There's something queer that turns a melodrama into a ghost story and a ghost story into something öbercreepy. In both Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca and Lewis Allen's The Uninvited the focus of our suspense rests on the unnatural "presence" of their absent female characters. Rebecca marks Hitchcock's first American film as well as his first collaboration with David O. Selznick. Together the two crafted a film that merged both of their interests making Rebecca a masterfully suspenseful female Gothic film. Although later Hitchcock dismissed his only film to be nominated for Best Picture as a women's picture, it is precisely this focus that unearths the secret to both the film's success and Hitchcock's own success. Expanding on the ground laid by Rebecca, The Uninvited adds another ghost into the mix of otherworldly conflict. With both films it is the unseen that terrifies the viewer, that is unless they get the joke. These two films conjure up questionable representations of women and sexuality, which maybe unsettling if not addressed. These questions surround representations and their effects on spectatorship, which make these films models for paranoia and suspense that are still vital today.
The Hitchcock/Selznick courtship started with Rebecca. Selznick was riding the wave of Gone With the Wind when production began for his next literary adaptation Rebecca giving Hitchcock some freedom. Selznick was hesitant about the novel at first, but it was harder to pass up when it became a bestseller. The fidelity of the adaptation was to be one of its greatest selling points as well as one point on which the filmmakers disagreed. Hitchcock wanted to put in a darker tone with some comedic elements while Selznick wanted to stick to the melodrama of the original as a vehicle for his star-to-be Joan Fontaine. Some accommodations had to be made in order to receive approval from the PCA revolving around the circumstances of Rebecca's death and certain "perverse" inferences. The changes were considered and the murder was replaced by an accidental, yet welcome death while the perverse remained inferred. While the Production Code forbid depictions of the perverse (homosexuality, incest, etc) and hints of it, this only encouraged filmmakers to mask it in stereotypes and muted subtexts. This is something at which Hitchcock was wonderful in accomplishing especially from a psychoanalytic angle that may or may not have been entirely conscious.
Just as Rebecca was marketed on the wings of Gone With the Wind, so did its success.
Both pictures were lush, romantic, well-crafted love stories that transposed best-selling fiction to the screen in consummate Hollywood style (Schatz 292). They were not only financially hit but they both won Best Picture making it a back-to-back sweep for Selznick. The films were so profitable that Selznick was forced to dissolve Selznick International Pictures in order to avoid the huge tax bite. Critics loved Fontaine as the fumbling innocent as well as Judith Anderson as the chilly former servant of the original Mrs. DeWinter, Mrs. Danvers. The reviews for Rebecca anticipated its appeal to the industry, but some critics thought it would be too psychological for a wide audience. It was the psychological twist that won the critics who overwhelming celebrated Hitchcock's coming to America. Hitchcock was already seen as a master of suspense and had the critics eating out of his hands with his magic
done with mirrors...mirrors into the human soul, revealing strange paradoxes ("That Hitchcock Touch"). And so it goes that Rebecca became essential to the female Gothic film.
Following in the footsteps of Hitchcock's "ghost" The Uninvited uses the formula set before it to bring a chill to its audiences. The plot adds some twists to the arc of the narrative to include the unveiling of the mystery behind not one but two deaths. The critics didn't have much to say about its financial potential, but they were impressed by the performances it offered. The review from Variety believed that
the real treat in The Uninvited [was] a starlet Paramount [had] been keeping under wraps in 'B' pictures who [was] given a part with plenty of meat in this one. The review is speaking of Gail Russell who takes the role of the ingénue trying to connect with her dead mother's ghost. The performances of the other characters are likewise praised especially that of Cornelia Otis Skinner
as a Mrs. Danvers by remote control (Whooooooo!). It appears from the reception of the film that through its melding of elements from Rebecca as well as some classic horror conventions, the result was downright scary (which I'll admit I found scary even today). The New York Times advised viewers to
proceed at your own risk especially
if you are at all afraid of the dark (Whooooooo!).
With all the success of Rebecca, it's interesting to see how intriguing a film can be that fails to give its central character a name of her own. Further analysis will show that the eerie mood of the film that led it to success stems from the Hitchcock magic that makes every detail important; even a name. Throughout the narrative, our heroine just doesn't quite fit in with the other characters and certainly appears unable to live up to the name Mrs. DeWinter. Among the many extravagant sets and expressionistic scenes, the new Mrs. DeWinter appears oddly small and infantile much like Alice in the WonderMansion. Her every move is monitored and examined and the direction and sets express with great detail and care in a way that creates a similar claustrophobic space for the increasingly paranoid spectator. These complex scenes, presold potential and deliberate direction, along with the name David O. Selznick, make Rebecca a prestige picture as well as a memorable and important one.
One of several famous scenes demonstrates the dynamic shaping of Joan Fontaine's character in relation to her husband, Mrs. Danvers and the spectator as well. From her entrance into "home movie" sequence (see shot list) to the tears at its end, the new Mrs. DeWinter is revealed to be merely a child trying to fit into an elegant dress and appear grownup. She enters the scene with little grace as the camera tenuously leads her into the large parlor room with high ceiling, tall doors and huge fireplace. This set appears to be connected to the fabulously lit main hall (which has an equally extravagant splitting staircase). Her dress is straight out of a beauty magazine for intelligent women, but its white flowers give it a younger feel. So we are not surprised when Maxim DeWinter is not impressed; after all she was "never to be thirty-six years old." The camera follows Maxim as he inspects the dress and finally (somewhat) approves. She retreats to her seat and sinks into it making her appear even smaller.
The following shots shrink our young wife even more, when Fritz, the butler, interrupts to tell Mr. DeWinter that the old crone head maid, Mrs. Danvers, a statuette has been stolen. As if out of a family sitcom the new Mrs. DeWinter (TV daughter) tells her husband (TV father) that she broke the statuette. He calls her a "silly little thing" and while towering over her insists that she tell Mrs. Danvers herself. She sheepishly apologizes upon Mrs. Danvers (vampire-like) appearance, after which the bloodsucker gets a few muted licks before Maxim steps in. Even after this awkward setback the scene continues when the couple begins to watch some home movies. The darkness of the room gives way at key points in the scene when the light of the projector illuminates their faces showing anger and distress. Towards the end even the camera, like her husband, pulls away from the ingénue. Maxim, like the stern father figure, insists the evening continue and he starts the film yet again. The scene ends with the camera moving in onto a slightly canted screen, displaying a happier version of the couple embracing.
Throughout the film the new Mrs. DeWinter is attempting to prove herself worthy of her new title although it seems misfit. This comes across in her actions, hesitations, lighter immature costume and the elaborate network of comparisons created by the camera and the characters. Everyone else is intelligent, eloquent, sharply dressed (in darker clothing) and at home in this world of manners and excess. In their battle of wills, Mrs. Danvers is constantly comparing her to the original Mrs. DeWinter with whom she has a queer obsession. It doesn't seem like anyone is rooting for Alice in this suspense story; even the camera is unsure about her. Overall, the production produces an intense world for our young Alice to negotiate the drink me's and the eat me's on her journey to discover "who are you?"
Hitchcock may have disowned his poor lamb, but Alice and Rebecca have their place in film theory and criticism. Hitchcock dismisses the film as a women's picture, but this is right where contemporary theorists chose to pick up the slack. The film's haunting, yet visually absent paranoia and female characters/identities (Rebecca never appears in the film), when put under film theory's lens, produce several entry points for both feminist and lesbian theories to take hold. Interestingly enough, the central focus rests on the character that isn't even there, the original Mrs. DeWinter, Rebecca. The criticism surrounding Rebecca reflects ideas that appear not only in Hitchcock's films but also in other films that merge the women's picture with horror, the female Gothic. For feminist critics, the film is the proof of the Electra complex (i.e. the female Oedipal complex) and an argument for the existence of female desire and spectatorship. Queer theorists take this a step further and discuss Hitchcock's homophobia as well as the effect of connotation in summoning the apparitional lesbian. However, they all suggest that the collaboration of Selznick and Hitchcock captured something about women that is more than simply feminine.
Much of the writing regarding feminist issues are written about the ramifications of the absence of the film's true central character, Rebecca. The film is after all titled Rebecca and there are traces of her throughout the mansion and the hearts of the people who occupy it. The first theorist, Mary Ann Doane, seeks the ubiquitous female spectator by fleshing out the absence felt in the two "women's pictures" Rebecca and Caught. Doane is up against
the cinema's appeal to (male) voyeurism and fetishism and investigates the home movie scene in Rebecca for their possible female counterparts (196). The scenes she analyzes dwell on the issue, yet focus on
women's relation to the gaze" and ultimately "delineate the impossibility of female spectatorship (214). The article attempts to apply the ideas borne out of Laura Mulvey's essay on visual pleasure and Hollywood's catering of male spectatorship. Doane believes the analysis fails to summon a sense of female spectatorship and leaves only a disturbing absent or virtual spectator in "women's pictures." Luckily for us, there were others willing to try again.
If nothing else, other theorists found Rebecca useful in building a case for a female Oedipal disorder, more specifically the elusive Electra complex. Tania Modleski contests earlier theories
that all traditional narratives reenact the male Oedipal crisis and asserts that the film brings into view
the long discredited 'Electra' complex (34). She draws on its recipe of marrying the father figure who saves her from the oppressive mother, which requires confrontation with her rival mother. This feminist stab at male centered spectatorship also revolves around the absent but omnipresent Rebecca. Rebecca is the invisible femme fatale who disturbs the normal flow of male spectatorship; bearing the unseen look. In order to solve the crisis, the girl must decide between becoming the mother and her desire for the father. However, in this denial the girl shakily takes the place of the mother, much as in Rebecca when our heroine declares that she is Mrs. DeWinter now. Whether this analysis constitutes a female spectatorship or not is still left in the air, but Alice Light catches it and retires it to the old boy's court by telling the ladies they should try the book instead. She reckons that the filmmakers tried
to limit this kind of damage, after all
they don't want their female viewers believing that being Rebecca, and acting like a man might be a great deal more fun than marriage to boring old Max (Light 30). Could Hitchcock be sadistic enough to light this flame under the seat of male spectatorship only to put out the fire of
the woman who knew too much and the woman we longed to be once these men jumped out of their seats (Light 31)?
Other theorists suggest that Hitchcock's dabbling in tabooed identification is not sadistic but more likely a masked masochistic tendency to stab at the male spectator. Arriving at Hitchcock from a queered point of view, many of his films including Rebecca display a homophobic obsession with deviance. Robin Wood suggests that putting Hitchcock's queer characters under psychoanalysis provides one of the keys to understanding Hitchcock's use of problematic male identification to create the thrill in his films. It is in Hitchcock's treatment of women, as well as his presumably queer (but closeted due to institutionalized censorship) characters, that his films regularly
demand a resolution that they themselves can never reach, leaving us with that often noted 'nasty taste' in the form of unresolved tensions (Wood 200). These tensions are somewhat subdued at our film's close with the exorcism by fire of Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers and the successful conclusion of the heroine's female Oedipal trajectory. This is where Rhona Bernstein, continuing her dialogue from a previous essay on Rebecca, with additional analysis of The Uninvited, conjures up the lesbian in the ghost story while leaving behind some bread crumbs for Patricia White.
White points theory's focus more specifically to new angle for analysis of Rebecca and The Uninvited as well as the previous questions raised about female spectatorship. She does this by bringing a queer reading of the two films to the table in order to point out the joke that her peers seem to have missed. In her book unInvited she remarks that
Rebecca figures as insistently in the feminist film theory as does Rebecca in the second Mrs. DeWinter's psyche-and often the reasons why are similarly misrecognized. That Rebecca is a lesbian film-and invisible as such-is the condition of its almost uncanny recurrence in a critical discourse that Berenstein shows 'traverses the edge of queerness, but does not call [it] by its proper name' (67).
And it's not just this film but other films following Rebecca that have also intrigued and bewildered feminist critics such as The Uninvited. The unfolding of the mystery behind which ghost is truly the mother that Gail Russell's Stella so passionately desires fails to offer
coherent lesbian reading of her is although it does raises
its specter again and again (White 70). The argument rests strongly with the spooky witches that threaten the innocents to protect their "unnatural" object of desire. So it is precisely those left behind, Mrs. Danvers without Rebecca and Mrs. Holloway without Mary, which summon the specter of lesbianism. As if to wrap things up in classical Hollywood fashion, the two women go mad
when the truth about the dead women they protect is revealed (White 70). Their presence is both easy to miss and hard to deny much like the presence of a ghost. It seems that the critics caught a glimpse of it while theorists took a peek under the ghost's sheet but it took two carpetmongers to pull the rug out from under Hitchcock's ghost.
Overall, these theorists complied an intriguing profile on the darker side of Hitchcock's mind of which he was unaware. In his disowning of his only film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, he puts the seal on these analyses of his unconscious labors. The master of suspense is just so because of his internal drive to flesh out his own internal ghosts of ladies who aren't ladies and the fragile men who are haunted by them. Rebecca becomes the beginning of not only his career in Hollywood but also start of his journey into the Freudian that slipped from his mind. His films are packed with murderous queers and the women who are struggling to get out of his brilliantly twisted head. And it is the presence/absence that has and will continue to frighten and captivate us.