Hitchcock left the United Kingdom behind and crossed the Atlantic in order to take advantage of the advantages and boom offered by Hollywood. Thus, his North American adventure began with the name of a woman: Rebecca (1940).
However, although the success of the film is undoubted, the truth is that the shooting of Rebecca was not as fascinating as you would expect. The United States possessed the technological advance, the economic means and the opportunities with which every filmmaker dreamed, but it kept a dark side that, apparently, Hitchcock did not like at all.
In the United Kingdom, Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed great creative freedom, the producers barely got involved in their films and let ‘the master of suspense’ tell the stories in their own way. But Rebecca’s production was in the hands of David O. Selznick, the famous producer of such successful films as Gone with the Wind.
Although most of the filmmakers who worked with Selznick say that they enjoyed a lot of freedom and it has been said that with Hitchcock he was especially benevolent, it seems that the Briton did not like his orders.
Throughout the filming and production of the film, several encounters occurred, Hitchcock was not used to the United States frenetism and his times were slower; He did not give his arm to twist easily, he knew what he wanted and how he wanted to do it.
Selznick, for his part, wanted to supervise some scenes, was very meticulous with the script and did not want it to get too far away from the original novel, Rebecca de Daphne du Maurier. Despite this, the filmmaker had great freedom and even went back to working with Selznick later, although the relationship was never quite good.
Finally, Rebecca achieved success and, still today, remains one of the most acclaimed works of the British filmmaker. Already the start of the film is masterful, that voice in off and the immense mansion, now in ruins, which seems to be the reflection of what once shone, of a past that has not yet gone completely …, evoke a dreamlike sensation and mysterious.
What we are going to see next is like a reverie in which the past and the present intermingle, in which the world of the living and that of the dead converge.
Rebecca: behind the scenes
In addition to the problems we mentioned about production, the truth is that the magnitude of Rebecca goes beyond what we see on the screen. When we see a film, we must not forget that we see what the filmmaker wants us to see, direct our gaze, our attention and leave nothing to chance.
If we add to this a teacher like Hitchcock, it is not surprising that many of the elements that appear in projected are absolutely revealing. From the camera movements to the costumes or scenery, they say a lot about the film.
Hitchcock claimed that he saw the audience as the keys of a piano that he was pressing. And, without a doubt, when we see a movie of his, although we know in advance that he is going to look for our surprise, the restlessness and the intrigue take hold of us.
The master of suspense knew how to give the indicated key at the right moment, he knew exactly when to reveal information, how to direct our gaze and make us believe in something. Many times, we succumbed to his deception and, at some point in the plot, we realized that we had believed a false trail.
Hitchcock was a master of the staging, he knew how to tell a story, how to move the characters and how the camera should accompany them. If we observe the characters, how they move in the scene and the choreography they interpret, we can obtain very relevant information.
For example, a character may be giving a speech and, thanks to his gestures, we can know if he is lying or not. Similarly, in the case of Hitchcock, it is very interesting to see how the characters – and the camera itself – interpret a choreography that gives us clues as to what is going to happen. We can know which character is dominant at a given time, who we are going to follow next, etc.
In the case of Rebecca, Hitchcock wanted the protagonist, played by Joan Fontaine, to be naive, insecure and, ultimately, shy and harmless. How to achieve it? Making the protagonist small.
In this sense, the master of suspense decided that it was a good idea that Joan Fontaine felt insecure throughout the entire shoot, even behind the cameras. To the actress’s ears came the rumor that all her classmates hated her; also, his co-star, Lawrence Olivier, received instructions from the director to treat her coldly.
In this way, Joan Fontaine felt uncomfortable and mimicked her character. In addition, this impression of naivety and insecurity was reinforced by plans and camera movements.
Throughout the film, Hitchcock isolates Fontaine, but moves his camera away and moves it strategically so that, visually, we see the young girl very small compared to the imposing walls of the mansion. This contrast of size produces in the spectator a certain feeling of oppression, of anguish for the situation in which the protagonist is locked up. The sinister house in ruins of the beginning has ended by oppressing the protagonist.
However, as the film progresses and the protagonist manages to destroy the monsters of the past, the camera is closer to her offering close-ups full of light that contrast with the darkness that previously tormented her.
The protagonist is now strong and is able to face the superb Mrs. Danvers. Now, the second Mrs. de Winter has found her place and sees herself as the real lady of the house.
The presence of the past
The mansion itself acts as one more character. His past seems linked to its walls, deceives and asphyxiates the protagonist inviting her to compete with the late wife of his newly released husband.
At first, everything seems like a fairy tale, a story of impossible love in which there is no class difference or barriers that can with the crush of lovers, but, returning from the honeymoon, the ghosts of the past will be responsible to put out the flames of love.
In this sense, Hitchcock does an excellent job with the ellipsis: from the romantic moments of the beginning he takes us directly to the terrible mansion.
The honeymoon only appears as a projection on a tape, in some way, it seems to tell us that this happy moment is no longer in the present, it was fleeting and it is as fragile as the tape on which it was recorded. The past has its projection in the present, the image of Rebecca seems never to have left the mansion that was her home and constantly reminds the protagonist that this is not her place.
Rebecca’s presence is so intense that we almost feel her on stage, we hear her footsteps, her laughter … It seems we can see Mrs. Danvers combing her hair. The scene that takes place in his room is one of the most interesting, Hitchcock manages to capture the essence of Rebecca freezing the room.
As we are told, nothing has been touched since his death, the presence of Rebecca is stronger than ever. In the room, it seems that the world of the living and the dead mix and the infinite curtains help create that ghostly image.
Although there is no more ghostly image than that of Mrs. Denvers hiding in Rebecca’s curtains as if from beyond, as if establishing contact with the deceased lady of the house. We do not see Rebecca at any time, but it’s as if we knew her, the characters describe her, we go into her room and the camera moves with her shadow.
Hitchcock looks at the spaces that Rebecca traveled, the camera follows the ghost when Mr. de Winter tells his story about Rebecca’s death.
Everything we had believed about Rebecca’s relationship with Mr. de Winter was no more than a hoax, a mirage. Mr. de Winter confesses his secret and, at that moment, his new wife loses his innocence: “that strange, young and lost look that I loved has gone forever… He will never come back, I killed her when I told you about Rebecca”. No, that innocent look will not return, but we have also lost it as spectators. What really happened to Rebecca?
As usual, the master of suspense has anticipated us, has entered our mind and made us believe in a story that, like Rebecca’s ghost, is nothing more than a distorted shadow of what it was in reality.
The story will take a fundamental turn and the character of Joan Fontaine will leave insecurity and innocence aside. Although color cinema already existed, Hitchcock wanted Rebecca to shoot in black and white and the result is a ghostly, disturbing film, in which nothing is as it seems.
“Sometimes, I think I hear it behind me, with its stealthy step, it’s unmistakable. In all the rooms of the house, I can almost hear it. Do you think the dead visit the living?”