Director Alfred Hitchcock was famous for “storyboarding” a movie before filming it.
He would meticulously plan camera shots and final edits, filling his shooting script with drawings. (“A traveling artist’s sketch pad,” one reporter quipped.¹)
“He invariably caught a scene’s emotional tone in his imagery,” he writes. “Part of the effect relied on scale, part on juxtaposition. … [L]ong shots followed by close-ups – or vice versa – accentuated one another and lent vitality to a film; furthermore, cutting from a full shot to a small ‘thing’ endowed an object with great power or menace.”²
An excellent example of these visual polarities is the 1940 gothic thriller, Rebecca.
After they wed, this unlikely pair settle into Olivier’s sprawling ancestral home, Manderley, an estate reeking of wealth and privilege. Not only is poor Fontaine desperately out of her element, she discovers Olivier’s deceased wife, Rebecca, still Rules the Roost. Stationery and linens bear her initials, for example, and her staff give Fontaine pitying looks.
Fontaine’s character is the opposite of Rebecca in social graces and appearances. She is a small person in a big memory, a motif Hitchcock continually hammers at. For instance, he uses long shots of Fontaine in large rooms, and places enormous doorknobs at her eye level to make her seem more awkward and diminutive.
He shows us a backward child floundering in a world of duplicitous grown-ups.
Fontaine’s character doesn’t really advance the story – she’s peripheral to events – but she does introduce us to Manderley’s environment of contradictions: Olivier’s character is wealthy, but poor in spirit; the head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), is an employee who is deferred to as The Boss.
And: Rebecca is dead, but regarded as though she’s alive.
Leff says one of the film’s themes is attraction and repulsion. “Hitchcock’s staging,” he writes, “alternately widening and narrowing the spaces between the characters in the large, airy room, mirrored the attraction-repulsion theme that tortures the young heroine…”³
It’s a heap o’ drama, to be sure, but there are no grand theatrics here, thanks to what Leff calls Hitchcock’s philosophy of “negative acting”.
Hitchcock once explained his approach to the film’s producer, David O. Selznick. “You do not put a dramatic expression into a face,” he said, “but you already have the face in a contrasting condition, say smiling, then to get a dramatic reaction, you allow that smile to drain away from the face.”4
We suppose the ultimate Negative Acting would be no actors at all – and Hitchcock does exactly that. Look at the scene where Rebecca’s death is “reenacted”. As one of the characters provides the voiceover description of events, Hitchcock moves the camera through the set as though the characters are present. It’s surprisingly vivid, and we’re convinced we’ve just witnessed these pivotal actions.
Rebecca was a critical success, and it earned a tidy profit of $700,000 US (nearly $13M in today’s dollars), but producer Selznick was disappointed. The film wasn’t the Box Office Smash he hoped it would be.
Hitchcock didn’t seem to love this film, either, and Leff says later in his career he practically disowned it. “‘Well, it’s not a Hitchcock picture,’ the director said, explaining his dissatisfaction with Rebecca.… His possessiveness applied to people and pictures: unless he could control them, he dismissed them.”5
However, the film was nominated for eleven (11!) Oscars, winning best picture and best black & white cinematography, which surely Took The Sting Out.
Frankly, Rebecca is not one of our favourite Hitchcock films, despite the cinematography and the stellar cast, but it is well worth studying for Alfred Hitchcock’s filmmaking techniques.
Rebecca: starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Written by Robert E. Sherwood & Joan Harrison. Selznick International Pictures, 1940, B&W, 130 mins.