"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." The famous opening of Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca (Doubleday, 1938) evokes dreams, or perhaps nightmares, and nostalgia for what is irrevocably lost, encapsulating (though we don't know it yet) the journey its heroine will undertake over the course of the novel.
The heroine—whose name we never learn—is a young, shy and naïve girl who has been hired as a ladies' companion. While staying with her overbearing employer in Monte Carlo, she encounters the brooding widower Maximilian de Winter, and they begin to spend time together. When de Winter learns that she is about to leave for America with her employer, he abruptly proposes marriage, and she accepts, although her first prescient response is "I don't belong to your sort of world." And no sooner does she return with de Winter to Manderley, his family estate on the southwestern coast of England, than she begins to discover how right she was.
At Manderley the couple's honeymoon idyll is shattered, as the new Mrs. de Winter everywhere encounters the indelible traces of de Winter's first wife, Rebecca. Rebecca was seemingly perfect: beautiful, graceful, tasteful, at ease in every situation, a gracious hostess and a beloved mistress of the household. In contrast the new Mrs. de Winter is uncertain, clumsy, and feels at every turn her inferiority to the worldly Rebecca. Anyone who has ever felt the awkwardness of entering a social situation governed by unstated rules that everyone else seems to know instinctively—and that's pretty much all of us—can't help but empathize with her.
Our heroine's feelings of inadequacy are made infinitely worse by the malevolent housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who preys on her insecurities and has an identification with Rebecca that is unhealthily close.
Looming over everything is the mystery of Rebecca's fate: she apparently drowned in a boating accident, and Maxim de Winter identified the battered body that washed up on shore. But then her sunken boat is discovered, and inside is a woman's corpse...
The film rights to Rebecca were bought by producer David O. Selznick (who also produced Gone With the Wind (1939)), and it became the first movie Alfred Hitchcock directed in Hollywood. The two men clashed over the script of the film, to which Hitchcock ill-advisedly tried to add scenes not in Du Maurier's book that appealed to his earthy sense of humor. One of Selznick's notorious memos to Hitchcock read in part:
"[Every] little thing that the girl does in the book, her reactions of running away from guests, and the tiny things that indicate her nervousness and her self-consciousness and her gaucherie are all so brilliant in the book that every woman who has read it has adored the girl and has understood her psychology, has cringed with embarrassment for her, yet has understood exactly what was going through her mind....[Your changes in the script] have removed all the subtleties and substituted big broad strokes which in outline form betray...just how bad a picture it would make without the little feminine things which are so recognizable and which make every woman say, 'I know just how she feels...I know just what she is going through...'" Despite the many brilliant Hitchcockian touches in the film, the director claimed in his famous interviews with François Truffaut that "it's not a Hitchcock picture" . In fact, as Truffaut points out, with its emphasis on the heroine's state of mind and its theme of over-identification, the film is a template for several of Hitchcock's later masterpieces such as Notorious (1946) and Vertigo (1957). Franz Waxman's haunting, evocative soundtrack for Rebecca also seems to have been a model (in emotional, if not musical terms) for Bernard Herrmann's great score for Vertigo.
Although the solution to the mystery had to be changed to satisfy the Production Code, the film is remarkably faithful to the atmosphere of the book. And the touches added by Hitchcock, including the slightly altered dénouement, are highly effective. In one example, as Maxim and his bride drive up to Manderley for the first time a sudden rainstorm breaks. (In the novel, it's sunny.) The new Mrs. de Winter is quickly soaked to the skin, and so as she meets the impeccable Mrs. Danvers and the household staff who have been assembled to greet her, she looks bedraggled, lost and forlorn—an outward representation of her inner anxieties.
The casting is perfect, from Joan Fontaine's tremulous heroine, to Laurence Olivier's dark, enigmatic Maxim, to Dame Judith Anderson's creepily effective Mrs. Danvers. Rebecca went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, the only Hitchcock film to be so honored (although the award was actually given to Selznick, the film's producer). George Bruce also received the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, but Hitchcock was bypassed for Best Director (as he would be throughout his career).
Rebecca was also adapted into an Indian movie, Kohraa (Fog, 1964), directed by Guru Dutt's former art director Biren Nag and starring Waheeda Rehman. For an excellent review with many tantalizing stills, please see MemsaabStory.
Update 20 July 2013: Thanks to Rajshri Films, Kohraa is available for viewing on YouTube with English captions, for free.
Update 21 July 2013: M. Lapin has alerted me that there are a number of people who profess to love du Maurier's novel, but hate the Hitchcock film. In her post "Hitchcock Got 'Rebecca' Dead Wrong: Sucking the Soul out of a Classic Novel," Elizabeth Langosy complains about Joan Fontaine's "flirty smile and curled hair...[and] too-sophisticated voice" and Judith Anderson's physiognomy, which "looks nothing like the skeletal housekeeper described in the book." She also dislikes the screenplay's differences from the novel, in particular a scene where Olivier's Maxim de Winter is standing on a cliff in Monte Carlo, staring mesmerized at the crashing waves below and evidently on the verge of throwing himself over the edge.
To take her objections one at a time, I guess a "flirty smile" is in the eye of the beholder; I thought Fontaine embodied the heroine's shyness, uncertainty and desire to please painfully well. As for her hairstyle, the heroine is described by du Maurier as having "straight, bobbed hair," and indeed Fontaine's hair is shoulder-length. But it is often pulled back, flattened down, and otherwise deglamorized or made to look schoolgirlish. It's not a literal interpretation of du Maurier's description, but it captures its plain, unstylish essence:
As for her too-sophisticated voice in the opening scene of the film, the narration is in flashback, after the events of the film have taken place. As Maxim tells her in both book and movie after the revelation of Rebecca's fate, "It's gone forever, that funny, young, lost look that I loved. It won't come back again...You are so much older...." (p. 299 of my Avon paperback edition). I think the contrast between the halting, naïve girl who marries Maxim, and the more sophisticated woman recounting her dream at the opening of the film, is deliberate. Whether the effect is overdone is matter of taste, but I don't find it out of keeping with the character.
As for Judith Anderson not looking skeletal, I disagree. She is often lit by cinematographer George Bruce in a way that emphasizes her eyes, forehead and cheekbones, leaving the lower part of her face in shadow. With her severe, pulled-back hair, it indeed makes her face look skull-like:
And as for the scene where Maxim is apparently contemplating suicide, it is a substitute for one in the book where he drives the heroine to a Monte Carlo clifftop and stands looking over the edge, lost in thought. As we and the heroine discover later, he isn't thinking about suicide, but revisiting a place where he contemplated murder. This is another case where I think Hitchcock's change works very well on its own terms, making the aloof, enigmatic Maxim a more sympathetic figure than he might otherwise have appeared.
None of the differences between the novel and Hitchcock's film version "suck the soul out of the novel," in my view. As I wrote above, despite these differences, "the film is remarkably faithful to the atmosphere of the book." So I have to think that the objections of Langosy and others are rooted in something else; perhaps they simply can't tolerate any deviation from the letter of the book. But representing this novel, or any novel, that faithfully would require hours and hours of screentime. To bring in a version that is merely feature-length necessarily requires compressions, elisions and changes to the source. In Hitchcock's Rebecca, those differences from du Maurier's novel seem to me to be thoughtfully considered and effective.
Longosy praises the 1979 BBC adaptation written by Hugh Whitemore; she writes, "Although this adaptation takes four hours to tell the story, it replicates as closely as possible du Maurier’s depiction of the characters and events." That "although," I think, is curious; shouldn't it instead be "because"? While sheer length is not sufficient to guarantee scene-by-scene faithfulness to a literary source—see The Pallisers—I think it is a necessary precondition. The BBC miniseries features Joanna David (later Elizabeth Bennet's Aunt Gardiner in the great 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice) as the heroine, Jeremy Brett (later Granada TV's Sherlock Holmes) as Maxim, and Anna Massey (later Miss Stanbury in the BBC's 2004 adaptation of He Knew He Was Right) as Mrs. Danvers. The cast is certainly promising; if I have a chance to see it (it has never been issued on video, to my knowledge) I'll make a further report.
Update 31 July 2013: A (micro-)mini review of Kohraa is included in the comments below.
1. Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory, Routledge, 1988, p. 43.
2. François Truffaut, Hitchcock, Simon and Schuster, 1984, p. 127.