Rebecca marks the most decisive single step both in Hitchcock’s career and aesthetic evolution: the move to America, the first time working under (and intermittently struggling against) a powerful and dominating producer, the liberating extravagance of a budget undreamed of in British studios. The experience opened whole new vistas of thematic and emotional expression, stimulating Hitchcock’s professional ambition and expanding his artistic aspirations. Had he remained in Britain, we would surely never have had Notorious, or Vertigo, or Marnie.
Skepticism about male-female relationships under patriarchy is central to Hitchcock’s importance to us today. If he remains “The Master of Suspense,” the suspense—the films’ structuring tension—resides precisely within that skepticism. It was already present, of course, in the British films, and most thoroughly and explicitly formulated in his first sound film, Blackmail. But it is in Rebecca that his unifying theme receives its first definitive statement: the masculinist drive to dominate, control, and (if necessary) punish women; the corresponding dread of powerful women, and especially of women who assert their sexual freedom, for what, above all, the male (in his position of dominant vulnerability, or vulnerable dominance) cannot tolerate is the sense that another male might be “better” than he was. Rebecca is killed because she defies the patriarchal order, the prohibition of infidelity: she has used him, certainly, but hasn’t he asked for it? Has she not the right to other lovers, including (arguably) those of the same sex? On the other hand, he will be unable to love a woman who ceases to be an adoring child with a “little girl look,” a woman who aspires to a relationship of equality (a demand his young wife is clearly making at the film’s end). Reading the film from this perspective, it’s possible to see Rebecca as the film’s real heroine.
Which is not to belittle the astonishing performance of Joan Fontaine: can one imagine another actress in the role any more than one can imagine a substitute for Kim Novak in Vertigo? Today it seems amazing that she was initially passed over during screen tests, and only later called back for a second session. But at the time she was inexperienced, untried in truly demanding roles, so one must give credit to Hitchcock and Selznick for their sense of latent possibilities. Their casting of the role of Maxim was just as risky, and just as smart. Ronald Colman (Selznick’s original choice) would have been more seductive, less abrasive, perhaps more obviously vulnerable than Olivier. But then, wouldn’t some of the power and clarity of the film have been lost? The antagonism toward Maxim we feel today (in the aftermath of the Women’s Movement) is due at least in part to the casting of Olivier; without that antagonism something of the film’s continuing force and fascination would be weakened.
Hitchcock’s first experience of working in Hollywood was not an entirely happy or satisfying one. While, in many respects, Rebecca was very personal to Hitchcock—allowing him to explore more clearly than ever before his deepest thematic concerns—the film belongs as much to its producer as it does to its director. Hitchcock appears to have undertaken the film with certain misapprehensions: that he would have the full control he’d been accustomed to; that he could adapt the source novel as freely as he pleased; that he could insert touches of his typical British humor (his early draft had Maxim and his anonymous wife meeting on a channel steamer, with Maxim bringing on her seasickness by blowing smoke in her face!). Hitchcock was swiftly disillusioned. Selznick insisted on the strictest fidelity to du Maurier that censorship would permit, oversaw the entire production, and asserted his contractual right to final cut.
Censorship (supported by the traditional Hollywood preference for happy endings) proved an obstacle that was in some ways insuperable. It is crucial to the narrative that Maxim killed his first wife—but the Production Code insisted that no one ever get away with murder. This creates a serious problem for the viewer in the pivotal scene in which Maxim relates (and Hitchcock memorably dramatizes with his camera) the story of how Rebecca died: either we accept that the death was accidental, or we hypothesize that Maxim is lying (for which the film supplies no support). The other major censorship stipulation—that the film contain no hint of lesbianism—seems to have been ignored: the scene in which Mrs. Danvers shows Rebecca’s room to the second Mrs. de Winter is impossible to misread, and censorship turned a blind eye. Was it, however, censorship or the residual Puritanism of the filmmakers that determined that Mrs. Danvers be punished for her perversities? In the novel, she neither dies nor goes insane, and her burning of Manderley can be read as just revenge for Maxim’s murder of the woman she loved.
As for the “happy ending,” Hitchcock manages to make it ambiguous at best. At the beginning and end of the novel, Maxim and his wife drift about second-class hotels on the Riviera, avoiding all past social contacts (since everyone “knows” he murdered Rebecca, even though he was acquitted) and scarcely able even to speak to each other. The film has no equivalent scene. But, near the beginning, Maxim has ordered his future wife never to wear silk and pearls and never to be thirty-six (an inauspicious beginning for a marriage), and at the end he comments that she has lost her “little girl” look—he will never see it again. We are left to draw our own conclusions.
Robin Wood is the author of numerous books and essays on cinema, including Hitchcock's Films and Hitchcock's Films Revisited. He is currently editor of the film journal Cineaction.