Orson Welles Has a Daughter Named Rebecca

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

What do Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) have in common? Quite a lot, it seems to me. And yet, in all my reading on film, I have run across only one brief speculation on the subject: Andrew Sarris’s, in the context of his rebuttals to Pauline Kael’s Kane articles.

Both films, to begin with, deal with the search for a hidden secret in the life of an important man, and both use a flashback framework as means of narration (though Rebecca maintains a single point of view through most of its story, while Citizen Kane crisscrosses the memories of several characters in a network of flashbacks). Both films are informed by the presence of a dead person, though Charles Foster Kane is the central character in Welles’s film, while Hitchcock’s title character never appears. Nevertheless, each film’s ghostly presence is signaled by the recurrent motif of an initial-monogram, ‘R’ and ‘K,’ respectively. In each film a scandal—hushed up in Rebecca, headlined in Kane—attends the end of the important man’s first marriage, and overshadows his second marriage to a “common” woman.

Character groupings in the two films sort themselves out along similar lines. The second Mrs. DeWinter meets a staff of household servants devoted to their former mistress in Rebecca; Welles’s Kane attracts to his side a staff of journalists lured away from a rival newspaper. The great house Manderley is tended by a weird groundskeeper; Kane’s Xanadu is overseen by the equally sinister butler, Raymond. Rebecca‘s Mrs. Danvers is roughly balanced by Kane‘s Bernstein, though the differences between their characters far outweigh their similarities of function in the respective films. More closely related are the devil’s disciple Jack Favell in Rebecca and the self-destructively independent Jed Leland in Citizen Kane. Each is associated with an important piece of paper which, on one level or another, casts suspicion on the film’s famous man: in Rebecca, the secret note; in Kane, the “Declaration of Principles.”

Both Rebecca and Citizen Kane use, in different ways, the device of film-within-film. But in other instances there are more striking similarities between their uses of montage to establish narrative direction. Take, for example, the opening sequence of each film: nighttime, a forbidding gate, the foggy grounds of a large estate, the camera tracking toward a great house which stands shadowy and forbidding in the background, the discovery of a lighted window, and eventual close-shot details of a decaying mansion. It is hardly a shot-for-shot similarity, but it’s close enough to cause comment.

Gregg Toland’s photography in Citizen Kane is sharply angular, with compositions frequently employing the distorting techniques associated with German Expressionism. George Barnes’s photography in Rebecca is less stunning, techniques less visible, but only slightly more “realistic” than Toland’s. Both make heavy use of shadow and shades of black, to accentuate the film’s trespass into the guarded secrets of the dead. In specific instances, both Barnes and Toland stress the isolation of one character from another by panning down a long breakfast table; and suggest one character’s failing efforts to gain knowledge and control through use of a top-lighted composition in a large, cold room: Manderley’s great hall, and Kane‘s Thatcher Library.

And finally, each film exorcises the demon of the past in a shot that shows its principal image consumed by flame: the embroidered ‘R’ monogram in Rebecca, and the sled “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane.

What does all this mean? Possibly nothing. Certainly it would be ill-advised to suggest a direct influence of Hitchcock’s film on Welles without more conclusive evidence. Daphne DuMaurier’s novel Rebecca was a bestseller of 1938 and was on its way to the screen in late 1939 when Hitchcock began his work for Selznick. The earliest draft of Citizen Kane dates from January, 1940, when Rebecca was not yet on the screen; though Kane‘s final shooting script was not completed until July of 1940, after the release of Rebecca. Citizen Kane was in the can by February 1941, and released in May of that year. It is questionable, then, whether the interim between the two films would have been sufficient to allow the popularity of Rebecca to influence the style and content of Kane.

Most likely, the similarities between the two films imply no influence at all, but merely provide an index to what was popular—and therefore conventional—in the American Gothic romance film of the period. Even as such, however, the very occurrence of such similarities provides an interesting footnote to film history.

[Update—Speaking of footnotes, some time after this article was published the MTN editors and I became aware that Welles had also done a radio dramatization of Rebecca as well. So the whole phenomenon may well reflect the influence of Daphne DuMaurier’s modern-Gothic on the spirit of the age, more than the influence of one film maker upon the work of the other.—RCC, January 2015]

Copyright © 1975 Robert C. Cumbow


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