Rebecca, adapted from Daphne du Maurier’s novel, is the story of a mousy girl who becomes the second wife of a brooding aristocrat, but finds that she cannot escape the long shadow of his dead first wife, Rebecca DeWinter. Our heroine, played by Joan Fontaine, is never named (nor was she in the novel). Most people watching the film fail to notice this until they try to discuss it afterwards and they realize that they have no way of identifying her.
Equally strange, in this visual medium, is the fact that the title character, the first wife, is never pictured. True, she’s been dead for years before the story begins, but she could have appeared in a flashback, or a photo, or a portrait. Usually, if an element is notable by its absence, then screenwriters make sure to visualize that element as often as possible and make it real for the viewer, but not here.
So we have one character who has a face but no name, and another character who has a name but no face. Each has been reduced to one half of a whole. Shortly after her marriage, Fontaine gets a call for “Mrs. DeWinter”. She instinctively responds “Mrs. DeWinter is dead,” and hangs up, only to realize that the call was probably for her. As Emily Dickinson would say, “I’m nobody, who are you?”
North by Northwest is, in tone, on the opposite end of the Hitchcock canon. It’s hip, breezy and modern, while the other was classical, brooding and gothic. But it creates a similar situation. Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill is quick to point out that (as was the case with Hitchcock’s former boss David O. Selznick) he doesn’t actually have a middle name: “The ‘O’ stands for nothing.” And we all know what it means when a character says that a certain trait is his middle name.
Much like Fontaine’s unnamed character, Thornhill is disparagingly compared to an unseen, unknowable doppelganger. In this case it’s a non-existent super-spy named George Kaplan. Like Fontaine, he is expected to wear the clothes of his doppelganger and keep his appointments, though he knows that the people there will be bitterly disappointed with the substitution.
We’re back in Jung territory here. This all echoes Jung’s idea of the shadow-self. Fontaine and Grant never lay eyes on theirs, which may be for the best-- I previously described a Hitchcock-directed episode of his TV show with a similar story starring Tom Ewell. Ewell actually met his doppelganger face to face and was destroyed by it, something that Jung warned of. Let’s cut and paste from Wikipedia, shall we? Jung says that if and when “an individual makes an attempt to see his shadow, he becomes aware of (and often ashamed of) those qualities and impulses he denies in himself but can plainly see in others - such things as egotism, mental laziness, and sloppiness; unreal fantasies, schemes, and plots”
This goes back to another point I made before: Thrillers are nutty. How do you justify that a normal person would go to such ludicrous extremes to solve their problems? By the rules of our world it makes no sense, but these heroes have entered into a dream world. Hitchcock has plunged them into that shadow-realm of “unreal fantasies, schemes, and plots.”
Robert Donat in The 39 Steps has no doppelganger in the classical sense, but he too has a disturbing amount of blankness under his dapper exterior. He never mentions his past and he has no friends or allies. Everything in his rented room is unused and covered with sheets. He mentions that he’s visiting on vacation from Canada but we get the feeling that he’s been in England for a long time, and has no plans to return home any time soon. Who is he? He makes it up as he goes along.
Perhaps it’s actually valuable that Donat has no pre-established skills to rely on. The target of his search turns out to be a vaudeville performer named “Mr. Memory”, who has memorized every known fact, and that has become a fatal burden. Donat, on the other hand, seems to know nothing in particular, and he gets by just fine. He is not just lacking in skills, he’s totally liberated from the burden of the self. It seems to me that Hitchcock succeeded in breaking the rules because he created his own fully-realized dream-logic. He could use blank heroes because he made their blankness fascinating.