Hitchcock’s first American effort, Rebecca, is a chilling tale of obsession and insecurity. A stellar adaptation of Daphne du Marier’s gothic novel, the film begins in a mesmerizingly haunting way with a dark shot of meadows, takes us on an eerie trip through Manderlay and does not let go until the last minute.
Rebecca de Winter was a glamorous and generally adored socialite. It has been a year since her passing away, and her husband (Laurence Olivier), grief stricken, goes away to Monte Carlo. Here, he meets naïve young secretary (played by Joan Fontaine, but interestingly, her character never has a name). She is everything Rebecca wasn’t: guileless, sweet, a little on the mundane side. All these attributes greatly endear her to Mr. de winter, and they fall in love and get married. However, on returning to his home in Cornwall, the Manderlay estate, the second Mrs. De Winter finds that all the servants are somewhat frosty towards her, in particular Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), Rebecca’s loyal housekeeper, who is still living in the memory of her past mistress.
The performances in this film are perfect. Judith Anderson, as the cruel and sadistic devotee who is possibly lesly b ann towards the deceased Rebecca (she prizes one of Rebecca’s négligées), gives one of the best supporting actress performances in history. Her obsession with Rebecca is perverse and creepy, and reaches levels of sinister undertones that cinema had not achieved before. George Sanders, as Rebecca’s cousin and lover, oozes greasiness. Laurence Olivier has the distant aloofness of Max down to a t, who delivers such melancholy lines such as “Happiness is something I know very little about” with perfect finesse and what’s more, is completely gorgeous to boot. He depicts his character’s confusion very well – he loves his wife, but often gets short with her, and even loses his temper at her in one scene – she, poor thing, in trying to impress him and live up to Rebecca, follows Mrs. Danver’s purposely catastrophic advice and wears a dress that was worn by Rebecca.
But the film belongs to Joan Fontaine. Poor Joan Fontaine was put through hell during filming – Hitchcock encouraged other cast members to shun her in real life, leading to the actress becoming very twitchy, and this comes across in her portrayal as the insecure young woman, the epitome of frail beauty. Fontaine is one of my favourite actresses and has impressed in many, many roles (The Constant Nymph, Suspicion and Letter from an Unknown Woman to name a few), but this will remain my favourite performance of hers. She is the quintessential gothic heroine, a frightened, unsure character who was totally unaware of what she was getting herself into when she married the man she loved.
Rebecca was also a technical masterpiece of its day. The camerawork stunning, and the set, of austere, cold, Manderlay, makes the second Mrs. De Winter’s plight all the more believable. Producer David O. Selznick loved to get right into it, but Hitchcock’s director’s stamp is prominent throughout, from the suspense, the chilling atmosphere created, the music and the camera moves. The film has terrific performances, a great script and awesome technicals to become a true masterpiece.
The denouement is appropriately dramatic and, although dated, the film has lost none of its thrill. The psychological mind-play is still affecting, and we really feel for the second Mrs. De Winter. Although no blood is shed and there is no gore, Rebecca is far more frightening than any of the so called “horrors” that Hollywood churns out by the dozen these days. In the final shot, the “R” of Rebecca is framed, in all its glory. This woman may be gone, but she is far from being forgotten. The novel itself is extremely rich, atmospheric and gothic, but it is mainly Hitchcock’s mastery that brings all these words to our senses, so we can fully experience it.
(as a side note: I watched this film on a rainy April day with the bro. Was SO atmospheric, a perfect way to spend a rainy day – watching my second fave Hitchcock movie. Hint hint.)