“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Those nine words, written by Daphne du Maurier in 1937, are among the most recognizable first lines of fiction in the twentieth century. Pithy and provocative, they set the misty tone of Rebecca, the gothic classic which, to date, has sold more than three million copies.
It was the subject of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 ageless film — his only to win the Oscar for Best Picture.
Netflix recently dropped Ben Wheatley’s sumptuous version, this time with fresh plot twists. Why this fascination with what du Maurier, during the creative process, called a literary miscarriage?
In brief, Rebecca is the atmospheric story of a young woman in love with an affluent widower whose previous wife casts a malignant shadow over their lives. It’s a crackerjack murder mystery that features obsessional love, a classic haunted house, and a bittersweet conclusion. It is written in an urgent, intimate style that compels the reader’s attention. And it is still timely.
“The sadness of all this is that it remains relevant,” Wheatley said. “It’s a tale of privilege — what you do when you’ve got nothing and you are dealing with people who have everything.”
Du Maurier’s biographer, Margaret Forster, pointed out that the author feared the two main characters were an unlikeable, domineering man and a subservient wife. Not exactly a bestselling combination.
But the public was intrigued and so was Hollywood kingpin, David O. Selznick. He acquired the film rights to Rebecca — the same rights esteemed British director Alfred Hitchcock had tried but failed to option.
Producer Selznick ultimately brought Hitchcock and his family to America in March of 1939 on a multi-year contract; the first picture the two would purportedly collaborate on was Titanic. That project was aborted and everyone set to work on Rebecca.
Seven screenwriters, including Hitchcock’s talented wife, Alma, and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, Robert Sherwood, wrestled the dark novel into Hollywood-worthy shape — the principal issue (spoiler alert) was that the protagonist in the story had committed murder and gotten away with it.
Selznick was, according to respected author and professor, Patrick McGilligan, “a bookworm in thick eyeglasses.” Although Selznick knew how to navigate the treacherous Tinseltown waters, he was deeply committed to the artistic integrity of an adaptation of literature — but 1940’s censors would not allow a film murder to go unpunished.
Sherwood and Hitchcock came up with a gimmicky accident to substitute for the crime, a conclusion Selznick reluctantly approved.
Filming began in the first week of September, 1939 with a sterling ensemble: Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine were cast as the leads, with Judith Anderson, Gladys Cooper, C. Aubrey Smith, George Sanders, Leo G. Carroll and Florence Bates in support. Imagine trying to assemble such a distinguished group today.
Rebecca was essentially an English picture filmed in foreign environs. The production was efficient, marred by minor jostling and typical infighting, that wrapped on November 20, 1939.
Hitchcock was not accustomed to a hovering producer nor restraints from censors, but the final product bore all his trademarks: stunning imagery, humor (Bates disgustedly stabbing out a cigarette in a jar of cold cream, quintessential Hitch) and assured performances. Except for a reliance on rear projection and some dreary painted backdrops, the technical mastery Hitchcock possessed was on display — this was not a Vertigo, but it was top drawer.
The film was a box office success: Hitchcock and Selznick went on to make other movies, notably the celebrated Notorious.
In total, Hitchcock turned to du Maurier for source material three times: his last English picture, Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, and his 1963 stunner, The Birds. Hitchcock referred to du Maurier as “a friend” — a friend whose gifts helped provide much success.
The Wheatley/Netflix production, eagerly anticipated, has received a chilly critical reception.
A.O. Scott wrote in The New York Times: “An attempt has been made to rework some of the narrative’s themes to bring it into line with contemporary sensibilities… to call this Rebecca an update would be misleading. It’s just a mistake.”
The location photography from Wheatley is welcome — Manderley, which Hitchcock rendered with two miniatures, is, in Wheatley’s version, a vital presence, not a studio set. Along with Hogwarts, Tara, and the Emerald City, Manderley is one of literatures’ most famous sites: Netflix does it justice.
Being freed of censorship, the film adheres more closely to the murder in the novel. But the tacked on courtroom drama and the confounding behavior of the lead characters are not congruent with du Maurier’s storyline. Same can be said of the syrupy final scenes.
Judge for yourself — Rebecca arrived on Netflix just in time for the Halloween season.