I thought I’d go back to some classic Hitchcock this week and highlight one of his really great villains, Mrs. Danvers from his film Rebecca. Rebecca was the first American film directed by Hitch, and his only one to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Ironically, Hitch never in his career won the award for Best Director, but he would have certainly deserved the honor for this film. Danvers is a great villain, dark, scheming, and manipulative. Her love for the mysterious Rebecca makes us wonder about her deeper affections for her. And then enters this strange woman, this new Mrs. deWinter…a young innocent girl who became Rebecca’s replacement, and with whom Danvers sees red.
Danvers in a few ways reminds me of Charles Boyer’s character, Gregory Anton from Gaslight, another manipulator in a domestic situation who psychologically torments a young innocent woman. In Rebecca, Danvers not only torments Mrs. DeWinter, her goal is to drive her to suicide, as DeWinter is the new wife in the shadow of the beautiful and adored Rebecca DeWinter. When the truth comes out about what happened to Rebecca, we can understand more the close relationship she had with her house servant, Danvers. Danvers becomes a tragic character, much like Rebecca herself…and while it’s questionable how deep the relationship went between these two, in the end they were both made for one another. For Danvers to have Rebecca taken away from her, we can see the rage and the hurt in her quest to destroy the “impostor” now married to Maxim De Winter.
Mrs. Danvers was played by the amazing Judith Anderson. This woman could be best friends with the wicked stepmother from Cinderella, as both are just as sinister and calculating. Anderson gives Danvers several layers and added dimension to her character. For as evil as her actions are, it’s hard not to feel sorry for her and what the loss of Rebecca means to her. In one of her great scenes, where she has Mrs. DeWinter at the high window of her bedroom trying to talk her in to jumping, and with every word she says like twisting a knife into the poor girl, and her soft spoken words to get her to jump “…why don’t you? Why don’t you?…” It’s a terrific, gripping scene. And the scene where Danvers gives Mrs. DeWinter a tour of Rebecca’s bedroom is just haunting and beautiful. The way she subtle jibes at DeWinter that she’ll never be able to hold a candle to Rebecca’s beauty and greatness…well…it’s just an amazing performance.
Because she’s so densely layered, I think Mrs. Danvers is my favorite of all of Hitchcock’s villains. He always had a knack for showing the worst in people, but he not only does that here but also makes us sympathize with her, in some of the same ways we feel about his later creation, Norman Bates. They are both characters that became lost somewhere down the road…both trapped in a broken relationship they could never allow themselves to break. I love Danvers because as much as we want to hate her, I don’t see her as an evil character. She is ultimately alone, always holding to the past and never embracing the new. This character I’m certain inspired many great villains in the long run, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Frank Thomas took a little bit of inspiration from her when developing the wicked stepmother in Cinderella. The both seem to embody the same jealousy and loathsomeness for the young, beautiful girl in the room.
For those who haven’t seen it, Rebecca really is a great film, with an intriguing story, and all out great supporting cast, including Nigel Bruce (Watson in the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies-I’ll definitely be talking about those later), Florence Bates, and Leo G. Carroll, and stars the two greats Laurence Olivier as Max DeWinter and Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. DeWinter. It’s a film that’s got the humor as well as drama, along with its great villain, and is one of Hitch’s finest. It’s a must see for sure.