Film professor discusses images of faith in Hitchcock’s ‘Rebecca’

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” was based on the Gothic novel of the same name by Daphne Du Maurier. The story traces the haunted marriage of Maxim de Winter and his nameless young wife. (Photo from IMDb)

When School of Cinematic Arts professor Drew Casper was 14 years old, he was inexplicably the only person in his English class to be handed Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic novel “Rebecca.” To this day, he does not know why his teacher assigned him a different book; But he is grateful to have been introduced to the story of “Rebecca.”

On Wednesday, guests from the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC filed into the Norris Theater to hear Casper lecture on the motif of faith in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of the novel. Toward the end of his lecture, he recalled his first encounter with the story in high school and remarked how his relationship with it has now come full circle, having understood at last why his English teacher selected a different novel for him. He refers to the incident as part of the “wonderful scheme of life,” and wonders aloud, “How can you say there is no God?”

Published in 1938, “Rebecca” was an instant success. The eerie tale follows ‘Maxim’ de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a widower still reeling from his wife Rebecca’s death one year ago. Maxim decides to remarry a nameless young woman played by Joan Fontaine. As the new Mrs. de Winter comes into her role as housekeeper of the family’s grand estate, Manderlay, she cannot help but feel she is always being compared to the late Rebecca. Rebecca becomes the ghost in this haunting tale; she is never seen, but her presence is always felt.

Wednesday’s lecture was overflowing with Casper’s contagious passion for a story that impacted him in his youth, but also one whose film adaptation carries themes of his own Catholic faith which he just so happens to share with Hitchcock, “the master of suspense.”

“[Hitchcock] arrives in New York City literally full of himself. He’s about 300 pounds,” Casper quipped as he began to expand the history behind “Rebecca.” Hitchcock had decided to settle in the United States permanently to further his filmmaking career during the late 1930s when many countries were consumed by war, resulting in the public’s fiery desire to attend movies as an escape. Though films were heavily censored by various religious organizations, Hitchcock snuck in an abundance of what was at the time considered censor-worthy material including mature themes of murder, suicide and abortion.

“Hitchcock gets rid of one censorship problem to bring up two or three others … I still don’t know how he got he got away with that!” exclaimed Casper as he screened clips from the film.

Casper expertly pointed out things most viewers would otherwise miss, but the filmmaker intended to be noticed. In “Rebecca,” the peculiar motifs of Catholicism hover in the background but are essential to the narrative. The film is named for someone who never actually appears on screen, but is brought to life by Hitchcock’s powerfully crafted images — this phenomenon, Casper says, is a reference to the Catholic belief in the resurrection of the dead. Hitchcock utilizes production design and camera movement to make the audience feel the presence of the deceased; it is a clear reference to the director’s faith in resurrection, an element essential to the film but often overlooked.

Other elements of Catholicism present not only in “Rebecca” but in almost all of Hitchcock’s films are sin and confession. According to Casper, “In Catholicism, you commit sin by thought, word and deed, and so many of Hitchcock’s people are guilty of, not the deed, but the thought.”

The characters’ need to release unbearable guilt through confession is also a clear reference to the Catholic faith; Casper pointed out that even the cramped set design in some of these scenes resembles a confessional booth.

“Rebecca” is not a popular film in today’s cultural discourse, but for those in the Norris Theater on Wednesday night, it is now surely appreciated in all its proper glory. Casper compared “Rebecca” to the ever-acclaimed “Citizen Kane,” (1941) which was released one year after; both films share major themes, characterization and moments of cinematography. The biggest difference between these two films is that the latter is now considered the best film of all-time by many critics. Despite its critical praise, “Citizen Kane” is no more than a copycat of “Rebecca,” according to Casper would consider it. As he put it on Wednesday night, “I’m way above the critics.”