It’s not just that Hitchcock’s Rebecca wasn’t exactly Daphne du Maurier’s; it wasn’t entirely Hitchcock’s either. Arriving in Hollywood in 1939, Hitchcock’s first American feature was overshadowed by David O. Selznick, the producer who had bought him and who liked to run things his way. 

“Selznick’s Rebecca” (as the publicity had it, relegating the director to the position of a “mentor” who had “collaborated” with Selznick) was to be “the most glamorous picture ever made”. Made in 1940, it was heralded as the successor to Gone With the Wind, the film which in fact absorbed nearly all Selznick’s energies during the actual shooting of Rebecca, though he reserved the last edit to himself and laid in the corny Franz Waxman score.

But it was the feminine angle of Rebecca that caused ructions. Or rather which Selznick defended in injured tones, rejecting as “distorted and vulgarised” Hitchcock’s first treatment of the novel, and insisting that the picture respect “the little feminine things which are so recognisable and which make every woman say, ‘I know just how she feels. I know just what she’s going through.”’ And this meant sticking to the story.

Selznick was renowned for his filming of literary classics (Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Prisoner of Zenda). He revered the capacity of film to bring books and their characters to life. The promotion of Rebecca concentrated on book tie-ins. From lending-library stands in cinema foyers to illustrated bookmarks, advance screening for “book experts” and “thorough school coverage”, the literariness, and thereby the borrowed cultural cachet, of the film was enhanced. 

Tributes to “the importance of the du Maurier family in English letters and the stage” mingled with shameless exhortations to the English distributors to “cash in on the appeal of Your Famous Bestseller”. A letter competition invited local girls to discuss such nervous topics as ‘Should A Girl Marry Outside Her Social Class?’ or ‘Would You Marry A Man You Knew Little About?’ (though not, it should be noted, ‘Why Marry A Man Old Enough To Be Your Father?’).

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This feature is taken from our May 1996 issue

There was every kind of tension between Selznick and Hitchcock. Hitchcock was impatient with the idea of movie-making as “picturisation”. But he also in later years disowned the film as catering too much for the female audience Selznick clearly had in mind. “It’s not a Hitchcock picture”, he told François Truffaut. “It’s a novelette really. The story is old-fashioned; there was a whole school of feminine literature at the period, and though I’m not against it, the fact is that the story is lacking in humour.” (Two of the scenes which Selznick had cut from the script were of vomiting: hearty male jokes, presumably.) 

The taint of the novelettish lingered: “Boots library in its level of appeal”, sneered Lindsay Anderson in 1972, with public school hauteur and far more cultural snobbery than ‘Hitch’, who wanted to make films that could be both experimental and popular.

Slavishness to the literary and, even worse, to the woman’s novel of the 30s, was compounded by the kind of romantic glamourisation of settings and of actors which offended Hitchcock’s more democratic sensibilities and documentary leanings. Where Selznick was drawn to the past, the gorgeous and the patrician, Hitchcock wrote articles in the 30s championing “the only genuine life and drama” in Britain, that of “ordinary everyday citizens”. He proclaimed himself a believer in the “little man”, loathing “dress shirts, cocktails, and Oxford accents”, the bottled-up stiff breeding of the English upper classes and the stagey actors who mimicked them. Like Laurence Olivier playing Maxim de Winter, du Maurier’s suave but tormented hero.

It is easy to see Rebecca as a transitional, settling-in kind of film: Hitchcock’s debut in Hollywood, his compromise with the producer-director system, his trial-run of the superior resources that the American film industry had to offer. In the auteur theory, which charts the director’s progress as the inevitable development of his genius (followed usually by the sad decline of the old man: enter his young disciples), Rebecca is an ‘immature’ film which nevertheless shows ’the Master’ emerging from his apprenticeship. 

In their now-classic account of Hitchcock, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol did their best to blame du Maurier for any of the film’s faults, curiously arguing that while he absolutely faithfully adapted the “gossipy and somewhat affected novel”, Hitchcock turned it into something quite different – a “modern and disquieting” thriller.

Did they read the book? Fans of du Maurier’s original might well argue that far from Hitchcock saving her novel, Rebecca provided him with the kind of material that brought out his strengths. Rebecca was in fact a long way from the Edwardian novelette, or the standard fare of interwar romance, which is why it survived when so many titles faded into oblivion. (Who now reads Bertha Ruck?) 

Transporting the gauche heroine to the aristocratic Manderley, the novel kicks off where most romances end, with life after marriage. None of du Maurier’s novels close to the sound of wedding bells: rueful, violent, frequently gloomy, Rebecca is the most introspective of the lot. A post-romantic novel, it suggested that at the heart of every marriage is a crime.

More about hate than love, du Maurier insisted, Rebecca is above all a study in jealousy. The girl’s first-person narration, her incessant imaginings about the dead Rebecca and her projections of her (and Rebecca’s) life back and forth into past and future, crosses precisely that unstable psychological territory of fantasy and obsession, of guilty memory and fearful innocence, which were to become Hitchcock’s hallmark. 

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Rebecca (1940)

Herself a shy and lonely young wife, du Maurier wrote as the second Mrs de Winter. Her own romance with Frederick Browning, the strong silent man who had swept her off her feet, was rapidly wearing thin. ‘Tommy’ or ‘Boy Browning’, a war hero of World War One, still suffered from nightmares and depressions: the family nickname for him became ‘Moper’ (though he became better known as one of the Generals in the disastrous command of Arnhern through Dirk Bogarde’s portrayal of him in Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far). Billeted abroad, Daphne dreaded regimental functions and found herself haunted by fears of her husband’s passion for his ex-fiancee, Jan Ricardo, dark-haired, beautiful and exotic.

Part of the struggle over the film was between Selznick’s love of the lavish, of expensive costumes and big houses, and Hitchcock’s desire for surface realism and the carefully observed detail of the everyday. Rebecca begins as love-story and advances as a thriller. Manderley (like Tara in Gone With the Wind) with its loyal retainers and sumptuous breakfasts represents a conservative longing; it bespeaks another kind of England (the sort that went down very well in Hollywood), frozen in the aspic of tradition. 

Manderley is the England Hitchcock must have felt well shot of, inhabited by stuffed shirts with cut-glass accents, as closed to him as to the nameless, and thereby average, girl. The film works hard to deglamourise it.

The first prospect of Manderley is not a view at all. Obscured in the pouring rain, it is reflected like a miniature paperweight model in the misty windscreen of the car (one of the many shots which seem to prefigure Citizen Kane, which carne out the following year). We are never asked to marvel at sweeping shots of the grounds. Very little is made of the romance of Cornwall. 

The retinue of servants, who might be expected to stir up the viewers’ envy and admiration, merely underline the girl’s nervousness. Mrs Danvers, in particular, Rebecca’s sinister housekeeper, appears suddenly and soundlessly, reminding us that servants make intimacy and ease impossible. In the film, as in the novel, Manderley, as Rebecca’s home, is ultimately repudiated as excessive (like a good bourgeois, the girl is shocked by the leftovers), false and corrupt. It must be – and is – destroyed in the cleansing fire at the closure of both.

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Rebecca (1940)

Hitchcock enjoys gently debunking the upper classes, making mild fun of the barmy upper-class relatives, using George Sanders, in a wonderfully camp performance (as Jack Favell), to expose their snobbery and complacency. The orphaned heroine may be Cinderella but she is also, in her shabby cardigans and sensible skirts, clutching her handbag, Miss Ordinary of 1938, (the kind of “thoroughly nice girl” Hitchcock wrote so warmly of). 

Hitchcock brings the romance down to earth by means of contemporary idiom: “toodle-loo”, “right you are” or the pipe-smoking Maxim, a brusque father-figure, telling his schoolgirl wife to stop biting her nails and eat up her breakfast, “There’s a good child”.

The topography of the Gothic – both its literal and emotional geography – is where Hitchcock really meets du Maurier. Combining the extravagant with psychological realism, it had room for Selznick too. The crenallated towers of remote Manderley, the long corridors down which the childbride is compulsively drawn toward the secret atrocities of the hero-villain’s past, the hint of deviant sexuality and the eroticism of death, Rebecca recasts many of those elements of the Gothic which had for centuries provided a pre-Freudian vocabulary for what we would call repressed desires. 

Hitchcock’s camera works constantly to capture the vulnerability and insignificance of the girl dwarfed and isolated in draughty baronial halls or shrinking on oversize plush sofas alongside cabinets of treasures (Susan in Kane’s Xanadu comes to mind again). As curiosity impels her – “What was Rebecca really like?” – we watch her framed against vast oaken doors, reaching up like a prying child to turn the handle and enter the forbidden chamber, drawing back the curtains and veils in which Rebecca, and all she stands for, is shrouded. Alice in Wonderland (Joan Fontaine wears a velvet Alice band and Olivier calls her ‘Alice’, to reinforce the point) wandering in Bluebeard’s Castle.

A home-movies scene, in which the anxious and insecure girl silently watches images of her own past happiness (“only four months ago”, so quickly does romance wither), is one of many brilliant improvisations for visualising the breakdown of her identity as she disappears into her fantasies of Rebecca. But unlike du Maurier, Hitchcock and Selznick, whatever their intentions, cannot really identify with the girl’s point of view. The hindsight of the voiceover in the first five minutes is never resumed. They only give us half of the story of female identification and projection.

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Rebecca (1940)

Joan Fontaine’s tremulous expression in close-up always emphasises passive dissolution: what the film cannot show is her pleasure in imagining Rebecca, the active component of longing which could take the girl beyond her dullness, her orthodox femininity. The famous scene in Rebecca’s bedroom, where Mrs Danvers seductively invites the girl to take Rebecca’s place, shows Joan Fontaine’s humiliation, disgust and nausea at being situated as voyeur. It conveys little of the voyeur’s satisfactions. 

The novel, on the other hand, is as much attracted to Rebecca, her thrilling independence and sexual assertiveness, as repulsed by her: “She had all the courage and spirit of a boy … She did what she liked, she lived as she liked. She had the strength of a little lion too.” Hitchcock’s and Selznick’s script tries to limit this kind of damage: they don’t want their female viewers believing that being Rebecca, and acting like a man, might be a great deal more fun than marriage to boring old Max.

However loyal its makers thought they were being, the film is crucially unfaithful. Not least in its treatment of Olivier. Though he first appears as a remotely elegant romantic hero (in an immaculate suit, tie and trilby brooding on a dizzying drop outside Monte Carlo), his mysterious dark moods are never quite sinister. Good-mannered, kind and quietly amused, he is hardly a hunted creature, the Maxim who (according to du Maurier) “was not normal, not altogether sane”. 

And in the film version he turns out not to be a murderer at all, merely covering up the accidental death which Rebecca had brought on herself. (Du Maurier’s Maxim, on the other hand, remorselessly insists, “I’m glad I killed Rebecca. I shall never have any remorse for that, never, never”.) It may have protected Olivier’s image (just as Cary Grant’s was in Suspicion), but this whitewashing is of a piece with the inability of the film to deal with female hostility toward men and marriage, the bedrock of du Maurier’s novel, and the flipside too of her delight in Rebecca.

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Rebecca (1940)

The masculine point of view runs away with the film, finally leaving the heroine literally behind as the men all go up to London to discover the truth about Rebecca. In the novel she takes on Rebecca-like confidence, managing the now wounded and helpess Max. (Hitchcock limits this to dressing Fontaine ‘maturely’ in a dark wool costume and putting her hair up.) 

Worst of all is the sentimental ending, which leaves her a potential victim of the conflagration. And poor ‘Danny’, to boot, made more demented than devoted, the part is pure Grand Guignol. Not only responsible for the blaze but burnt to a cinder in it, she is the madwoman in the attic, proxy for Rebecca. This is the producer-directors’ own kind of overkill, going one further than du Maurier in obliterating (they hope) all trace of errant or ‘perverse’ female desires. At least du Maurier involves Rebecca’s incestuous cousin in the arson, and lets Mrs Danvers disappear.

Hitchcock liked his actresses to be docile and compliant, “the kind of girl I can mould into the heroine of my imagination.” The latest ‘discovery’, 23-year-old Joan Fontaine, got used to his well known teasing, which bordered on erotic cruelty: “Hitchcock kept me off balance, much to his own delight … He would constantly tell me that no one thought I was very good except himself”. 

Of course ‘the girl’ couldn’t actually be mousey and dull (though du Maurier’s heroine really is): no amount of twinsets and pearls, hunched shoulders or clumsiness can mar those idealising portrait-shots where the breeze ruffles Fontaine’s hair and she is radiant, wide-eyed and malleable. As a director who hated “sex appeal”, “fake glamour” and “the lady pose”, Hitchcock had his own reasons to give Rebecca, the bold aristocrat with her see-through negligee and chiffon boudoir, a violent come-uppance. “Modesty,” Frank Crawley, Maxim’s aptly named agent, tells the girl in a pregnant moment, “means more than all the wit and beauty in the world.”

So what seems like a woman’s film turns out to be a man’s after all. We might have guessed. Had we looked closely there was one stable point of view, following the path of the director, that might have led us through the film’s apparent labyrinths. It is that of Jasper, the cocker spaniel, who is one paw ahead of the viewer. At first he signifies the lingering dominance of Rebecca: he leaves a room when the girl enters it; he sleeps like Cerberus at the entrance to Rebecca’s apartments; he drags her down to Rebecca’s fateful beach-house. But his allegiances shift and when we see him finally curled up at his new mistress’s feet, we know Rebecca has been exorcised, and that we too must relinquish our attachment to her. 

Not only a marvellous part for a canine actor, Jasper is the film’s unsung hero, since he is last seen, his head in the girl’s lap, scenting danger in Mrs Danvers’s ominously flickering candle. We must assume he saved the heroine. A pity he doesn’t feature in the film’s final clinch.

Du Maurier’s ending is quite different. In fact it comes at the beginning of the novel, steeping it in retrospection. Beached up abroad in ex-pat loneliness, the de Winters are a sad couple of relicts, maundering about in hotels, reading Country Life and listening to the BBC World Service. They absolutely can’t, whatever the film implies, start life afresh. “We can never go back, “ du Maurier keeps telling us. And yet in this circular novel, which ends up where it began, they do nothing else. On the final page the second Mrs de Winter is still imagining herself as Rebecca, only this time murdering Max.

It was in Cairo, in stifling August heat, that du Maurier conjured up Rebecca’s Cornwall, an artificial landscape redolent of a more glamorous past, but also of a bolder, more autonomous life, where she might even let out her “Jack-in-the-box”, as she called it, her desires for other women. The novel feels like a swansong, an elegy for lost girlhood and a lament on the way marriage might move you from one state of anonymity to another. 

Her England is far more nostalgic than Hitchcock’s, but then maybe she had more to lose. In fact she was thrilled and relieved by the film (unlike her reaction to Hitchcock’s earlier travesty of her Jamaica Inn); despite the changes, she felt it had caught “the atmosphere”.

For the film has its own central mournfulness, its pervasive sense of guilt. All the trouble starts because Maxim is a widower whose ‘grief’ can’t be discussed; reticence is always muddled in the English middle classes with decency and respectability. Which is why it remains a trap. 

Despite its gleeful fire (and much of England was to go up in flames very soon), melancholy haunts Hitchcock’s film like the mists around Manderley. Perhaps he too had a sense, of the dangers of revealing oneself to one’s partner in what Angela Carter called “the unguessable country of marriage”. Years later he wrote of his wife Alma, only half in jest, as “The Woman Who Knows Too Much”.

Perhaps the English between the wars were especially stuck in mourning, traumatically reliving their memories, unable to let go of the past or make their peace with it. The Englishness of Rebecca lies not only in its overt references to the charismatic and intimidating power of class, but in its chafing against the so-called virtue of ‘reserve’. 

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Rebecca (1940)

It is one version of that model of a tight emotional economy, barely holding out against what it most dreads and desires, whose phobias and paranoias so fascinated Hitchcock. Though he shrugged off the paraphernalia of the Gothic and found more vernacular American subjects, he too returned obsessively to the pathology of repression.

Rebecca, coming back over and again, unscathed through water and fire, has given her audiences and critics a good run for their money. Reckless, decadent aristocrat: the woman who knew too much and the woman we longed to be; acting out lesbian desires, the female Oedipal drama or Hitchcock’s tabooed femininity, the return of the repressed or just popular Freudianism itself, she is one of those larger-than-life figures who tempts us to inhabit her world and her feelings at the risk of losing our own. Just like going to the movies.