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
, 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 foreshadow
s 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 monogram
med 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 flare
s from a ship which has wreck
ed 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
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
. 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 fire
place, 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 force
s 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.