Rebecca holds the distinction of being the first American-made film of Alfred Hitchcock, along with being the only Alfred Hitchcock film to win Best Picture. It's a curious Hitchcock film in while there is some suspense I wouldn't call Rebecca a 'thriller', but rather a gothic romance. The strange goings-on at Manderley still feel eerie, despite all these long years that mark its debut. Rebecca is about mood more than about straight-up horror or suspense, but there are still moments of tension and even comedy that make it a great introduction to what would be an extraordinary career.
The film is told from the viewpoint of the second Mrs. DeWinter (Joan Fontaine), since one of the selling points of both the film and Daphne du Marier's novel is the it is a first-person account of a woman whose first name we never learn. She is a shy girl, unworldly, terrified of her own shadow. When we first meet her she is the travelling companion of Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates) in Monte Carlo. While there, Mrs. Van Hopper's travelling companion meets and becomes enraptured with recent widower Maxim DeWinter (Laurence Olivier). The brooding, mysterious Maxim finds this girl enchanting, and after a whirlwind romance, he proposes, she accepts.
Now the Second Mrs. DeWinter finds herself as mistress of Manderley, the grand house of the DeWinters. There, she meets the staff, headed by Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), a woman devoted to the first Mrs. DeWinter, the beautiful Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers' devotion to her former mistress goes beyond death: she preserves all of Rebecca's things exactly as they were the day she died, in a boating accident a year ago. She also suggests to the Second Mrs. DeWinter that she, this timid little creature, will never be the true Mistress of Manderley.
The Second Mrs. DeWinter slowly starts to come out of her shell, gaining strength from Maxim's love. She even manages to stand up to Mrs. Danvers. She tells her that she wishes Rebecca's letters burned. When Mrs. Danvers protests, saying they were "Mrs. DeWinters", our heroine rises and informs her, "I am Mrs. DeWinter now". To fully come into her own, the Second Mrs. DeWinter asks Maxim to host a costume ball, and for once Mrs. Danvers has a good suggestion: to copy a costume from a portrait of one of Maxim's ancestors. She does, and looks radiant, until she sees the horrified expressions on Maxim and his sister and brother-in-law. Rebecca had worn the same costume a year ago, and the unwitting Second Mrs. DeWinter now looked as if she were mocking the first Mrs. DeWinter.
Distraught to the point of desperation, Mrs. Danvers goads her to jump, but a shipwreck causes enough commotion to distract everyone's attention. It is after this that a shocking discovery is made: Rebecca's boat...with Rebecca still inside (despite Maxim having identified another body a year earlier). Now the truth comes out: far from loving Rebecca, Maxim despised her. She had been a slut, with her last paramour being her cousin Jack Favell (George Sanders). Favell, Rebecca, and Mrs. Danvers (whom both called 'Danny') had kept this from Maxim, but Rebecca in her last day taunted Maxim with her affair and news of a pregnancy. In the course of the fight, she fell and accidentally died. Wishing to avoid scandal, Maxim sent her boat out.
However, Favell, convinced Maxim murdered his mistress, tries to blackmail him after the inquest into Rebecca's death has begun. We then make a final shocking discovery about Rebecca. Even though it is clear Maxim did not kill Rebecca, Mrs. Danvers, devoted to her mistress to the point of insanity, literally brings down the house...
Rebecca is a thoroughly spellbinding film. Hitchcock may have dismissed it because of the constant interference from producer David O. Selznick, but he created a dark, moody picture full of foreboding. In terms of how Rebecca sets the mood for its tale of dark love, credit goes to two people.
First, the beautiful cinematography of George Barnes, whose camera work evokes this almost otherworldly feel, in particular to Manderley.
Manderley, this house of many secrets and terrors, almost becomes a character in itself. The large cavernous halls and the virtual shrine Mrs. Danvers has in Rebecca's room make the home one where shadows live. Manderley becomes this place of dread and mystery, where to quote Mrs. Danvers, "the dead can watch over the living".
Second, Franz Waxman's score is likewise evocative of the romantic yet gothic, almost dark power the dead Rebecca has over everyone who loved and hated her. Every time her name is spoken, the score echoes it with a soft organ, as if her spirit continues to hover over Manderley, casting her spell over both the house and its residents.
As important as the look and sound of Rebecca are to making it a brilliant success as well as an auspicious debut for Hitchcock, we must remember that Hitchcock brought out great performances out of his cast. Fontaine is simply brilliant as the Second Mrs. DeWinter. For most of Rebecca, the fear and timidity of her unnamed character comes through in how Fontaine looks (or doesn't look at people), how she jumps (especially when Mrs. Danvers comes before her). It takes an actress of extraordinary range to convince us that she is so timid that after the disaster of the costume ball, her overwhelming sense of failure, in particular of never living up to Rebecca's legacy, would literally bring her to the point of suicide. Fontaine, to her credit as an actress, does show that beneath this fearful exterior the Second Mrs. DeWinter does have a spine. When she stands up to Mrs. Danvers (figuratively and literally), we cheer her on, and Rebecca shows her evolution from frightened girl to a more strong woman.
Likewise, Olivier is a masterful Maxim. He plays the character with the mixture of charm and melancholy that would both appeal to the Second Mrs. DeWinter but also make her fearful that he still loved Rebecca and not her. Olivier creates a tender relationship with his new bride, almost more of a father/child one than of passionate lovers, but he also brings Maxim's menace, even danger, out. When Maxim describes Rebecca's final moments, he speaks calmly but not dispassionately, building tension over what really happened to the First Mrs. DeWinter.
We have to also move to the simply brilliant performance of Judith Anderson as the nefarious and wicked Mrs. Danvers, a bitch if ever there was one. As played by Anderson, Mrs. Danvers is a woman nearly possessed by her total devotion to Rebecca DeWinter. She need only speak her name to see Mrs. Danvers slip into almost a trance-like state. When giving the new wife a tour of Rebecca's quarters, it becomes a tour macabre, her fixation with everything "Danny" did for her mistress taking on an almost religious tone. Anderson's Mrs. Danvers is certainly a menacing, intimidating woman (her black wardrobe and the fierce control of her body movement enhancing her almost demonic persona), but as portrayed by Anderson, she becomes almost a dark ghostly figure, one that flows across rooms. Her final moments when she unleashes her fury upon Manderley itself brilliantly capture the total madness that her devotion to Rebecca and her memory have brought about in her.
Finally, in terms of acting, I would be remiss to leave out Sanders' Favell, Rebecca's last lover. He has a flippancy to everyone, a cock sureness that makes one almost like him. However, he is as dangerous to Maxim as Rebecca herself when he threatens Maxim with blackmail. Seeing him brought down is both a delight and slightly sad.
The screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Anderson (with an adaptation by Phillip MacDonald and Michael Hogan) kept close to the du Marier novel (at Selznick's insistence). However, the screenplay (I suspect helped by Hitchcock) did manage to inject moments of humor into Rebecca that never felt out of place. When Mrs. Van Hopper reprimands her companion, telling her girls would give their eyes to see Monte Carlo, Maxim calmly says, "Wouldn't that rather defeat the purpose?" A bit later, when the unnamed girl tells Maxim that she is neither a relation or employee of Mrs. Van Hopper, but a "paid companion", he tells her, "I didn't know companionship could be bought". At the inquest scene, we begin with a bobbie telling the waiting crowd about his own exploits before announcing who is about to testify. These light moments neither distract or appear out of place in this gothic romance, but are both welcome and flow naturally in Rebecca.
About the only thing that was changed was the pivotal plot point of Maxim having murdered Rebecca. The Production Code being the way it was in 1940, wouldn't have allowed a murderer to get away with it. Therefore, that had to be made to look like an accident. It's a credit to the screenplay, to Hitchcock's directing, and Olivier's acting that the 'accident' business is acceptable. Whether it's believable or not I leave up to you, but for myself, I never found it coming from left field.
After watching Rebecca, one will always dream of going back to Manderley again.
1941 Best Picture: How Green Was My Valley
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