Alfred Hitchcock, My Mother, & “Rebecca” (1940)

One of my favorite quotes about filmmaking comes from Alfred Hitchock: “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” It is a statement that sheds light on his filmmaking style, an approach that was defined by the act of unsettling viewers by giving them just enough information to know there was a metaphorical or sometimes quite literal gun waiting to go off, but keeping them guessing as to when exactly it would happen. It is the way that Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) watches Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) but cannot quite pin down what will happen between them. Or how Bruno (Robert Walker) patiently stalks Miriam (Kasey Rogers) while we know his intention is to kill her. Both unstable men are the metaphorical guns, and we are held in terror waiting for them to go off. 

I mention this quote, and this central tenet of Hitchcock’s filmmaking, because his work is one of the most influential bodies of filmmaking in terms of what I am drawn to, and what I hope to replicate when I create. Hitchcock was one of the first directors I was ever aware of. I knew other names and obviously noticed when they flashed before or after a movie, but as a boy I was not cataloguing those names. That changed when I found Hitchcock, or rather when my mother introduced me to him. My mother, Rebecca (better known as Becky to those around her), has a distinct affinity for Hitchcock’s movies. She was an art major in college, a result of her being a talented painter, weaver, and sculptor, and that study brought her into the wings of the film professors at the University of Maine Presque Isle who saw in her a mind ready to appreciate film as the art form it is. She ended up programming screening series for the university, and discovering within them that this wild man named Alfred made some rather spectacular films. That interest grew and sustained, becoming an academic and personal point of passion for her. Therefore, when I started expressing an interest in movies, I was primed to inherit her Hitchcock craze. 

The way I remember it, my first foray into Hitchock was North by Northwest (1959). Growing up in a house with a large collection of VHS tapes and later DVDs, there were always titles I peeked at but knew I could not watch just yet. The Godfather (1972), Moonstruck (1987), and North by Northwest were some of the standouts. So, one day when I was home with my mother, I asked if maybe, possibly, there was a chance that we could watch North by Northwest so I could stop staring at the VHS spine wondering what it was about. She, somewhat to my surprise, agreed, and we put it on. I do not recall exactly how old I was, but I do know that I was grown up enough to have Cary Grant make quite the impression on me. Here was a movie star who was charming, dashing, and not at all like the leading men I was used to seeing in contemporary movies. Add in  the sublime comedic suspense that is the core of the film, and I was sold on everything about it. Watching North by Northwest with my mother that day is a core film memory for me because I was able to see her delight in a film that meant a great deal to her, and discover that I responded to the same things. I was Hitched from that moment forward. 

Both with my mother and on my own I sought out more of Hitch’s filmography. I kept an eye on the Turner Classic Movie listings, and so, like any normal teenager on a Friday night, I stayed in and watched Strangers on a Train (1951) by myself. Then there was the evening when my mother and I took the truly Freudian plunge of watching Psycho (1960) together (the mother-son watch party would be enough, but my mother also happens to be a psychotherapist, so do with that what you will). If you need insight into the wonderfully twisted sense of humor that my mother and I share, look no further than this; from my watching that film onwards she has maintained a habit of responding to the question of “How was your day?” with “Mother’s not herself today.” She also once scared her post-college roommate half to death by walking in on her while she was showering with a sheathed knife in her hand to recreate that famous Crane death sequence. I include that because it illustrates for me one of the most joyous parts of watching movies with anyone: the more you see together, the more of a language of references and jokes you have that solidify the mutual experience of loving the same films. I could laugh at the Psycho story because we had watched it together, and can respond to my mother’s quip with “A boy’s best friend is his mother,” and we can laugh about it. Is it a little twisted when you reflect that the mother and son in Psycho are wrapped in a murderous warp of assumed identity? Of course. Does it make my mother and I have any less fun with the jokes? Not in the slightest. 

It should come as no surprise that when I saw a class on the Middlebury College course catalogue during my first semester registration entitled “The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock” I jumped at the chance to take it. Here was a class focused on watching two Hitchcock movies a week and talking about them. It was the promise of college I had been sold on, and after getting into the class I called my mother and we geeked out together on the potential of the class, and how jealous she was she could not come and take it herself. She did, however, mail me her copy of “The Art of Alfred Hitchcock” by Donald Spoto, which was a great resource for trying to show off to my professor. It is worth noting that that professor, John Bertolini, went down as one of the most influential people in terms of my intellectual development while in college, and I would like to publicly thank him for not holding my first semester over-eagerness against me in the years going forward. But I digress. The structure of his class meant we would watch over 20 of Hitch’s films in chronological order over the course of the semester. We began with The 39 Steps (1935), swept into Young and Innocent (1937), and then lingered for a while on The Lady Vanishes (1938). I loved every minute of it, but it was the movie we watched after that which linked this college course most directly to my life and my family. That movie was Rebecca (1940).

Rebecca marked Hitchcock’s first movie produced in the United States after the beginning of his career in England. He was wooed stateside by mega-producer David O. Selznick, and the opportunity to adapt the smash-hit novel Rebecca, written by Daphne du Maurier. The story is a gothic romance focusing on widowed millionaire Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), the young unnamed woman who becomes the new Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine), and the specter of Maxim’s first wife, the eponymous Rebecca. There are many stories of how Hitch disliked Rebecca because he felt that Selznick exerted too much creative control over him, but no matter that feeling, the resulting movie is a masterpiece of gothic moodiness, complete with eerie shadows, a massive estate that exerts an oppressive atmosphere on all within it, and one of the greatest villainous performances in a Hitchcock movie from Judith Anderson as housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. I found it amusing that it shared a name with my mother. When I called home to talk about the movie, we had a long conversation about how much we both loved it. I was drawn especially to the way that the estate seemed to be built in excess size to make the characters look smaller, and my mother echoed the idea and added how much she loved the costuming by Irene Maud Lentz. So it was added to the growing list of movies we would reference to one another, me finding great fun in dramatically uttering “Rebecca” in my best Olivier impression any time my mother and I spoke. 

It would have remained a significant movie if the connections stopped there, but my grandmother had a surprise for both of us. A few days after mother and I first talked about Rebecca, she called me back with something new. She had talked to her mother, and the conversation turned to me and my classes. When they started talking about Rebecca, my grandmother revealed for the first time that my mother was, believe it or not, named after the Hitchcock film. My mother had never known this, and both of us were surprised and rather excited by the news. Though it did beg the question: why precisely had my grandmother been so drawn to the name associated with a manipulative and bloodthirsty woman that she wanted to name her daughter after said woman? Her answer was that, as a cinephile herself, she just loved what Hitchcock did so much, and thought Rebecca was a beautiful name, and chose to ignore the darker connotations. That was enough for me, and it seemed enough for my mother. To boot, it was also enough to share with Professor Bertolini for him to spend the rest of the semester, and the rest of my years at Middlebury to chuckle at the memory that my mother was named after one of Hitchcock’s more twisted characters. 

The connection between Alfred Hitchcock, my mother, myself, and Rebecca strikes me as almost too perfect a cinematic origin story to be believed.I return to Hitchcock because his style is so influential in how I respond to filmmaking, and why I am drawn to directors like David Fincher and Denis Villeneuve who work with the tools Hitch left behind. But I also hold his movies so close to my heart because they are the lingua franca of how my mother and I talk about film. They are a baseline for all our conversations about film, that medium that both of us fell in love with because of what we witnessed filmmakers achieving with light, shadow, and sound. My discovery of Rebecca, and the subsequent real-life plot twist offered by my grandmother, also served to reveal that such a love of film is truly in my blood. Hitch has, if you will, been a part of my family line for multiple generations now, and my mother’s name bears witness to that. So, as I wrap this piece up and prepare to go downstairs and watch Ben Wheatley’s new remake of Rebecca (2020), I know a few things for sure. Chances are it will not be nearly as good the original. I will probably spend most of the runtime obnoxiously quipping at the television about how “Hitch did that scene better.” Yet, most importantly, I will be sitting next to my mother who will be doing it with me, continuing the journey together through film and Alfred Hitchcock that has been a defining aspect of my life with her, and that’s good enough for me. 

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