Rebecca (1940, Alfred Hitchcock; Cinematographer: George Barnes)
OSCAR MONTH: BEST BLACK & WHITE CINEMATOGRAPHY 1940
Rebecca is a ghost story. It’s a story in which men and women are haunted by the past, past loves, past crimes, and past lives. The death of Rebecca, the first wife of Laurence Olivier’s Maxim de Winter, looms dreadfully over the de Winter estate, its housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), and de Winter’s new bride (Joan Fontaine).
When I first watched Rebecca a few years ago, while on my way to polishing off Hitchcock’s extensive filmography, I was so disappointed, I immediately watched it again. What was I missing? Certainly it was me that was at fault, and not this revered classic by one of my favorite directors. But even upon a second viewing, Hitchcock’s breakout hit is blunt, saccharine, and frankly sexist - the women are portrayed as either mother or whore figures, and Joan Fontaine’s character isn’t even named. At best, Rebecca works as a blueprint for Vertigo, in which a number of the same themes and motifs (doubling, obsession) are explored in a more nuanced manner. Rebecca, though showing great promise, is the work of a Hollywood apprentice. Vertigo is the work of a master.
But Rebecca is important in one regard - it marks Hitchcock’s first foray into the blossoming noir genre, and thanks to renowned cinematographer George Barnes, it looks impeccable. Impossible shadows dance over ever surface of the de Winter estate, images reflect off glass doors, and as if taking their cue from the wildly popular Universal horror pictures, Barnes and art director Lyle R. Wheeler turn the house itself into a character, cavernous and gothic, a breathing mausoleum for the eponymous Rebecca. Here, Rebecca’s presence is represented literally by her massive portrait, dwarfing Fontaine, simultaneously acting as negative space and filling that same void. There should be nothing daunting about this shot, but there is. Even in the innocuous, unease is paramount. Trapped in expansive rooms, the ghosts remain.