“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” the second Mrs. de Winter reminisces in Rebecca‘s opening sequence. Staying true to the introductory words of Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation immediately evokes the aesthetics and tone of the Gothic, even from the first, fog-shrouded moments of the opening credits. Du Maurier’s penchant for personification, which she applies to both nature and the Manderley estate, is applied to the narration that describes the desolate ruins of the house, the result of the film’s events.
Within five minutes, it’s clear that Hitchcock drew inspiration from Gothic literature for his Rebecca adaptation. The film is considered to be one of the director’s best, and was highly influential in shaping the future of Hollywood cinema. Rebecca tells the tale of a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who meets the rich widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). His previous wife, Rebecca, was well loved by everyone, including housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). As Maxim becomes increasingly emotionally distant and foul-tempered, the second Mrs. de Winter seeks more information on Rebecca and the circumstances of her death. So, what makes Rebecca such a Gothic masterpiece? To discern this, one must look at the way that the film presents Gothic themes on-screen.
Gothic fiction is characterised by a few fundamental themes. One of the most notable is that the main characters often have a dark past that they actively try to repress, yet it never remains hidden for long. This sets the stage for either literal or figurative ghosts of the past to return and wreak havoc on the characters’ lives. This is, of course, one of Rebecca’s main themes. Even though the titular character is dead, her presence at Manderley is perpetually felt by everyone who enters the estate. Maxim is haunted by the memory of Rebecca taunting him before her death, so much so that he initially refuses to go near the beach house where she died. Similarly, Mrs. Danvers remains so obsessed with Rebecca that she adamantly refuses to remove her possessions from the house and spends an inordinate amount of time in her bedroom, saying that she can even hear the footsteps of the deceased Mrs. de Winter.
The haunted nature of Manderley’s inhabitants would not be nearly so apparent if not for the powerful performances of Olivier and Anderson. Olivier’s quick-tempered portrayal of Maxim conveys the mental and emotional distress of the character, who is angered by even the smallest reminder of his late wife. He is someone who is deeply flawed and definitely abusive by today’s standards, but Olivier provides such a raw, affecting performance that it would be easy to feel sorry for him.
Similarly, Anderson’s cold and calculating portrayal of Mrs. Danvers leaves no doubt that her obsession with Rebecca has jeopardised her sanity. She clings to the past so much that she cannot accept the present, undermining Maxim’s new wife in a series of events that culminate with a suicide attempt. Mrs. Danvers would rather see the entire estate burn to the ground, with herself inside it, than let the memory of Rebecca fade.
The strong presence of Rebecca within the house is emphasised by Fontaine’s performance as the new Mrs. de Winter. The polar opposite of Olivier and Anderson’s roles, Fontaine’s character is very meek and placid for the majority of the film. The actress’ quiet but committed performance perfectly illustrates how Mrs. de Winter stands in the large, looming shadow of the woman who came before her. It is also notable that she is never even named during the course of the film, further allowing Rebecca to remain foregrounded in the viewer’s mind. The haunted demeanor of the characters and the constant references to Rebecca in conversation ensure that the film is entirely focused on her. Although Rebecca is dead, her memory cannot be escaped, as it is bound to Manderley.
The setting of a manor house is often inherently Gothic in nature; the ghosts of the past need somewhere to haunt. Rebecca’s constant presence at Manderley shows that the memories of her are attached directly to the house and the events that occurred there. This makes Rebecca’s ending all the more important. As Maxim returns to Manderley, having cleared his name, he finds the estate burning. This spells a definitive end to Rebecca’s involvement in his life. Maxim is no longer under investigation, and the destruction of the place where they dwelt together acts like an exorcism. Only its complete obliteration, along with all of the memories of Rebecca within, could rid Maxim of her.
Hitchcock incrementally builds tension in Rebecca, allowing for an unforgettable climax. The comments about Rebecca gradually add up, and increase the frustration of the second Mrs. de Winter as she chips away at her and Maxim’s relationship. The reminders of Rebecca start off innocently enough, like a neatly embroidered “R” on a handkerchief, and slowly progress into the undermining actions of Mrs. Danvers. When the conflict reaches its boiling point, the past is quite literally dredged up in the form of the sunken boat and the body of Rebecca therein. The resulting confrontation where Maxim admits to hitting Rebecca and causing her death is a truly shocking twist that is further dramatised by Olivier’s intense performance. As his character recounts Rebecca’s unfaithful actions, a bright shaft of light plays across his face, highlighting the tormented look that confirms his guilt.
While learning of Rebecca’s affairs may make Maxim sympathetic, in many ways he is a villain himself. Abusive husbands and persecuted wives are another key aspect of Gothic fiction. In these tales, women are often tormented by their husbands, and while Maxim plays the role of the victim, his new wife is correct when she states that Rebecca “can’t speak” and “can’t bear witness.” There is only one side of the story being told, and Maxim’s temperament implies that he’s more guilty than he claims.
The signs of Maxim’s manipulative nature are hinted at early in Rebecca when he meets the female protagonist on a trip to Monte Carlo. Maxim often refers to his second wife as a “fool” or “silly,” and she is even called a “child” by guests at the costume party, which Maxim does not seem bothered by in the slightest. When the second Mrs. de Winter finds herself with not enough appetite to eat her lunch, she is told to “eat it up like a good girl.” The casual infantilisation and subtle control that she is subjected to by Maxim is a reflection of the time the story takes place and when the film was made. To many modern viewers, however, these words are extremely uncomfortable to hear and serve as a warning about Maxim’s abusive and manipulative behaviour. On the various occassions that he unexpectedly loses his temper, when the second Mrs. de Winter does not even know what she’s done wrong, it is easy to view her as a victim in this tale, an innocent caught up in Maxim’s dark affairs by accident.
Considering this, it is not too difficult to speculate that Maxim may not be as innocent as he says. In fact, the late Mrs. de Winter is persecuted not just by Maxim, but by the film itself. Despite the objective fact that Maxim has, at the very least, committed manslaughter and obstructed justice by covering it up, the film portrays him as being a tragic and tormented figure to be sympathised with. His confession is not full of remorse, but rather excuses as to why he became violent against Rebecca. In a way, Maxim’s speech about her affairs and how she tormented him makes viewers feel that her death was deserved. However, Rebecca’s side of the story is never told, and the film only provides Maxim’s word as an explanation of what happened. Regardless of Rebecca’s alleged behaviour, the fact remains that the story centres on a husband who killed his wife, yet Rebecca is demonised and Maxim is painted as her victim.
Rebecca was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, and won both Best Picture and Best Cinematography. In subsequent years, there were several high-profile films that dealt with themes of abusive husbands and victimised wives, such as Gaslight (1944) starring Ingrid Bergman and The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947) starring Humphrey Bogart. These Gothic films involving tormented wives made up an entire cycle of Classical Hollywood films that lasted for the majority of the 1940s, and were clearly popularised by Hitchcock’s Manderley adaptation.
Rebecca’s greatness stems from its faithful approach to the Gothic roots of du Maurier’s novel, foregrounding all of the most important themes like repression of the past and marriages full of conflict. These are handled masterfully through the perfect casting choices and performances; the way that the characters are written, and the constant reminders of Rebecca throughout the film. Rebecca’s legacy has endured now for 80 years, and it is sure to remain a classic for many decades to come.
Lauren Miles (@Lauren_M1les) is a freelance film critic with a love of all things gothic, fantasy and film noir. She has been writing about film since the age of 15 and recently completed university studies in both film and journalism. You can find her writing at Digital Spy, Film Stories and more outlets.