trinkets and reminiscings of Rebecca, DeWinter’s first wife. Like a ghost roaming the halls, the new Mrs. DeWinter cannot find peace or tranquility, only anger, and inferiority.

The way Hitchcock shoots the house and the world of Manderley brings out the haunted feeling in a very tactile and hyperrealistic fashion. With Barnes, the two make the camera move on the edges of the mansion, making each room and floor feel as spacious as possible. Yet in doing so, it literally heightens the tension and inferior stature of Fontaine, who looks small and inadequate compared to looming columns and stairwells.

In addition to the impressive costumes, dresses, and production work, the score swells throughout the film. Composer Franz Waxman, a twelve-time Oscar nominee and winner for Sunset Boulevard and A Place in the Suncrafts a timeless score that hits home the epic nature of the events. He gives the big moments their due, but also supplements the tension when called to deliver terrifying moments.