“The MOST GLAMOROUS WOMAN of All Time!”
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders
Synopsis: A self-conscious bride is tormented by the memory of her husband’s dead first wife.
Rebecca, the third of Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptations of Daphne Du Maurier novels (the others were Jamaica Inn (1939) and The Birds (1963)) was also his first Hollywood picture, produced under the controlling interference of independent producer David O. Selznick. It was a movie Hitchcock had wanted to make for some time, but for which he never had a sizeable enough budget, but it’s not what we’d consider to be a typical Hitchcock movie by any means.
Joan Fontaine plays a timid young lady – whose Christian name we never learn – who is employed as a companion by the wealthy Mrs Van Hopper (Florence Bates) a snobbish, domineering woman holidaying in Monte Carlo. Mrs. Van Hopper unsuccessfully attempts to ingratiate herself with the remote and moody Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a wealthy gentleman whom Fontaine’s character briefly encountered atop a cliff top from which it appeared as though he was considering throwing himself. But while the old maid recovers from a dose of flu, de Winter woos our heroine. It’s a whirlwind romance that leads to marriage, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Van Hopper – and the cold, forbidding Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), the housekeeper of de Winter’s stately mansion in Cornwall.
Fontaine isn’t the first Mrs. De Winter, you see. She’s the successor to the beautiful Rebecca of the title, a refined and stylish woman to the manor born, who died in a boating accident and to whom Mrs Danvers remains eerily devoted. In fact, there’s a suggestion of lesbian obsession in Danvers’ allegiance to Rebecca that is compounded by her cold, rigid demeanour and austere dress sense. The second Mrs de Winter’s hesitant attempts to ingratiate herself with Mrs. Danvers serve only to deepen the housekeeper’s resentment of her, an attitude that isn’t helped by the fact that Fontaine’s character is so clearly out of her depth when it comes to running a country home, and feels so oppressed by the memory of her predecessor.
To be honest, it’s easy to identify with Danvers’ exasperation with the second Mrs. De Winter. She is so cowed and weak that you just feel like giving her a good shake. In fact, Fontaine lays it on so thick that when her character turns a corner following a shock revelation about the true manner in which Rebecca died it doesn’t really come off as believable. Worms may turn – but not into such calmly assertive butterflies the way Fontaine’s character does. This diffidence on the part of Fontaine’s character – which she admittedly pulls off remarkably well – is perhaps given too much attention by Hitchcock, meaning the story drags for a good twenty minutes or so before the discovery of Rebecca’s body.
Despite these criticisms, the movie does an 180-degree turn of its own when Maxim finally reveals the truth about Rebecca’s death to Fontaine on the night her body is discovered. Suddenly it’s transformed into a tightly plotted tale of blackmail that reduces the new Mrs de Winter’s staff problems to something of a sub-plot. George Sanders, as Rebecca’s roguish former lover – and used-car salesman, thus assuring his bad guy credentials – enlivens things immeasurably with the kind of jauntily flippant performance for which he would duly become noted.
The finale feels a little rushed, and it’s strange that Hitchcock chose to avoid having a final confrontation between the newly-confident Mrs de Winter and Mrs Danvers. That final shot of flaming beams falling from the roof of Manderly Hall is something to behold, however.
(Reviewed 19th July 2012)