Rebecca - Alfred Hitchcock - Joan Fontaine - Laurence Olivier

1940, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

It’s important to remember while watching Rebecca that it’s actually an American movie. The aristocratic Cornwall setting is so thoroughly English that it’s easy to forget the movie isn’t British, especially considering that Hitchcock had only just come to Hollywood from London, the story comes from English author Daphne du Maurier, and the cast is mostly British. However the movie’s most important element owes its place to Hitchcock’s newly adopted country and the American audience he was addressing directly for the first time. Rebecca is absolutely filled with inequality, and having just left the rigid class structure of England, Hitchcock saw in America a basically egalitarian country that needed a reminder of the corruption that gross inequality breeds.

Hitchcock’s initially warm view of the United States would reveal itself later in films like Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt, but in Rebecca the almost absurd relationship between Joan Fontaine’s character and Mrs. Van Hopper acknowledges that even after years of the New Deal, a class structure still existed in America. With its legacy of slavery and racial inequality, the country was a long way from the ideal of equality expressed in its Declaration of Independence; but for Hitchcock himself, America offered an escape from the oppressive class divide of England. As successful as his films had been in the 1930s, he was still the Roman Catholic son of an East End greengrocer, and he would never win the full respect of his peers in the British film industry who would likely have graduated from Oxford and Cambridge.

Rebecca - Alfred Hitchcock - Joan Fontaine - close-up - profile

Du Maurier’s novel gave Hitchcock a chance to elaborate on his lifelong belief in the value of ordinary lives. Certainly, much of the argument is already in the original text, and producer David O. Selznick, who brought Hitchcock to Hollywood, insisted on a faithful adaptation. Nevertheless Hitchcock added details and characterization to emphasize the values that define his career – particularly the idea that ordinary people are responsible for the outcome of society, and to a lesser degree his insistence that faults in the social order are rooted in early childhood sexuality.

The ideal of “ordinary” life is a common denominator in Hitchcock’s films, from the spy movies where an ordinary person gets sucked into a high-stakes international plot, to the crime movies where the villain, more often than not, rejects ordinary life by trying to become special. In Rebecca the archetypal ordinary character is Maxim’s unnamed second wife played by Joan Fontaine, and through her we begin to measure the almost unimaginable gulf between ordinary humanity and the vast wealth and power that sits over our world. She begins by introducing us to the ruins of Manderley. In a dream she fancies there are lights in the windows – the old spirit of aristocracy stirring again – until a cloud reveals it was reflected moonlight. Leaping back in time to her first encounter with Maxim, the action begins with him standing atop an impressive cliff on the French riviera. The camera swoops up the precipice, whose forbidding height evokes the inequality that separates people like Maxim from ordinary folk.

Rebecca - Alfred Hitchcock - Joan Fontaine - stairway - Manderley

Fontaine plays her part with a pronounced meekness that deepens the rift dividing her from the wealth and power around her, both in Monte Carlo and at Manderley. Her sheepishness is not representative of the middle class; rather it encourages the people around her to show their true colors. Edythe Van Hopper feels free, in her company, to be as snobbish as she pleases, and she’s introduced complaining about a “stupid waiter”. Maxim is more innately decent than Mrs. Van Hopper, but he was born into high society, and his new wife brings out his learned habits of haughtiness and condescension. Mrs. Danvers seizes on the young woman’s weakness to show a contempt that certainly would have been there in any case. The young wife’s relationships illustrate various dimensions of inequality: the comic inequality of her companionship with Mrs. Van Hopper, the frustrating inequality of her marriage, the frightening inequality between her and Mrs. Danvers, and the imagined inequality between her and Rebecca.

Rebecca - Alfred Hitchcock - Joan Fontaine - fireplace - Manderley

Once she arrives at Manderley, the already timid protagonist shrinks further and further. It’s expected that the cavernous rooms would dwarf her, but some of the sets are overbearing to the point of distortion. A gigantic fireplace and towering doorways reduce her to the height of a child, and doorknobs are placed at her shoulder level. Servants and other characters stand tall beside her, and she continually recedes from view, either walking away or the camera pulling back. Added to her various faux pas and insecurities, these visuals produce an unmistakable picture of inequality on a personal scale.

This rendering of a world so unequal sets the groundwork for a rather original analysis of inequality. As in many of his later films, Hitchcock puts the preponderant blame on a psychological flaw that leads ordinary people to look up to the wealthy, the powerful, celebrities, and even arch-criminals with a perverse feeling of kinship. It’s not at all what people often describe as envy – it’s not resentment or even cupidity, but rather a kind of idolization that starts to look sick when viewed at close range. The idea comes into focus if we view Mrs. Van Hopper and Mrs. Danvers as two versions of the same type: one a transparent snob who embarrassingly ingratiates herself to Maxim in hopes of increasing her social worth; and the other an unhappy woman who invests her entire emotional life worshipping an apparently psychopathic beauty. When she shows off Rebecca’s underwear and see-through lingerie to her new mistress, it’s not her lesbianism that makes her perverse, but rather her obsessive and one-sided attraction to Rebecca’s power and status.

Rebecca - Alfred Hitchcock - Judith Anderson - Mrs. Danvers - curtain - bedroom - Manderley

We only learn about Rebecca in fragments, but we know of her sexual promiscuity which she had thrown in her husband’s face without a shred of remorse. Not only is marriage sacred in Hitchcock’s world, but it’s hard to overstate how shocking Rebecca’s behavior would have been in that social milieu. It represented a total corruption of the English nobility. When Frank says Rebecca was not afraid of anything, it’s clear she has the marks of a psychopath, and as usual Hitchcock is more interested in ordinary people like Mrs. Danvers who willingly, even gleefully, confer power on psychopaths. People like Rebecca are unredeemable, but Mrs. Danvers represents a common failing that needs to be addressed. Across the channel she would have made a fine Nazi.

Hitchcock is still a long way in Rebecca from the clarity of his psychological analysis in Vertigo, but he already begins to identify corruption with the persistence of infantile sexuality in adults – specifically incest, which appears in two forms: first, in the fact that Rebecca and her favorite sexual partner Jack Favell are first cousins, but more subtly in Mrs. Danvers goading Fontaine’s character to dress up as one of Maxim’s female ancestors for the grand ball – a small step away from putting her in the role of a mother figure to her husband. The fact that Hitchcock recycles the image of a large old portrait of a female ancestor in Vertigo confirms the incestuous overtone.

Rebecca - Alfred Hitchcock - Joan Fontaine - Judith Anderson - Mrs. Danvers - painting

Maxim is revolted to see his new wife in his forebear’s dress because it reminds him of Rebecca, who had worn the same design to a ball at Manderley. The scene insinuates that Rebecca reminds him of his own less mature sexuality; after all he had married her for her superficial qualities. But Maxim is no Scottie Ferguson, turning his nose up at Midge for putting herself in Carlotta’s portrait. Experience has matured him, and only their unequal backgrounds interfere between him and his wife. The story finally brings him down to earth – Manderley burns down, and he escapes a prison sentence through sheer luck, so at last he and his wife can stand on equal ground. At the same time (and in a way that foreshadows Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound), she gradually overcomes her timidity, standing up to both Mrs. Van Hopper and Mrs. Danvers, and ultimately winning her husband’s respect through her steadfast virtue and quiet courage.


Ladies in Retirement – Hollywood film about economic and social inequality set in England

I Walked with a Zombie – Male protagonist is surprised at his new wife’s/lover’s assumption that he still loves his first wife

Spellbound – Lead female character summons inner strength to stand up to the villain

Brief Encounter – Insight into the psychology of snobbery

A Letter to Three Wives – Reversed assumptions about inequality, especially the ways people look at the upper class

Vertigo – Incest; large portrait of female ancestor; question whether the dead watch the living

The Servant – Analysis of the British class system

Barry Lyndon – American perspective of England/Europe with emphasis on inequality