Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a deep dive into a classic horror film or hidden gem and reveal its history and juicy behind the scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror.
September is A Haunting on Film Street here at Nightmare in Film Street, where we’re looking at all things ghosts and spirits. For Silver Screams, let’s look at a different kind of haunted house story. It’s got all the trappings of a gothic ghost tale, but with a non-traditional twist. We’re looking at Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 gothic tour de force, Rebecca.
“Don’t you believe the dead can see the living?”
What makes a ghost story a ghost story? Does a house need the traditional trappings of a haunting — lights flickering, doors opening, cold spots — to be haunted? Can a memory wield as much power, perhaps more, than a spirit? In 1938, Daphne du Maurier challenged the definitions of the haunted house genre with her gothic novel Rebecca. Loosely inspired by Jane Eyre, the bestseller wove a tale of a shy, naive young woman who marries a wealthy widower after a whirlwind two-week romance. Yet upon arrival at his estate, she finds it haunted by the unshakable presence of his dead wife.
In Rebecca, du Maurier effortlessly brought the traditional gothic novel into the 20th century, and Hollywood was eager to interpret the hit story for the big screen. Enter Alfred Hitchcock, whose entry into the American film industry serendipitously aligned with producer David O. Selznick’s desire to bring Rebecca to the big screen. Together, the often chaotic meeting of Hitchcock and Selznick would create a totally unique triumph. Rebecca is unlike any other of Hitchcock’s films, and different from its fellow Selznick productions as well. It’s a perfect storm of opposites that birthed one of the greatest gothic thrillers of all time.
A Gothic Journey Stateside
In 1940, Alfred Hitchcock had made waves in his native Britain by directing a string of consistent, high-quality hits since 1927’s The Lodger. Hollywood was eager to bring his box office, audience-pleasing powers stateside. Producing legend David O. Selznick was to be his pathway to Hollywood, and to the realization of Rebecca on the silver screen.
Rebecca marks a clear turning point in Hitchcock’s already stellar filmography. By 1940, the director had established the thriller as his genre of choice, and as early as The Lodger, he began his tradition of cameo appearances in his films and even his penchant for blondes (a motif that wouldn’t become a true signature of his works until the 1950s).
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But up until that time, Hitchcock’s films were generally more lighthearted. The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) were expertly executed mysteries, with some lighthearted humor, twists and turns, and likable characters aplenty. But Rebecca features an entirely different atmosphere. The story is moody and morally murky, the characters are complex and carefully explored, and the visuals are far more reminiscent of the horror genre than a spy thriller. It’s ironic that a film that would lay the groundwork for much of Hitchcock’s later works would be later dismissed by the director as “not a Hitchcock film.” It’s perhaps partly true. The production was infamous for the clash of two highly opinionated talents. Hitchcock is the famously controlling auteur of course, but Selznick was a creative titan in his own right, with a level of involvement in his projects more characteristic of Old Hollywood. Selznick wanted Hitchcock for his unique talents, but he still expected to wield his usual creative control over their films together. Hitchcock was not a fan of any vision but his own, and the production of Rebecca was a battleground.
Clash of the Titans
Selznick was insistent that the film follow the plot of the novel closely, and he vetoed Hitchcock’s usual side of dark humor as it didn’t fit the tone of the original story. Hitchcock acquiesced, but he undermined Selznick by editing the film in-camera, as opposed to shooting a variety of takes and angles. This prevented Selznick, who loved being involved in the editing process, from making any cuts or changes to Hitchcock’s vision. The frustrated producer even considered calling the project off, but his wife Irene convinced him to keep making the film after she watched early footage and was blown away.
The Inhabitants of Manderley
For despite the messy production, Rebecca is a masterpiece. It’s certainly a Hitchcock film, despite the director himself dismissing it. It exudes his mastery of suspense throughout, imbuing a story that is essentially a melodrama with such deep foreboding, it transforms into a horror film. The cinematography and editing are so intrinsic to the film’s disquieting terror, it makes one thankful that Hitchcock employed his notorious control to keep Selznick’s cuts at bay. Yet the producer’s contributions are also key to the film’s enduring power. Selznick imbued the film with the focus on characters and human drama that much of Hitchcock’s earlier work lacked. Rebecca is powerful not only because of its thrills and atmosphere, but because we genuinely care for our unnamed protagonist and want her to be free of the uninvited specter of the past. Hitchcock would eventually feature more complex characters and deep psychological themes in his work, and Rebecca marks the clear turning point at which his move toward more serious subjects began. How might things have been different had Selznick not insisted on a serious, character-focused approach in Rebecca?
Rebecca is a human story disguised as a ghost story, and thus performances are the key ingredient to the film’s success. Thankfully, after a laundry list of potential actors for the film’s two leads, we are left with Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. de Winter and Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter. Olivier perfectly embodies a charming, yet guarded and wounded mystery of a man. It’s easy to imagine how a shy young woman might foolishly agree to marry someone after two weeks when that person is Laurence Olivier.
And as that young woman, Joan Fontaine is the key to the film working. We root for her to believe in her own worth, and then watch in horror as the pressures of an aristocratic lifestyle threaten to crush her spirit. Fontaine makes us see the invisible presence of Rebecca de Winter looming over her in every frame. It’s wild to consider that Vivien Leigh campaigned for the role so that she might star alongside her fiance, Olivier. Scarlett O’Hara herself would never be believably upstaged by a dead woman, thankfully a fact that both Selznick and Hitchcock recognized. Still, the filmmakers were fearful that Fontaine might not have the range needed to carry the film. Luckily, she proved more than capable. She made one of the earliest heavy uses of voiceover narration in film utterly seamless and earned a Best Actress nomination to boot.
“[Rebecca] exudes [Hitchcock’s] mastery of suspense throughout, imbuing a story that is essentially a melodrama with such deep foreboding, it transforms into a horror film.”
And in the menacing housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, Judith Anderson created one of the most iconic villains of all time. Her quiet presence, and Hitchcock’s direction, combine to make Mrs. Danvers the living embodiment of Rebecca’s ghost. Hitchcock was careful to rarely shoot Anderson walking toward Fontaine, to create the illusion she might have just appeared out of thin air. And when she does move, she seems to glide, like a spirit hovering right above the ground. Hitchcock famously built a heavy queer subtext into his characterization of Mrs. Danvers, just subtle enough to slip past the censors but clear enough to make Rebecca a frequent focus in discussions of queer characters in horror and Old Hollywood.
Rebecca was a critical and box office success, winning Best Picture, though Hitchcock would lose Best Director to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath. Today, the film endures as a triumph of the gothic and haunted house film genre. By employing all of his skills to the gothic genre, Hitchcock made his only haunted house film while challenging what makes a story a ghost story. Rebecca haunts Manderlay — her effect on the living is as powerful as any spirit, if not more so. She holds on to the minds of her widowed husband, her obsessed housekeeper, the house she occupied, and everyone who knew her so that no one can live fully once she has died. This is a type of haunting we’ve all seen in someone or somewhere, whether we believe in ghosts or not. Hitchcock would move on from 1940 to a continued parade of triumphs in Hollywood, but Rebecca marked a clear stylistic shift for the master of suspense into more ambitious psychological horror. The novel has been adapted since, and we’ll soon see Netflix release a new adaptation next month. But it will be difficult to stand in the shadow of Hitchcock’s masterpiece. It brought a non-traditional ghost story to perfectly gothic life, in a way only the Master of Suspense could.
Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams. Share your thoughts on Rebecca with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! Or, while you’re here – check out previous editions of Silver Screams for your classic horror fix!