At the Movies

Michael Wood

‘It’s not a Hitchcock picture,’ the master told François Truffaut. He was being a little cagy, but in one sense he was right. Rebecca, now showing in a brand-new, sharp-focus print at the National Film Theatre and the Screen on the Hill, was a David O. Selznick film, ‘a picturisation’ as the title credits have it, of a very successful novel. ‘We bought Rebecca,’ Selznick wrote in a memo objecting strenuously to a first draft of the screenplay, ‘and we intend to make Rebecca.’ That was the royal we, not David and Alfred. The film won an Oscar, for best picture but not best director. The best director award that year – 1940 – went to John Ford for Grapes of Wrath.

In practice, Selznick was not quite as straight or naive about these things as he liked to sound, and he often showed a quirky taste for visual invention. But he did like verbatim quotation from the literary texts he bought, and this preference guaranteed lots of direct quotation from Daphne du Maurier in the finished film, starting with its opening voice-over. ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,’ Joan Fontaine says in a strange, sing-songy tone, as if she were reading a story to a child or reciting a poem for a teacher. ‘It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden with supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me . . . On and on wound the poor thread that had once been our drive.’ But of course in the film we see what she is talking about, and it isn’t a dream at all, it’s a shifting picture of a dark and tangled wood. The supernatural powers are those of the camera, and the images begin to look like the portrait of the inside of a troubled mind, rather than the memory of a cherished place. And then the images begin to contradict the voice. ‘Time could not mar the perfect symmetry of those walls,’ Fontaine says, and we peer through the trees at a black and jagged ruin, a Gothic scramble of turrets and mullioned windows. A fancy house, certainly, but more like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast than anything evoking perfect symmetry. Is there something wrong with our narrator? It may be only that there was something wrong with the set designer, but the effect is wonderful, and it goes with the tone of the voice, if not with what the voice is saying. Lateish in the film Laurence Olivier, as Maxim de Winter, who has married the narrator, says she no longer has the ‘lost, funny look’ she used to have, which may be true, but she has shed it only temporarily. The voice tells us – and in this it is quite unlike the voice in the novel whose words it is often using – that looking back on her story she is as lost as she always was, and understands what has happened to her as little as she ever did. Fontaine conveys this effect visually throughout the film by an odd, veiled gaze which intermittently converts her frank and often beautiful face into a mask of near idiocy, as if she is not only innocent but not quite right in the head.

It’s a good thing she doesn’t understand what has happened, since Maxim married her as a little girl lost in the South of France, and the last thing he wants is a relationship with a grown-up woman. He’s already been married to one of those, the glamorous and unfaithful Rebecca, and it looks at one point as if he has killed her. That’s why he’s brooding over the memory of her drowning, not, as we were at first invited to believe, because he can’t get over his bereavement. There’s a fine exchange between Truffaut and Hitchcock on this subject. Truffaut says he has ‘never completely understood’ the actual explanation of Rebecca’s death. Hitchcock patiently replies: ‘Well, the explanation is that Rebecca wasn’t killed by her husband; she committed suicide because she had cancer.’ Truffaut says he got that, but still wonders whether the husband may not believe himself to be guilty in some way. Hitchcock says crisply: ‘No, he doesn’t.’ Truffaut has the right worry, but the wrong person. Of course the girl-wife thinks Maxim has killed Rebecca, because at one point he seems precisely to say so; and the viewer has been thinking this all along. We know the genre. If it’s not the madwoman in the attic it’s the corpse in the ocean. Jane Eyre and her many literary children fall in love only with hampered, guilty men. But then Hitchcock, it turns out, is playing with just these expectations. Maxim de Winter is not the dark romantic villain we and his new wife hankered for and thought we knew. He’s just a sullen, spoilt fellow who had a bad marriage.

I used to think the most haunting scene in the movie was the second approach to Manderley, the one that occurs after the opening non-dream. Maxim and his new wife drive through the grounds of the house in an open-top car. We look back towards them, seeing them through the windscreen; we see them in close up from the side. Then it starts to rain, Fontaine puts a raincoat over her head, and Hitchcock suddenly reverses the angle. We see the backs of the protagonists in close up, her hooded head, his coat and hat. Then after a couple of cuts to Fontaine’s frightened face, Olivier says: ‘That’s it. That’s Manderley’ – and the house appears through the windscreen, a gleaming pile in the pouring rain, our vision crossed by the movement of the wipers. The change in the weather, which looked for a moment like a rather literary portent of unhappiness, now seems to suggest something unapproachable about the house itself, as if it will always hide behind a screen, literal or metaphorical.

This is fine stuff, and far from ‘picturisation’, but there is a sequence that is even more striking, and that particularly benefits from the stark blacks and whites of the new print. Olivier and Fontaine are watching a home movie of their honeymoon, all rather sickly and sweet and out of character – well, out of his character. They are interrupted by the news of one Fontaine’s many gaffes in her role as mistress of the house, get back to their viewing again, but then she offends him by casually using the word ‘gossip’. She can’t know what she is saying, of course, and he knows she can’t. Hitchcock chooses to picture them both in the dark, her face lit by the flickering light from the screen, his lit by what remains of the light when he steps in front of the projector and blocks the cheerful film from us and her. She looks like the victim of an interrogation, and he looks like someone who has wandered in from Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr Caligari: in one shot, the light falls sideways across his face in such a way as to make him seem to have only one eye. His wavy, brilliantined hair and military moustache, along with his harsh gaze, suggest some sort of rigid court martial of the sexes. What is going on here? It certainly isn’t just the little conjugal misunderstanding the plot and dialogue lay out for us. It is a kind of visual fairytale and one very much of Hitchcock’s making. It is the story of the ogre and the little girl, where she loves him because he may kill her, and he accepts her (and doesn’t kill her) because he loves her fear. That’s why they can live happily ever after – as long as she doesn’t recognise the Gothic mansion of his appetite for what it is.

But what about the dreaded Mrs Danvers (played by Judith Anderson)? What is her role in this fantasy? In the interview with Truffaut, Hitchcock insists that he made her behave like an apparition: ‘Mrs Danvers was almost never seen walking and was rarely shown in motion.’ I was looking out for this effect when I saw the new print, and am sorry to report that Mrs Danvers does quite a lot of walking in the film. Or rather she sweeps about the house in her long black dress, which gets very much the result Hitchcock describes. She hasn’t wandered in from an early horror movie, because some such place must have been her original home, but with Hitchcock her fanatical devotion to Rebecca and her glorying in the way her mistress laughed at all men, husband and lovers alike, rings curiously hollow, almost sounds like a cover-up. This Mrs Danvers is not the delegate of the dead Rebecca but the ghastly spirit of the house itself, a place that offers not a particular set of obstacles to marriage and the future but an image of the very idea of obstruction, whatever it is that gets in the way of whatever you want.