Author: Daphne du Maurier
Published: 1938
Rating: Highly recommended.


Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again...

The tale opens with the above sentence, one of the most haunting and memorable first lines in all of fiction. Our young narrator, who shall remain nameless throughout the book, is employed as a companion to a rich, annoying gossip that brings her along into the elite social scene. While they are staying in Monte Carlo, our young narrator meets Maxim de Winter, a wealthy Englishman who is there recovering from the recent death of his wife. De Winter sweeps young narrator off of her feet, marries her, and brings her back to his home.

His home turns out to be Manderley, a sprawling countryside estate on the coast of Britain in Cornwall. Upon arrival, our young narrator discovers that the memory of the previous mistress of the estate, one Rebecca de Winter, still casts a strong pall over her life there. Universally loved by all, the former Ms. De Winter can be said to “haunt” the estate. Narrator must come to grips with the fact that she can never measure up with the perfection of the late Mrs. De Winter, in the eyes of the servants, the locals, or even her new husband. Finally, in the surprise ending of the book, the world as we have been led to believe it, has been thrown into complete disarray.


Rebecca is one of those novels that is all atmosphere to me. The “plot” is summarized in a barely respectable paragraph, and the other four hundred and thirty seven pages are completely up to the skill of the author. And I find Ms. Du Maurier’s skills quite captivating. Her prose is tight, yet flowing. Her descriptions are almost fractal, managing to convey whole emotions/locations with a sentence about a look, or a rhododendron bush. And she pulls off one of my favorite literary tricks of all time. I am referring to the pseudo-supernatural, pioneered by Scooby Doo. I love it when the reader is led to believe that the supernatural is involved, either through Occam's Razor, haunting descriptions, or a masterful, almost transparent conveyance of the internal landscape of the narrator's mind.

Another thing that I loved about this book is that it provided me with a window into a lifestyle that I will never know first-hand. Ms. Du Maurier made good use of her times spent living as one of the high elite in Europe, and provides us with a picture of just what we are all really missing. Butlers, gardeners, Monaco, teatime, and scones upon scones upon scones. (On a side note, I was eating a scone a day for like a week after I read this book) Overall, a fascinating look at English life, if you are mind-numbingly wealthy.

My name!
Variant of the Hebrew name Rebekah.

Rebekah appears in the bible in book of Genesis as the wife of Issac and mother of Esua and Jacob. The story goes that Rebekah was so beautiful that Issac was afraid he would be killed by a jealous man (Abimelech). Issac deceives Abimelech that they are not married so Abimelech has his way with Rebekah. Later (revenge much?) she encourages Jacob to trick Issac out of his blessing. Basically, other than giving birth twice she didn't really do anything but cause trouble for her husband and children.

I have read several meanings for the name, the most common being "captivating". Others were "bounding", and "tie together as in a knot".

Nicknames include Ruby, Reba, Becca, Beck, and Becky.

The place: Hollywood. The year: 1939. With “the search for Scarlett” over, producer David O. Selznick convinces Alfred Hitchcock to make his first American movie an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s runaway bestseller Rebecca. One week before shooting begins, Germany invades Poland, and England immediately declares war, throwing the almost entirely British cast and crew into a permanent state of high anxiety. And so the scene is set for one of Hollywood’s most troubled, and eventually celebrated, collaborations - the duel of wills between the fiercely independent Master of Suspense and the equally demanding producer of “the most successful movie ever made.”

Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood movie, Rebecca has more layers than a wedding cake, and can be viewed in a number of different ways. It’s a love triangle. A thriller. A fish-out-of-water story, and a drama about the battle of the sexes. But most of all, I like to think of it as a ghost story where the ghost never appears.

Beautifully filmed in black and white, Rebecca is a slow, atmospheric movie that requires the utmost patience from its viewers, but for those who have the patience, it is a wonderful cinematic experience. From the unforgettable dream sequence that opens the picture (“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again...”) to the often-imitated climactic shot of the ceiling falling on Mrs. Danvers, it’s practically the textbook Perfect Movie. Winning the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Cinematography in 1940, it opened Hitchcock’s American career with a bang, and was the only David O. Selznick production that rivalled the success of Gone with the Wind.

But there were so many problems behind the scenes, it’s a miracle the movie was ever made.

Selznick, an extraordinarily controlling producer at the best of times, was determined to rein in what he considered an unforgivable independence in Hitchcock. From Hitchcock’s cavalier treatment of source material to his cutting-edge methods of shooting, it seemed there was almost nothing that Selznick actually liked about Hitchcock’s techniques. One almost wonders why Selznick ever wanted to work with the celebrated director, as he spent almost all of his time vetoing Hitchcock’s decisions.

To make matters worse, as filming on Gone with the Wind drew to a close, it was obvious to Selznick - and everyone else involved with the production - that it was the pinnacle of his career. Selznick would never again make a movie as highly acclaimed or commercially successful as GwtW. This threw him into violent depressions, making him even more difficult for Hitchcock to work under.

Hitchcock, for his part, didn’t want to make Rebecca at all at that point. Although he had considered buying the rights when the novel was first published, he wanted to make “the Titanic” his first Hollywood production. When he was finally convinced to do Rebecca, he openly stated that he considered Daphne du Maurier’s celebrated novel merely a springboard for his own ideas. In a statement to Film Weekly, he said, “I shall treat this more or less as a horror film.”

Somewhat unsurprisingly, du Maurier absolutely hated Hitchcock. She even refused an offer from Selznick to write the script, apparently preferring to take the money and have nothing more to do with the movie.

Casting turned out to be almost as difficult as it had been for Gone with the Wind. For the part of Maxim de Winter, Selznick wanted Ronald Colman, but Colman turned down the part because he thought his fans wouldn’t like him as a murderer. Eventually the filmmakers chose Laurence Olivier, who came with a problem of his own - his girlfriend, one Vivien Leigh, who desperately wanted to play the female lead, but was absolutely terrible for the part. For a long time, none of the principals could agree on a Mrs. de Winter. Eventually Selznick laid down the law and, over Hitchcock’s protests, hired Joan Fontaine. This worked well for everyone but the disappointed Olivier, who treated Fontaine pretty much the same way de Winter treats his new wife in the movie.

In the end, the casting choices turned out to be perfect, even though Olivier was extremely difficult to direct. No doubt the actors’ real emotions went a long way towards making their performances more believable, and Olivier’s haughty attitude and Fontaine’s air of vulnerability play off each other quite effectively. After seeing them together, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing either of the roles. Having seen Vivien Leigh’s screen test with Olivier, I’m especially sure that she would have been a very bad choice as the new Mrs. de Winter, although she might have made a nice Rebecca if there had been such a part.


“I would rather say very flatly that I think the treatment is pretty bad,
and that it is easier to do a new one than to repair this one.”

– David O. Selznick to Alfred Hitchcock

The adaptation of the novel Rebecca caused endless battles in and around the production offices. As mentioned, Hitchcock’s disrespectful attitude towards source material was enough to alienate Daphne du Maurier. Selznick, however, insisted that the movie would be as faithful an adaptation as possible. He exercised strict control over Hitchcock’s development, at one point writing a venomous ten-page letter that was basically one long smackdown for the director and his intrepid scriptwriters. Amongst other things, he said, “We bought Rebecca and we intend to make Rebecca,” called some of Hitchcock’s proposed changes “cheap beyond words and old-fashioned in the bargain” and “a distorted and vulgarized version of a provenly successful work,” and finally summarized his feelings with the lines quoted above.

But Tinseltown’s Powers That Be disagreed with two of the novel’s most important plot points, and Selznick’s vision of a literal translation was not to be. The pivotal moment of the novel, de Winter’s confession that he had killed Rebecca, was not allowed under the Hollywood Production Code that insisted that no one could ever get away with murder. Selznick, no stranger to censorship battles, fought to keep the murder in the script, but in the end he was forced to make a rather awkward compromise. The movie, in my opinion at least, loses quite a bit of its punch when de Winter explains that Rebecca was accidentally killed during an argument. Of course, the viewer is not required to accept this statement at face value.

Another important point that Selznick was asked to change was the scandalous nature of Rebecca’s relationship with her housekeeper, the formidable Mrs. Danvers. However, Selznick refused to eliminate this crucial plot point, and while it is never explicitly stated in the film, it is patently obvious that the women were indeed lovers. It isn’t exactly a brilliant PR moment for lesbians, as Mrs. Danvers is not only stern and pointedly plain-looking, but completely mad and quite terrifying. But it is well played, and there is a quietly powerful moment when Danvers shows “I” Rebecca’s old nightgown, her line “look, you can see my hand right through it” simply oozing with unspoken emotions.


“Well, it’s not a Hitchcock picture. The fact is, the story lacks humour.”
– Alfed Hitchcock to Francois Truffaut

In the end, Rebecca was clearly not a standard Hitchcock movie. Selznick’s control over the production was far too tight for Hitchcock to freely express himself. The humour and horror that Sir Alfred was so fond of are toned down considerably, and Selznick would not allow the director to follow his standard procedure of “cutting in the camera.” This was a technique where Hitchcock, always in control of his film, would shoot only the exact scene that he wanted. No lead-in, follow-through, or covering footage. Hitchcock lived by this code, but Selznick hated it with a passion and wanted to supervise most of the editing himself.

In fact, Hitchcock himself told Tuffaut that the movie was not a Hitchcock feature, and seems to have held a low opinion of it for the rest of his life. Some Hitchcock fans, perhaps feeling that the master is always right, share this feeling and dismiss Rebecca from their discussions of his films.

For all that, you can tell almost immediately that Hitchcock directed Rebecca. Although it may not belong to him exclusively, the signs of his touch are everywhere. The repartee in the Monte Carlo scenes is classic Hitch material, as is the controlled, rhythmic chaos of Manderley’s destruction. These climactic moments are immediately reminiscent of the flashlight scene in the Birds and the climax of Rear Window. The effects are different, but the feeling is very much the same.

Another important element, which has been imitated many times since, is Hitchcock’s direction of Mrs. Danvers. Danvers is never seen walking, but revealed in sudden camera movements and cuts instead. The effect of her sudden appearances duplicates Mrs. de Winter’s impressions that the housekeeper is not quite human but almost a supernatural presence, an unpredictable force to be feared and avoided.


“We can never go back to Manderley again, except in dreams.”

Actually, you could never go to Manderley. The actual house didn’t exist, nor is it based on any real house. It is a complete fabrication with features from dozens of English manors. To capture its many guises on film, two models of the house were built in the studios. One was a huge model (what Peter Jackson calls a “bigature”) that was used for close shots. The other was much smaller, and included the whole surrounding landscape. The opening dream sequence, which follows the road towards the abandoned Manderley, used this model.

(This is another of Hitchcock’s devices. Selznick was very resistant to the idea of using miniatures, fearing that they would not be convincing.)

The interiors are all sets, of course, and it is interesting to note that many of the features of Manderley, such as ceilings and chandeliers, were actually composited special effects drawn onto shots of partial sets.


Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Producer: David O. Selznick
Screenplay: Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison
Photographed by: George Barnes, ASC
Special Effects: Jack Cosgrove
Music: Franz Waxman
Supervising Film Editor: Hal C. Kern

Maxim de Winter: Laurence Olivier
“I”: Joan Fontaine
Jack Favell: George Sanders
Mrs. Danvers: Judith Anderson
Mrs. Van Hopper: Florence Bates


The Criterion Collection’s DVD release of Rebecca is even more informative than Criterion’s usual work. Of course the print is immaculate - it looks like the film was shot last year, not 65 years ago. It also features a commentary track by “film scholar” Leonard J. Leff. The second disc in the box is absolutely crammed with photos of the production, correspondence between the filmmakers, radio interviews with the stars, complete radio adaptations of Rebecca, screen tests and the like. Finally, the 22-page booklet includes the definitive essay about the movie, George Turner’s “Du Maurier + Selznick + Hitchcock = Rebecca”, which originally appeared in American Cinematographer in 1997. This isn’t a DVD, it’s a film school.


  • Supplemental materials from the Criterion Collection’s release of Rebecca, most significantly:
    • TURNER, G., “Du Maurier + Selznick + Hitchcock = Rebecca”. American Cinematographer, 1997 (reprinted in the Criterion booklet)
    • Personal correspondence between David Selznick, Alfred Hitchcock and others.
    • Screen tests
    • Commentary by Leonard J. Leff
  • And of course, the film itself.

(Despite the extensive supplements on the Criterion disc, I did not want to write something based on only one source, so I tried to get additional information about the film online. This search was a complete waste of time. I could not find a single site that told me anything the Criterion DVD hadn’t already told me, except for a scurrilous rumour that Hitchcock actually told Fontaine that everyone on the set hated her, so that she would be more convincing. In fact, the opposite seems to be true, as several sources mention the director taking extraordinary amounts of time coaching the young actress.)

Bruce Seaton
Prof. Lietch
ENGL 318- Studies in Film: Alfred Hitchcock
3-Page Essay # 1

Crafting a Story from Water and Fire

In Alfred Hitchcock’s version of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the director makes use of several subtle (and not-so-subtle) tools for suggesting to the audience that something important in the story is hidden, that some sinister and malignant entity is influencing the events of the plot. There are some straightforward techniques used in the movie, for instance: Maxim stares into space each time water or boats is mentioned; Mrs. Danvers is so over-the-top and creepy as to be almost laughable; no one wants to speak to the second Mrs. de Winter about Rebecca unless cornered and questioned. There is certainly something strange at work here. There are, however, several far more subtle techniques at work in Rebecca. One of these is the use of cold and wet imagery in contrast to warm, bright imagery.

The picture opens with views of a dark and misty woodland, bringing the viewer eventually to a great wrought iron gate. As our narrator tells us about her dream, we are taken down an overgrown drive to a hollow shell of a house, Manderley, long abandoned and eerie. The view is enveloped in thick fog, and there is a sense of chilliness about the house and its surrounding grounds. We are then whisked away from Manderley to Monte Cristo, where we see Maxim standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, as if he is about to throw himself into the crashing waves below.

Although the south of France is clearly in a warm climate, the word “cold” pops its head up numerous, even inordinately numerous times during this first act of the play. The first time we hear it is when Mrs. Van Hopper exclaims that her coffee is cold. This comment helps to give the audience a sense of how obnoxious the woman is, but the comment has no place in the plot, and serves no immediately obvious purpose. Hitchcock is simply putting the word in the mind of the viewer, a bug in the viewer’s ear, setting the viewer up, so that when this word comes around again, as it will, the overall effect will be to suggest that “cold” means “bad.” Later, Mrs. Van Hopper will become ill; she will, in fact, be stricken with a cold. Yet again, this has no direct relation to the more sinister coldness that haunts Manderley, but it is another subtle tip to the viewer to be attentive. When our unnamed heroine mentions how nice the water is at home, she also describes the water back home in England as cold, too cold to swim in most of the year. Maxim’s reaction to her comment is clear, almost violent. By now the word cold, and probably the image of water, have become solidly associated with some menacing force in the story. Not once in the movie, in fact, does anyone describe anything cold or cool in a way that seems positive.

Not long after, we are taken back to Manderley. As Maxim and his new bride drive up the long, wooded driveway, she begins to shiver. Maxim asks her if she is feeling cold, and just then, it begins to rain. Once again water and coldness together, and Joan Fontaine’s face makes it plain that she is somehow uncomfortable, even threatened, by the prospect of being in this place. When they arrive at the house, we meet the pathologically malicious Mrs. Danvers. As soon as she is faced with Danvers, our heroine drops her gloves. This encounter further suggests that there is a force that saps the warmth from the people in the house, and now it has at least one agent- Mrs. Danvers. Simply by facing the heroine she has- momentarily, at least- stolen not only her warmth, but some of her protection from the cold.

Not long after, Danvers mentions that the west wing of the house, the only wing with an ocean view, is no longer in use. This foreshadows several encounters the heroine will have with Danvers in the west wing, where it seems Rebecca’s power is strongest and most palpable. When Maxim and his nameless wife go for a walk to the beach, the viewer is further prodded by Maxim’s aversion to the ocean and the little cottage on the shore.

Immediately after the heroine meets old Ben, she chases Maxim and cries. He gives her a handkerchief to wipe her tears. On it is the now ever-present monogrammed R. The shot of the heroine’s outstretched hand with the R is faded to a seemingly nonsensical shot of chilling and booming waves crashing on a shoreline. This is a brief shot and has no importance to the plot, so the viewer may well miss it entirely. The cold ocean now has a direct, menacing link to Rebecca, however.

Not long after this scene is the first standoff between the heroine and Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca’s old room. Throughout this scene, the heroine holds her arms close to her body and rubs her forearms with her hands as if she is chilled, although the sun is shining in the massive windows of the room. Danvers has a fantastically creepy performance here, showing the heroine Rebecca’s old underwear and, wide-eyed, speaking of nights long passed. She ends the scene with the words “listen to the ocean.” The extremely macabre tone of her performance should now have cemented in the viewer’s mind the outright evil of the ocean in the story. Whatever cold spirit haunts Manderley seems to come from the ocean itself. There is also a shot of the monogrammed R on the old pillowcase made for Rebecca (whose name comes from a Hebrew word meaning “noose” or “bound”) by Danvers, once again fading into a shot of crashing waves. The combination of cold, the bizarre and repulsive Mrs. Danvers, the presence of Rebecca in the form of her initial, and the ocean is now becoming a single presence in the plot, a horrible, ominous force.

On the night of the costume ball, Maxim’s brother-in-law, Major Giles Lacy comments on the chill and mistiness of the evening. The viewer does not have to wait long for the outcome of this foreshadowing. The climax of the cold water imagery comes when the heroine next faces off against Mrs. Danvers, again in Rebecca’s room. Mrs. Danvers nearly convinces the heroine to throw herself from Rebecca’s window to the patio below, barely visible through the thick fog. She is saved only by the flares from a ship which has wrecked on the rocks just off the coast. The shot of the boat seems to suggest that the eerie fog is creeping across the ground from the ocean and attempting to engulf Manderley entirely.

The final explanation for this imagery comes in Maxim’s confession to his new wife. He tells her about scuttling Rebecca’s boat off the shore, and how just as he rowed the dinghy to shore, it began to rain. Rebecca has been present, quite palpably and physically present, throughout the movie, in every chilling breeze, every downpour, every crash of the waves. She is a cold spirit of the ocean she once loved to sail.

If the malicious and evil characters of the plot seem somehow connected with water and with cold, it would seem natural for the more likable characters to be associated with warmth and shelter. As it happens, this is the case. A number of the characters friendly to the protagonist are quickly associated with providing a warm, dry place.

As soon as Maxim and his new bride reach Manderley, they are greeted by Frith, the kindly and elderly butler, who provides the heroine with an umbrella to keep the rain off of her. It is later confessed by Mrs. Danvers, that Frith is the member of the staff who has been at Manderley longer than she. Frith’s dedication is to the de Winter family, whoever that may be, and he immediately includes Maxim’s new wife in that category. He later offers to light a fire for her, and when she declines, he leads her to another room where there is already a fire burning. Fire becomes the natural antithetical symbol of the cold ocean as more characters and situations occur in its presence.

Another character immediately associated with warmth and safety is Frank Crawley, who is first shown to us in the breakfast room with his back to the cheery fireplace, going over the monetary figures of the estate. Frank is apparently the closest thing to a friend Maxim has, and is the only non-family member Maxim addresses by first name.

After Maxim’s confession, just before the inquest scenes, there is a scene between Maxim and his new wife before a roaring fire. It is the only time they kiss in the movie, and they stand with their sides to the fire, neither one blocking the other from its warmth and cheer.

The one other character associated with fire is Mrs. Danvers, whose relationship with it is quite different. After Frith has led the heroine to the morning room and its cheerfully burning fire, Mrs. Danvers enters. As she approaches to request the new Mrs. de Winter’s approval for the lunch menu, she steps between the fire and the heroine, the only time a character does this in the movie. In the end, fire undoes Mrs. Danvers as well. She is a creature of the cold, of the water, and when she burns Manderley, the symbol of Rebecca, she also is destroyed.

In closing, one “blind-spot” of the movie must be addressed: Jack Favell. There is only one mention of his relationship with either the cold or the water, and that is the cottage on the shore. It was in this little cottage that Favell met with Rebecca during their affair, and this proximity to the ocean is the only link associating him with it. Favell is not as major a character as many of these others, however, and his presence is more limited in the plot of the story.

This is not a new association, that of fire to safety and the immensity and coldness of the ocean to danger and death, but the consistency and subtlety with which Hitchcock went about using it makes it interesting. Using classically opposed primal forces to suggest opposition in people will probably be a technique used over and over again in all forms of art, not only because it is a powerful opposition, but because it can be used with subtlety and craft to create strong, yet subconscious emotional responses in an audience.

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