All about the 1940 film Rebecca, famous for an unseen character who haunts the narrative…
Analysing Rebecca (1940), Patricia White tells of the influence of women in the first of the Selznick and Hitchcock film classics.
Theatrical Trailer: Rebecca (1940), Eager Learner
The film Rebecca (1940) tells of a young, shy and unworldly unnamed protagonist (Joan Fontaine) simply known as “I”. After meeting a rich, enigmatic and moody widower, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), the pair have a fairy tale, whirlwind romance in Montecarlo that leads to their wedding. The newlyweds return to his Cornish manor house, Manderley. There she is haunted by the idolised memories of the “perfect” spectral figure of her new husband’s former wife, Rebecca.
This film was like the perfect “cake” that I’ve always craved and longed for. As I watched this black and white film for the first time, I was engaged and mesmerised by Alfred Hitchcock and David O Selznick’s atmospheric and hypnotic cinematic on-screen retelling of this always popular Daphne du Maurier novel. It had all the ingredients of a successful film adaptation, in the right amounts of input from this director, producer and author and their attributes together easily destined it for its addition to classic film history.
Comparing this film to its numerous subsequent film and television adaptations, I felt that these seemed like inferior copies. Despite some great acting talent involved, it appeared none of these conveyed the credibility, atmosphere and essence found in this first film. This 1940 film version, made days after World War II started, won Best Picture and swept the board with eleven nominations at the 1941 Academy Awards. It garnered well deserved “Best” nominations for the three acting leads and was Hitchock’s only Oscar win.
Rebecca by Patricia White advocates this film should be recognised as a classic. The contents of her book which explored this film in great detail literally added the icing to this particular brand of “cake”. I believe this book was the perfect complement to this movie.
White’s book is one from the British Film Institute’s Film Classic series. White easily and beautifully joins its predecessors with her credible and supported reasoning for adding this movie to this book series. This author’s perspective, analysis and thoughts were backed with extensive research, illuminating facts and well selected photographs.
Written during the current pandemic, this book demonstrates White’s strengths as a researcher and collator. Despite the restrictions, she continued to research this book obtaining extensive material from archives, articles and books. These sources all added fuel to her writing and added more substance to her passion and understanding of this subject.
In this book’s introduction, White shares a rich telling of the history surrounding the novel’s inception before its 1938 publication. Interestingly, in her brief biography of the novel’s author, it is inferred Rebecca may have been a thinly disguised biographical piece as White shares the striking similarities between the authoress and the unnamed protagonist from Du Maurier’s novel.
White’s writing is filled with a deep comprehension of this film in relation to its place in film history and of its varying descriptions and themes. White outlines that familiar on-screen adapted Daphne du Maurier story and adds her detailed analyses of the production and creativity used in telling this story.
This production tells of those who collaborated on the production of this film “aesthetically” and “technically”. Her fascinating insights into this film are also added to this detailed and illuminating book. She finally tells of the reception on the film’s release and of its never ending legacy.
In her telling of this film’s beginnings and production, White adds some previously unadded names to this rich tapestry weaved by Selznick and Hitchcock. She advocates for the inclusion of a third ever-present collaborator, suggesting that the novel’s authoress Du Maurier should be included. White shares that Du Maurier was given more control of the film content and she argues for the recognition of unnamed and named women in the making of this film from before its inception.
In this vein, she tells how Hitchcock and Selznick’s wives and these men’s female colleagues brought Du Maurier’s novel to their attention. These women convincing these men of its viability as a film project. White asserts this then led to both men exploring making it as individuals, then after Selznick bought the film rights, he invited Hitchcock to direct this film. This was their first collaboration after Hitchcock moved to America.
White believes the film then became a film male lead brand movie in the names of this director and producer but argues women who had a part to “play in the production, text and reception” of the film. White easily justifies this as a film for women – Selznick’s niche – and created by women.
Supplementing her text, White’s well-chosen carefully selected photographs captured this film’s plot. The film came to life with many wonderful shots supporting her vivid descriptions interspersed throughout this book. Other photographs aided White’s rich account of the film’s production and demonstrated the film’s impact after it was produced. These retold this film as a whole without the need for words.
White tells how writers and filmmakers are challenged when writing about this novel, film and phenomenon. This quandary is what to call the female protagonist, as she has no name. White uses “I” to describe this character and she skillfully uses this label in her book. This “I” she believes is not a “fixed” name, and that it “shifts” then changes to Mrs De Winter. This transformation is echoed in the novel and the film.
White’s narration of events shows the tactics used by Hitchcock and Selznick in recreating this first person perspective. She believes that this was achieved by Selznick in his using the famous initial opening narration from the protagonist. Hitchcock then directed the scenes as seen from this protagonist’s point of view and this was felt in the larger than life imposing set pieces representing Manderley.
She then skillfully outlines the production of this film in a recounting of the action and filming techniques. In this detailed examination of the film, she breaks it down into smaller manageable parts. Her insights into this film contribute to and add more substance to the film in her rich description. These naturally from scene to scene as you relive this film in White’s powerful descriptions and her creative descriptions.
White provides her thoughts, facts and research to back her research arguments which all beautifully complement her detailed analytical look at the movie. This book amplifies this film story with not just a narrative account but provides an empathetic understanding of this film as a whole and in doing so its historical legacy and classic status can be assured.
White also explores the filmmakers’ difficulties in conveying the oppressiveness of the unseen character, Rebecca in this film. This was felt in the ambience of the sets and conveyed in the many props. These including Rebecca’s personal possessions such as her monogrammed stationery.
At its most haunting extremes, it was supported in the set for Rebecca’s room. This room was like a shrine and filled with her glamorous, feminine and personal possessions many of which have physical traces of her. Other memories of this “perfect” wife and idolised mistress were conveyed in the script – particularly in the taunting from Danvers the housekeeper – and significant others in the film.
This film version of the novel was adapted to fit in with the then Hays code. This meaning that two of the more defining plotlines of the novel were altered. White explains these controversial themes were hinted at rather than exploited or adapted to fit in with these regulations.
In the final chapter, she looks at how this film was received after its release and talks of women’s contribution to its rich legacy. White believes this film has endured in that it has a large number of remakes and reboots. Additionally, women identified with the thoughts and feelings of its protagonist. Many award ceremonies honoured its cast and production, and it spawned a wide range of merchandise.
I felt White’s book was a perfect introduction to the British Film Institute Film Classics series and this book was a valuable document of this film and its production. In her approach to writing her book, White stayed consistent with and met the guidelines that related to this book series. In doing so she created a sterling contribution to inform future BFI writers, scholars, film buffs and fans of the film and the novel.
To conclude, on a personal note, when I read this book, this process reminded me of the protagonist’s first narration as she returns to Manderley. As like that author in those opening words, I returned to this book after seeing the film. I was stuck in my many thoughts on it buzzing around my head. White opened the gate and assisted with these stumbling blocks.
Her thoughts, facts, photographs and arguments added to and adorned this film’s familiar story, production, and legacy, like the nature that had returned on the path to Manderley. White expertly and effortlessly recounted the twist and turns of the plot and the development of the film. These were like the ever-present path to Manderley.
Then like the film led the protagonist to her final destination, Manderley, this book convinced me of its suitability as a classic film. In this now published book, an enduring guide to this classic film that will haunt its viewers and filmmakers, reboots and remakes for many years to come.
A disclaimer and personal thank you to NetGalley for inviting me to write this post. Also thanks to Bloomsbury Academic, BFI Films Classic for allowing me to review this book. Financial compensation was not received for this post. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions expressed here are my own. If you are involved in the entertainment industry and would like to be featured or promoted here, please drop a line to me via my Contact Me Page.