(Welcome to Knives In, a series about the movies to watch before Rian Johnson’s Knives Out arrives in theaters.)

Put on your murder-solving hat, because /Film has given me jurisdiction to dive deep into one film a day in preparation for the release of Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, which hits theaters next week. Each film relates to Johnson’s “whodunit” in its own unique way, and each picture should hopefully be viewed prior to patrons watching the new movie on the big screen.

Today, we’ll be discussing the 1940 film Rebecca, and how the movie is a perfect companion piece to Johnson’s modern day murder mystery.

Alfred Hitchcock believed that isolation breeds fear. As the newly wed Mr. and Mrs. De Winter (Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier) greet the gatekeeper and slowly wind their way up the path to Manderley, it suddenly becomes clear just how secluded their posh home truly is from the rest of society. “In Rebecca, the mansion is so far away from anything that you don’t even know what town it’s near” the iconic director once bragged about his first American film. Based on the Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name, the 1940 film Rebecca, much like Rian Johnson’s upcoming Knives Out, is a story about a haunted house – only in these ghost stories, the ghouls still reside amongst the living.

Once inside the property’s towering walls, the new Mrs. de Winter finds herself feeling a little bit less like the lady of the house and a little more like the mousy governess meant to shuffle alongside the staff. After all, it wasn’t very long ago that she and widower Maxim de Winter engaged in a whirlwind romance in Paris before he whisked away his young mistress to be married and caged within the confines of the Manderley mansion, a little bird whose song she would now only sing for him. However, despite his obvious fancy for his new feathered friend, Maxim seems hesitant to allow his new partner to nest, as any action she takes or word she utters frustrates Maxim for either being too similar or too different to the late and great Mrs. Rebecca de Winter.

Monogrammed blankets, napkins, day planners and pillow cases – Rebecca’s aggressive authority is still plastered all over this house, and meanwhile, our heroine isn’t even given a name. She is a blank to the audience, just as she is a blank to Maxim, his servants, his sister, and whoever else dares to enter the property where Rebecca, the most beautiful creature the world has ever seen – or, at least the most beautiful creature Frank Crawley (Reginald Denny) has ever seen – drew her last breath. Although her body is washed out to sea, Rebecca’s soul still lingers in the English manor, a spectral presence that looms behind each locked door. Like the pull of the ocean’s current, Rebecca’s essence beckons the new Mrs. de Winter to give in to her insecurity, to look inside herself and listen to the voice that tells her she’ll never be good enough for Maxim. The large windows make the heroine look small and feeble in comparison as she gazes out longingly at the eternal blue, her tiny frame all but disappearing against the backdrop of the high seas, ready to swallow her whole.

In both Knives Out and Rebecca, the possibility of murder hangs in the air. Supposedly, both skirmishes were self-inflicted, but if any foul play were at hand, everyone sure is keeping mum. That is, of course, except for the house. Both the Manderley mansion and the Thrombey estate act as members of the cast, each truly a character in and of itself. In Manderley, towering rib vaulted ceilings open up and expand the already spacious and empty gothic rooms, their vacancies reflecting the people who live inside them, their barren walls signaling a loveless and frustrated marriage. Lanky fireplaces and sky high door knobs make the heroine look small and childish, like Alice about to tumble down the rabbit hole, in way over her head.

At the Thrombey household, most of the arguments over Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) and the money he’s leaving behind to his family take place in claustrophobic wood paneled rooms, congested with low ceilings and cold hard stone that invite friction, disagreement, and quite possibly, death. In fact, it’s worth noting the decorative skeletons that are peppered into nearly every scene inside the house. Why would director Johnson make it a point to include so many bony friends? If the little metal skull on Mr. Potter’s desk in It’s a Wonderful Life cements him as the villain of the story, are the skulls scattered throughout Harlan’s house in Knives Out perhaps suggesting that he is not the man we think he is? Is he a red herring? Are these the remains of the virgins he sacrificed in order to gain his unrivaled power? Or, is he just taking advantage of a post Halloween sale at Michael’s? One thing’s for sure, and it’s that if something funny is going on, Private Investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) will sniff it out in these stuffy halls, the duplicitous stench of deceit too bold to ignore.

Whether it be addressed in Uncle Charlie’s monologue in Shadow of a Doubt, the attic scene in The Birds, the fruit cellar in Psycho, the bedroom in Notorious, or even on the grounds of Manderley in Rebecca, Hitchcock liked to use the quant, supposedly safe interior of the home to express his unease with family. As the new Mrs. de Winter struggles to adjust to her new life in Monte Carlo, her husband recoils from her every romantic touch, highlighting the space physically and emotionally between the pair. The camera often begins a shot close to the heroine’s face, only to pull back, away from her, emphasizing how alone she really is in this beautiful prison, the ghost of Rebecca the only soul keeping her company in her darkest hours, the shadows compromising her gentility.

The terror of the commonplace is at work in both the 1940 black and white contender and the 2019 trailblazer, as both films feature a very important set of stairs that play pivotal roles in each story. In Rebecca, when the heroine foolishly trusts the advice of Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) and dons a costume she believes to be an ancient relative of the family, she learns only too late that Danny has tricked her, an act of humiliation that very nearly sends the young beauty over the edge. As she shows up for the ball in her floor length gown, the heroine descends the stairs, unknowingly in the late Mrs. de Winter’s attire, sneaking up on Maxim just before he explodes on her at the base of the steps. Little did she know she was treading down straight into an inferno. This is just another example of Hitchcock’s associating stairs with murder and death, a trait which director Rian Johnson, clever as he is, seems to have inherited over the years.

Although he’s not nearly as blatant as the ever present presence of Rebecca in Hitchcock’s greatest, the spirit of Harlan Thrombey does seem to stick around the house long after his cadaver skipped town. One could argue this unwelcome energy is due to Harlan’s portrait smiling down at every suspect, but the very purposeful production design suggests different. Echoes of his novels ring throughout the establishment, whether they appear in secret hidden windows built into the frame, or something more subliminal, like the plants that embellish nearly every reel – especially the scenes in which Detective Blanc is discovering new information pertaining to the case. Hitchcock loved flowers, so when he made Rebecca, he used the flora as a motif for Maxim’s late wife, first appearing when the heroine knocks over the bouquet at breakfast in the hotel, thus showcasing her clumsiness in front of the man who is pitching woo, then later quite literally drowning the poor girl in posies moments after she and Maxim spontaneously tie the knot. Once at Manderley, gorgeous, overflowing flowers permeate every room, their pungent toxicity choking and strangling the new arrival with phantom limbs. Ghosts dwell in these halls, in this cold sunshine, thus proving with both pictures that one needn’t be possessed in order to feel haunted.

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