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

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Fontaine helps sell this performance in spectacular fashion. The renowned actress would receive her first Oscar nomination for Rebecca, which would set the stage for her Oscar win for another Hitchcock picture, Suspicion the very next year. Fontaine sells the performance in every scene, making an overwhelmed woman who simply did not understand the world she was entering, a very sympathetic character.

Yet Fontaine’s greatest strength in the film is her ability to craft large emotional expressions on her face. For audiences just leaving the silent era, her attention to detail in her facial shifts help sell the performance as an epic tale worthy of the world in which it is located. Yet simultaneously, Fontaine shrinks into the corners of the screen, letting others literally dominate the physical space of the frames.

The subtle work Fontaine adds to the film is most effective when juxtaposed by the borderline all-time performance from Anderson. There is so much subtext to pull from in her performance and dialogue that entire books could be written on her. Anderson exudes anger, loss, lust, frustration, and hate, all blended together into an individual unable to lash out in a healthy manner.

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

Anderson’s aggressive nature builds over the course of the film, eventually turning into full rage and hate towards Fontaine. Anderson bullies our protagonist from side to side of the screen, making Regina George look like a nice girl in the process. She towers over Fontaine and chases her around the estate with an eye on making the new Mrs. DeWinter’s life a living hell.

Anderson’s character, Mrs. Danvers, also bubbles with tension from a repressed sexuality, one that was likely seen as lustful and sinful in the age. While Hitchcock could not speak queerness into the film, the subtext is some of the least subtle work that he ever put on screen. One might argue that Rope has more subtly than Mrs. Danvers.

In doing so, Hitch knowingly creates a queer character who has experienced a loss like no other. It is not simply that Rebecca is gone from this world, but potentially her lover and only confidant was lost to the sea. As more reveals occur throughout the film, a far more tragic story reveals itself: that Rebecca may have simply used Mrs. Danvers just as she had Mr. DeWinter and her “cousin” Jack Favell (George Sanders) for her own games.

The suffering and pain felt by Mrs. Danvers brings the figurative ghost over Manderley, egged on by the presence of her worldly possessions. Mrs. Danvers encourages the new Mrs. DeWinter to dress as Rebecca, unbeknownst to the new lady of the house. In other scenes, the pillowcases and bedding are made with monogrammed sheets and pillows, leaving a cursive R on every item in the room.

While the new Mrs. DeWinter grows stronger throughout the film, in many ways becoming an excellent example of a female protagonist in the story, Mrs. Danvers never loses her menace. As anger and tension mounts between the women, so too does a sexual tension that begins to draw Hitchcock’s eye.

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The performances of the two women help this feature soar and makes Rebecca a subversive Feminist and LGBT narrative from the 1940s. Ultimately, it is the emergence of these feelings, her sustained feelings of grief and loss, and a hatred towards Mr. DeWinter that causes Danvers to commit the violent acts that end the picture.

In typical Hitchcockian fashion, the director establishes an underlying sexual tension, used to help create stakes and interpersonal relationships among his characters. What separates Rebecca from many of the other stories he told over the years, is the looming character who never appears on screen once in the feature, the character of Rebecca. Her haunting of the film makes Manderley feel haunted from the word go, and the gothic architecture of the world feels at home with The Haunting of Hill House.

The shadow of a woman we never see can loom large over long portions of the film, tricking the audience into believing the ghost stories that Mrs. Danvers tells. These stories haunt the new Mrs. DeWinter for every moment over the first eighty to ninety minutes of the film. These are the moments that make this drama feel weighty and horrifying at every turn.

This is the legacy that Hammer, James, and Wheatley are betting they can take from, and tell another interesting story in the process. When a film is seventy-eight years old, you can roll the dice and take on the project. While you have a high bar to live up to, but with potential new avenues to take the story, there is a lot of interesting material that can be covered.

Ultimately, taking the approach of readapting the original novel by Daphne du Maurier feels like a wise choice. However, it can also go wrong if too many moments that Hitchcock relegated to subtext, become visual text for the film. It was the subtext that helped raise the tension and bring extra meaning to moments throughout the film. One has to wonder what the approach to the material will be with this creative team.

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What do you think of the original Rebecca? Who do you want to see in the role of Mrs. Danvers for the remake? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!