Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca (1940) is the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece that won Best Picture and Best Cinematography Oscars in 1940, and was nominated for seven more, and may both be and not be held by those who have a say in these matters to be a film noir.

But if Rebecca is not an example of film noir, what then is Rebecca, with its suspense, mystery, paranoia and brooding atmosphere?

Rebecca in fact while not held as being film noir, does feature many of the aspects of the genre which may be called the paranoid woman film: a young woman, captive in body and mind, lost in a spooky house masquerading as a family home; and a husband who may or may not be homicidal, possibly also even suicidal.

Thing is, in this production, the husband is captive too, which may be a more accurate psychological assessment of marriage. At the very least, Rebecca is a firm and fine example of the paranoid woman genre, and is certainly also to be considered in many aspects as -  an example of film noir.

So even though Rebecca doesn't cut the mustard as a fully fledged film noir, and although Alfred Hitchcock's films are sometimes even said to inhabit a genre all of their own, Rebecca has paranoia and shadows, mystery and murder, and although it's sometimes all foamy seas and rugged rocks, these are the psychological markers of the minds in turmoil within.

Although billed as a "romantic psychological thriller", film noir is no respecter of genre boundaries, and it's a bit of an ocean itself, with various currents, themes and locations. One such location is the feature concerning the paranoid woman, something almost single-handedly invented in cinematic terms by Daphne du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock, with the prototypical example Jamaica Inn.

Fans may also be curious to read that The Breen Office, Hollywood's censorship board, specifically prohibited any outright hint of a lesbian infatuation or relationship between Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca, or indeed Max played by Joan Fontaine, although the film clearly does dwell on Danvers' obsessive memories of her late mistress.

So if you have the deliberate and the psychological suppression of sexuality in a movie of the 1940s, and even more so any homosexuality, it is fair to say that you are in the presence of film noir. 

The reveal of Rebecca, and what the truth behind all the paranoia, doubts and lies - in fact, that which is referred to as the eponymous heroine's 'dirty bargain' - confuses matters no end, allowing husband and wife to despise themselves, although not one other, with far greater depth. What we conclude is that marriage is complex beyond measure, and never an agreement in which there are simply two sole parties.

Joan Fontaine certainly has cause to offer her 'pained expression' and her 'confused and pained expression' when the action heats up at Mandalay. In the hands of Alfred Hitchcock, this is devastating. The effect that Hitchcock used so many times, in which the actor faces the camera fully-on, and the camera then subsequently stares them down, is almost unique to this director.

Maxim de Winter: I can't forget what it's done to you. I've been thinking of nothing else since it happened. It's gone forever, that funny young, lost look I loved won't ever come back. I killed that when I told you about Rebecca. It's gone. In a few hours, you've grown so much older.

Regarding Alfred Hitchcock's innovations in style, have a look at this. Unique to Hitchcock, there are scenes in Rebecca that were to be repeated throughout his working life, and in fact remained unique to him, as nobody else seemed to be able to manage them in the same way.

The following encounter is quite typical of Alfred Hitchcock. He used these shots sparingly, but always exactly in the right place. The encounter between Mrs Danvers and Maxim (Joan Fontaine) is striking, almost Avant Garde, terrifying in its way, and allows us to feel for Rebecca in a manner that was wholly Hitchcock; it was his way into our emotions.

And the paranoid staring contests escalate as the film moves on, all beautifully framed by the high gothic mystery of what must surely resemble the new family home of the 1940s, as screened by the period nightmares of Hollywood.

Brooding Husband

Fearful Wife

Dressed for the part - flight yet with nowhere to hide

Lies and Locked Doors

George Sanders and Joan Fontaine

Alfred Hitchcock felt Rebecca, which was his first Hollywood film, was a compromise, but viewers will hardly be able to fault it, even today.  It is still a masterpiece, and full of suspense, mystery and brooding atmosphere. It's also one of the most romantic movies of the era, and this was an era of high romance. Romance is not in fact a genre that is much approved of any more, and so it is to this kind of film, and Rebecca is a great example, to which modern romantics still turn for escape.

Everything regarding Rebecca is about Alfred Hitchcock, and less about the background, and that includes the movie's place in the film noir universe. 

Rebecca however is wholly noir. Rebecca, the mysterious character of the title, absent but for her perfection and idealised feminine status is the perfect psychological and mysterious backdrop to what is coming. She is, or was, a glamorous, beautiful socialite who  won the hearts of all who knew her; and there, a year after her untimely death, her grieving husband is near his wit's end and has grown seemingly suicidal and aloof. He may of course, only be saved by love, and its hopes.

She is not alone. Face to face with evil, there is no way out for hero Max, and it is a great credit to Alfred Hitchcock that the melodrama actually comes across as believable fare, something that in effect we can all become swept up in.

Amazingly enough, the couple become complicit in a series of events that do not even particularly amount a murder. Whatever the psychological thrills, the excitement piles on for the story and the success of the film is that it manages to promise love, real love and healing, out of the psychological torments which are the obvious corollaries of marriage.

Hitchcock, noted for his subtle sexual under-tones in films spares none of that here as Judith Anderson's character (the show-stealing Mrs Danvers) and the late titled character's relationship seemed to go much further than employee-employer. Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers, slowly tries to drive Fontaine to insanity and the end she may accomplish her devious goal.

A final note: User reviews of Rebecca sometimes ask why a film that won Best Picture Oscar, could also in this instance fail to win the Best Director award also. This may be because of the internal workings of the Hollywood production system, and the award may in fact have been for David O'Selznik and not for Alfred Hitchcock.

Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper: Most girls would give their eyes for the chance to see Monte!
Maxim de Winter: Wouldn't that rather defeat the purpose?

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