How to Read a Fire: On Hitchcock’s Rebecca


I came very late to my first fire, when the wind and hours had already ripped through half the building, black smoke hurtling into a blacker night. We were driving home after dinner when my parents caught whiff of the spectacle, parked our car a few streets down, and got us all out. We stood outside the wire fence that circled Brescia Furniture, gathered along the footpath with dozens of others. Suspense eventually stretched into tedium, and we left.

In the days that followed, I made detours after school to gawk at the bones of the place, charred, but not beyond recognition. What shocked me most was the familiarity of what remained: not a mountain of ash billowing away in poetic winds, but the whole right side of the building—its outer wall still painted the kind of dull pink that comes five years sun-faded straight out of the can. To kids who have lived mostly out of harm’s way, flames look immaterial and therefore unstoppable. But the Brescia fire had simply decided to call it quits, to leave a little blackened something for us to come back to, just to remember it happened.


In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, we open with a slow return to somewhere burnt and familiar—the lost Manderley, ancestral home of Maxim de Winter, author Daphne du Maurier’s Mr. Rochester for a more glamorous crowd. Throughout the film, we come to Manderley three separate times along the road that winds up to the estate. The first: in the misty cast of a dream that frames the entire film as a stowed-away memory. Our unnamed narrator (Joan Fontaine) recounts her imagined return in voiceover as Hitchcock’s steady camera trains on the overgrown path, tracking an absence ‘til the building appears, silhouetted in the distance.

Manderley is secretive and silent, says our narrator, still beautifully symmetrical after all this time. The house is lost for good, but we are not told how it was lost. In low gothic light, caught on black-and-white film, it’s hard to tell if this dream house has already been fire-ravaged. Lichen and moss have grown over its walls and for a moment, the camera pans across a shattered window. Was Manderley ruined by the slow creep of time, or something fast? It depends on what assumptions you carry into the film. Watching it back, the building appears visibly burnt, but I wonder if it’s because I’ve come anticipating a fire, ready to see any shadow as a premonition.

The fire both haunts and looms. For a scene that spans all of two minutes in a two-hour film, the burning of Manderley does much off-screen work. Who else came with foreknowledge of the blaze? Some millions. Selznick International Pictures acquired the rights to du Maurier’s novel for $50,000, the same sum they paid for Gone with the Wind a few years earlier. The company’s strategy of literary adaptation was geared towards prestige and profit—these novelized storylines had already met with critical and popular success, and their fans ensured an eager audience. Where Gone with the Wind (and its rumored $3.85 million in production costs) marked a decisive shift in the company’s lavish branding strategy, Rebecca was a muted—though still extravagant—continuation. Selznick often clashed with Hitchcock’s stubborn perfectionism, but he stood his ground when it came to the script. “While others monkeyed around distorting original works,” he wrote, in a memo to Hitchcock, “I insisted upon faithfulness in a long list of transcriptions.” Textual fidelity served the film well—an exit poll conducted after its opening weekend at a theater in San Francisco revealed that over half the audience had come with some knowledge of the book, or of Selznick’s previous films.

It’s hard to shake a story that tries to be so seductive. In Rebecca, a nameless young woman, materially and emotionally unmoored, meets a wealthy bachelor on the French Riviera, and promptly marries him for love. Her new life promises romance and glamour, but she is cut down mid-bloom by the sharp shadow of his celebrated dead wife, Rebecca. To make things worse, she must contend with Jack, the seedy cousin who reeks of incest, and Mrs. Danvers, the sinister housekeeper besotted with her former mistress, both of whom insist on keeping the past alive. As so many of these stories go, our narrator starts off embarrassed by inexperience and winds up mourning the loss of her naivety. Not necessarily tougher after the ordeal, just wearier.

I still remember the copy of du Maurier’s novel I first read at 14, borrowed from the local library, plastic-sheathed in case a careless reader (like me) tossed it into a backpack filled with miscellaneous brutalities. Rebecca showed me that maturity is the miracle of distance, of being able to watch your past selves—and all their tribulations—recede into the horizons of memory. The night I finished the book, I felt so much older.


To entice an audience that knows, and one that doesn’t. Naturally, when Rebecca was released, promotional materials went worldwide. The film’s posters are telling in their attempts to distill mood into eye-catching signifiers. All feature, in close-up, some variation of a daintily mustached Laurence Olivier, and a then-unknown Fontaine, their heads pressed together with gazes cast out-of-frame, something like fear in their eyes and worry in the arch of their brows. Surrounded by taglines in Japanese, Spanish, French, Danish, their faces are prominent and locked in consternation. In Argentina, una mujer inolvidable: Manderley in the background, not burning, but the poster itself a garish red, violent approximations of flame slashing through the title and surrounding the stars. In France, la réalisation de Hitchcock: the house glowing as though next to a fire rather than in one, spiraling orange smoke into the sky as the tiny silhouette of a woman despairs before it. Other posters abandon the hot palette and opt for gloom, casting Manderley in a haunted grey, a murder of crows to one side and puffs of black smoke on the other. Sometimes we see Judith Anderson’s somber Mrs. Danvers, holding a candle in profile.

Strangest in these posters is the occasional presence of a lithe, long-gowned woman, desaturated to signal her otherness, always in a pose invoking glamour. Her features are generically beautiful but vague, a smudge of a face next to the detailed renderings of Fontaine and Olivier. This is clearly supposed to be Rebecca, even though the film avoids any direct referents to her—no photos, portraits, or even conversational specifics beyond her infamous beauty. If the allure of a fire is in the drama of its destruction, the posters showing a spectral woman in its place seem to promise a different kind of danger. One of memory, maybe, and not the immediate peril of a fire.

But both symbols are really about loss. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes sees all photography as a materialization of the future anterior tense, caught in the double temporality of presence and imminent absence. He considers a death-row photograph of Lewis Powell, conspirator in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, wrists shackled and eyes boring into the camera just moments before his execution in 1865. When we see the photo, itself evidence of a past, the moment it has captured both will be and will have been. “The photograph tells me death in the future,” writes Barthes. In the opening scenes of Rebecca, Manderley has burnt, but it will burn, too. All stories told in flashback are caught in similar contradiction: this has already happened, but it hasn’t yet happened for you.


We come to Manderley the second time in a post-honeymoon daze, our newlyweds roaring down the road to the estate in a stylish convertible. The narrator is nervous, eyes darting and head held down. Suddenly, it starts to rain. She cowers beneath a trench coat in the downpour as she squints at something in the distance, Fontaine’s searching expression in close-up before the score builds to a swell and shock animates her face. What a vision: Manderley in the clearing, its sloping roofs and battlements gloriously sunlit despite the cloudburst. We see it as she sees it, through the path of a just-swiped arc on a windscreen specked with rain, framed by the clear crescent as though someone has enclosed the house in a giant glass dome. Manderley is a stately new thrill and she can hardly believe her luck.

For the de Winters, a little joy goes a long way. It has to. The only times we see them happy—laughingly, weightlessly happy—are in the minutes after their marriage, and in the glimpses we see of their honeymoon films. Just before dinner one evening, Maxim threads the projector and they watch their analogue selves play against a screen in the dark. For a few seconds, there’s just the narrator throwing bread at some geese, Maxim making a stupid face at the camera. But the screening is interrupted, and the narrator ends up confessing to Mrs. Danvers that she has broken one of Rebecca’s valuable ornaments. When Maxim resumes the footage, the tone has shifted. There is an outpouring of apologies, anxieties, and naiveties. Their faces are visible only in the screen’s unsteady light, flickering shadows suggestive of flickering flames.

Then there’s the challenge of starting anew. At first, it’s disorienting to remember that the person you love lived a rich life before you, its traces at times made visible by your own sadistic scavenging, or thrown up to the light when least expected. Like the narrator’s first day in the house as Mrs. de Winter, when she walks into the morning room eager for her new surrounds, only to see an imposing desk set with address books and correspondence paraphernalia, all marked with a phantom initial: R. And again: early one evening, when Maxim and the narrator walk home by the sea after an argument. He kisses the side of her head; they have made amends. She reaches into the pocket of an old mackintosh for a handkerchief to dab her tears away, but before she can ride the wave of her relief, before she has even dried her eyes, she spies the letter again, sewn into the cloth: R. Even when she collapses headfirst into a pillow, sobbing in fresh humiliation, she lifts her face and sees a taunting R stitched onto the lace of her momentary comforts. How the luxury of a monogram gives a single letter the power to unsettle.


The last time we come to Manderley, Maxim mistakes its fiery demise for the light of a breaking dawn. When he realizes it’s burning, the car rips along the road and there in the clearing, bright flames stretch into the sky. Two hours in, the film’s black and white stock has become as familiar as the known world. But something about this grand fire, shot on high-speed cameras as the stage model burned, is uncanny. Heat, after all, is a feeling and a color. In Gone with the Wind, Selznick’s most famous fire burns hot and loud, its monstrous orange flames caught on early Technicolor. Rhett and Scarlett drive a carriage full of Southern fugitives as Atlanta burns, navigating an inferno of collapsing scaffolds and blazing paths. Crucially, that fire was real, shot one evening in December 1938, old sets from King Kong and The Garden of Allah repurposed as fuel for a war-torn city. As far as consensus goes, the sacrifice was worth the spectacle.

In Rebecca, the flames are a blinding white, almost supernatural in their brightness. The film was never going to be a hot, sweeping spectacle à la Gone with the Wind. Even its dramatic peaks feel cold, not for want of emotion, but because the cavernous rooms of a haunted house can only feel so warm. The colorless flames at Manderley are reminiscent of an earlier motif in the film, in some ways its elemental inverse: shots of waves crashing violent and rhythmic, sometimes against rocks, sometimes folding into themselves, their foamy crests scattering on impact. Rebecca lingers in the house, in its inhabitants, and now, in the sea. Even though it was a lie, the story of her drowning is enough for her to stake a claim. Reaffirmed by Ben, the old handyman who frequents the beach: “Gone in the sea ain’t she… never come back no more.” Again by Mrs. Danvers, who worships in the privacy of Rebecca’s old bedroom: “The only good view of the sea is from the west wing…” Mrs. Danvers listens to the waves, hypnotized, finding something palliative in the sound of her mistress’s temporary resting place.

In the end, everyone has made it out alive, shifting salvaged furniture across the estate lawns as Manderley burns. All except Mrs. Danvers, of course. Fleeing from anything never really feels like a choice; the verb implies a forced departure, urgency boiled over into an imperative for survival. There is no survival for Mrs. Danvers outside Manderley and the bounds of her mourning, so she stays.

Robert Walser writes in Berlin Stories about the narrative pull of a big urban fire, how the crowd is compelled to stay and read it like a story. What are we supposed to expect? The same thing happens if we go or if we stay; this is disaster as spectator sport. Even in the gated privacy of the de Winter estate, everyone watches the fire from the lawns, rapt. These are cooks, housekeepers, gardeners—even our loved-up proprietors—whose attachments surpass the impersonal anomie of urban fires and their inconstant crowds. They will remember this evening at a distance, as I remember watching a furniture shop burn down near my childhood home. Still, they are guarded by the safety of their spectatorship.

Participation is a different thing entirely. There’s no time to project a fiery narrative or make like a prophet and look to the flames for a sign of things to come. In Rebecca’s final shots, Mrs. Danvers stumbles past the tall windows in the west wing, engulfed by the fire she started. At last, the ceiling collapses on her and the white flames of its collision leap with the force of a splash. In these moments, she seems closer to drowning, lost to another kind of sea.