MGM’s Rebecca arrived in my mailbox recently, compliments of a twice-per-month DVD delivery from my Netflix queue. The Rebecca disc is part of the Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection, and the 1999 compilation by Anchor Bay Entertainment for MGM included a commentary track recorded by film critic Richard Schickel.
While the overall commentary was interesting, I found mistakes in it that were disturbing. I can appreciate the difficulty of finding enough things to say while recording commentary on a lengthy movie. However, Mr. Schickel seemed more interested in director Alfred Hitchcock and the rivalry between him and producer David O. Selznick than in author Daphne du Maurier. He seemed not to have read the book—or if he had read it, unable to recall its pivotal moments.
That’s unfortunate. Although Mr. Schickel’s insight into the producer/director spat was illuminating, he missed an opportunity to comment on a work that is surely a masterpiece of suspense.
It was also his job via the commentary to further inform and entertain viewers who may have been interested in both the original story and its differences on film. Moreover, he was disparaging of the book, calling it something like a “woman’s novel” or “women’s fiction” (can’t recall his exact words) in a tone of voice suggesting it was of a lesser literary quality. Seriously?
I cannot understand why the DVD-commentary errors and insults have gone uncorrected for so long. Does no one listen? Or don’t they care?
In the first of the factual errors I noted, Mr. Schickel credits Hitchcock with the idea of having the loathsome Mrs. Van Hopper extinguish her cigarette in a jar of cold cream by the side of her bed. Mr. Schickel waxes on about this touch and how Hitchcock did something similar elsewhere. I won’t argue as to whether and/or when Hitchcock may have employed this image, but readers of Du Maurier’s Rebecca will recall that Mrs. Van Hopper does in fact put out her cigarette in this way. It happens at the beginning of Chapter 5, as the young narrator returns to Mrs. Van Hopper’s bedside from a secret rendezvous with Maxim de Winter:
“‘The trouble is with me laid up like this you haven’t got enough to do,’ she [Mrs. Van Hopper] said, mashing her cigarette in a jar of cleansing cream… taking the cards in her hand she mixed them in the deft, irritating shuffle of the inveterate player, shaking them in threes, snapping the backs.”
I have always loved the image Du Maurier creates of this woman, describing her as not just placing, but “mashing” (a stronger and more colloquial verb) her cigarette into the face cream. In fact, Du Maurier repeats the image later by having the narrator, in her uncertainty over her relationship with De Winter, look ahead to the return of her dismal duties in Mrs. Van Hopper’s hotel room, with its “mashed stubs of cigarettes…everywhere, in cleansing cream, in a dish of grapes, and on a floor beneath the bed.”
So self-indulgent and vivid are these images, we seem to smell, as we turn the pages, the stale cigarette smoke mingled with scents that would otherwise have been wholesome. The words tell us everything we need to know about Mrs. Van Hopper and set up a natural sympathy for the poor orphaned heroine of the story, who flies into a marriage with Maxim de Winter not only from girlish infatuation, but also to escape her current predicament.
It turns out we will need that sympathy and more as the events of the story unfold and we learn that our gauche and frightened heroine becomes so obsessed with the glamorous image of the dead first wife Rebecca—and consequently dependent on her husband for approval—that she loses all sense of reality. In fact, she is so relieved at Maxim’s confession that he never loved his ex-wife, she chooses to overlook a few important facts, i.e., that he 1) murdered Rebecca in a fit of passion over the family honor—even thinking she was pregnant at the time, 2) dumped her body at sea, 3) sank her boat and lied about it, and 4) deliberately misidentified and buried someone else’s body in the family crypt as a cover up.
Never mind that Rebecca was a classic bully who provoked him into it. In the end, it is the gentlemanly Maxim de Winter who pulls the trigger and then isn’t brave enough to face the music. Like many a bullying victim before and since, he had clearly buried his feelings of impotence and shame under Rebecca’s domination until he could no longer contain his rage, and finding a loaded gun in his hand at a pivotal moment, unleashed his pent-up emotions in a fatal act. It is part of what makes the book timeless—evidence of this same psychology can be seen today across all elements of society. We hurt for him and with him even while we are unable to condone his behavior and know that he must be punished.
The other commentary error is more serious. During a climactic scene in which the action takes us to Dr. Baker’s office, Mr. Schickel spins a tale that in order to please the censors of the day, the plot of the movie was changed from the book’s abortion plot to a cancer story. This is a serious error that must not go unchallenged.
As readers of Rebecca will recall, the heretofore unknown diagnosis of Rebecca’s aggressive terminal cancer is essential to the book’s plot—a big reveal that changes the understanding of why a confident, life-loving, possibly bi-sexual and definitely amoral woman would provoke the husband she despises into giving her the gift of sudden death. This provocation is posited as Rebecca’s ultimate act of revenge, that she is able to manipulate the dutiful Maxim into letting her avoid an ugly and painful wasting away under morphia, while in all probability sending him to the gallows for his trouble.
Quite the lady, this Rebecca. No wonder readers instinctively want to cheer when the cancer reveal gives Maxim a shadow of hope. The diagnosis will also serve to explain Rebecca’s apparent suicide to a skeptical public unsatisfied with the conclusions of the inquest.
We all know, of course, that Rebecca did not commit suicide and that Maxim has gotten away with murder. The cancer story is essential to Du Maurier’s attempt to preserve what is left of Maxim’s good character and justify his honor killing. To anyone morally opposed to murder under any circumstances—and particularly to denying not one but apparently two victims a proper burial—the cancer excuse and Rebecca’s deliberate needling of Maxim is insufficient. Maxim the man may be forgiven but his acts cannot be.
But to the dazzled young heroine/narrator, Rebecca’s culpability in the matter is enough. Wife #2’s heroic adoration of Maxim can remain intact. Presumably, the couple are now able to live happily ever after at Maxim’s beloved Manderley. Except for one giant punishment yet to come, which for them—and for all of us who love the idea of their glorious Cornwall estate—is a big one, if not a surprise. The narrator has famously told us during the story’s opening dream sequence: “…Manderley was ours no longer. Manderley was no more.”
And in this most climactic of scenes, Mr. Schickel doesn’t bother to explain how the film diverged from the book, but instead relates a story in which producer Selznick wanted the smoke from the fire to form the letter R, and director Hitchcock ignored him. That’s fine if you’re into Hollywood trivia, but for serious readers and classic film fans, Mr. Schickel ought to have dug a little deeper. On the DVD commentary track, we have no other voice but his.