Three women: The first is gentle and meek. The second is dark and menacing. The third is beautiful, powerful, conniving, and most importantly, dead. In Rebecca (Hitchcock, 1940) these three women are locked in a constant struggle, but the most important of the three, Rebecca, is never even on screen.
“Rebecca” is a story of a young innocent girl who finds herself quickly married to an incredibly wealthy and arguably charming man, Maxim de Winter, whom she met at a hotel. Shortly after arriving at her new mansion, she quickly discovers she is living in the great shadow of Maxim’s previous wife, Rebecca de Winter. She is also introduced to Mrs. Danvers, the head maid of the mansion. Mrs. Danvers despises the new Mrs. de Winter (I refer to her as such because she isn’t actually given a first name) and constantly compares her with Rebecca. Despite being dead, Rebecca is perhaps the most controlling and intriguing character in the film.
Rebecca’s post-death presence drives the actions of every character. Maxim de Winter lives a life of secrecy and unhappiness. His past wife haunts him. As much as he tries to separate himself from her, he can’t. He is driven to search for a new wife and forget the past; hence, the new Mrs. de Winter. Mrs. Danvers is also fundamentally driven by Rebecca. Her negativity towards the new Mrs. de Winter stems from her obsession with Rebecca. It leads her to make the life of the female protagonist a living hell through a series of cruel actions culminating in an attempt to convince her to commit suicide. Ultimately, her obsession with Rebecca triumphs over her sanity, and Mrs. Danvers burns the mansion to the ground with herself inside. It is clear that she wouldn’t have been able to live in a world in which Rebecca had been replaced, especially by the feeble new Mrs. de Winter. Most obviously, Rebecca’s presence controls the protagonist. The second Mrs. de Winter spends the majority of the film trying to live up to someone she believes to be better than herself. She repeatedly fails to become the woman that she thinks Rebecca was.
Hitchcock wonderfully constructs the character that isn’t there. Even though she physically isn’t present, we feel her everywhere. Her things litter the estate, and monogrammed ‘R’s seem to be stamped onto every possible surface. Hitchcock is especially successful in building mystery surrounding her room; it only takes one look for us to immediately want to see what’s behind the huge double doors. We start to question everything surrounding Rebecca’s death. Later, the second Mrs. de Winter sees a woman in the window of Rebecca’s room, but we are unable to make out who it is. The mystery builds… it’s almost as if Hitchcock has twisted the film into a ghost story. Our female protagonist senses what we sense and she can’t hold back any longer. Despite her tentativeness, she ventures to Rebecca’s old room. Behind the doors, we find a perfectly put together room; it’s as if Rebecca never left. It tells us just how supposedly perfect Rebecca lived, and equally just how important it was to Mrs. Danvers that the room appeared as if Rebecca had never left. The story and mystery behind Rebecca and her death heighten.
Finally, Maxim is forced to tell the new Mrs. de Winter and the viewer what exactly happened to Rebecca. In doing so, he chillingly recounts her final moments in a brilliantly filmed scene. Hitchcock has the camera follow the empty space in which Rebecca would have walked had the scene been taking place in front of our eyes. She is as much placed in the room as she could possibly be without physically being there. When the camera collides with Maxim, the story reaches its peak, and we learn of Rebecca’s death at the hands of poor Maxim.
Ultimately, we learn that Rebecca, despite being murdered, had even controlled her own death. The devilish life she lived continued well past her death, and luckily for us, culminated in a wonderful 130 minute film.
Rebecca, 1940. 130 minutes, 1.37 : 1 Aspect. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Adapted from the novel by Daphne Du Maurier.