Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson
The only film of Hitchcock’s that the Oscars saw fit to recognize, Rebecca is certainly one of Hitchcock’s strongest works. Not quite up to his true genius of the decades to come, however, and it is really such a shame that the Academy only recognized this, and not more layered and phenomenal films like Rear Window.
Joan Fontaine plays a young, timid, shy ladies’ companion vacationing with her brusque and societal leech of an employer, Mrs. Van Hopper. While in Monaco, she meets Maxim de Winter (Olivier), a tortured widower seemingly trying to forget the drowning death of his much beloved wife, Rebecca. The two fall in love and marry quickly, then Maxim takes her back to Manderley, his expansive estate back in England, where she soon realizes the strange hold that the first Mrs. de Winter seems to still have over both the house and all the servants, staff, and indeed, her husband.
It’s funny – this is a scary film. Sort of. It’s Hitchcock, to be sure, and immensely suspenseful, but in a very untraditional manner. It’s practically a period piece, even though it was set during current times. Manderley is such a character in the film, it makes the entire film feel as if it came from a different era. There’s a dreamy quality that emanates from this strange estate, a feeling established in the opening shot of the film which, indeed, is revealed to be a dream sequence through a voiceover. The house is immense, hollow, expansive, and of another era. It’s easy to see how it could get inside your head, start playing games with you.
As if the house itself wasn’t bad enough, there’s Mrs. Danvers (Anderson), the housekeeper. Brrr – this is not someone I’d want hovering around while I’m living in a joint! Cold and imperious from the first, she utterly dominates everything and everyone around her. It’s revealed that she was devoted to her first mistress, Rebecca. It’s not difficult to extend this devotion to more of an infatuation, or even obsession. Mrs. Danvers, with her no-nonsense bun and perfectly straight shoulders, seems just the sort of person who could easily flirt with the edge of insanity. Anderson plays the role to the hilt as well, spewing thinly disguised insults and manipulations from her very first entrance.
The intimidating Mrs. Danvers and the cavernous Manderley play host to The Second Mrs. de Winter, Joan Fontaine’s character. Fascinatingly, she is not given a name. I’m certain that Mrs. Van Hopper introduces her once to Maxim de Winter at the beginning of the film, but that is the only time she’s given a name, and even then I’m not so sure. Even IMDB lists her character as “The Second Mrs. de Winter.” Her identity itself is tied up in being the Second Wife After Rebecca. Once she arrives at Manderley, she is constantly haunted by the shadow of the first, indominatable mistress. Fontaine plays her role as a baby foal trying to walk for the first time. All breathlessness and wobbly knees, here is a woman who is very much in love with her new husband, but extraordinarily out of her element in this new environment. She was not raised in society, nor does she does not know how to fit into society, a fact that Mrs. Danvers is all too aware of, as well as something that only prompts disgust from the staunch housekeeper.
Fontaine’s character is simply no match for her new world. As if the house and the creepy Mrs. Danvers weren’t enough for this poor girl (and she really is only a girl) to contend with, soon her husband starts behaving oddly as well. Laurence Olivier – always a force of nature – is phenomenal as the brooding and mysterious Maxim de Winter. When we meet him in Monaco, he seems more bemused by Joan Fontaine than in love with her, which makes his very sudden marriage proposal somewhat confusing. Then, once he’s married her and brought her back to Manderley, he starts to fall into tempers, become withdrawn, or flies off the handle at the tiniest mistake. Really, what has this poor girl gotten into? Is Rebecca really that a strong a force that she controls the housekeeper, the house, and her husband, all from beyond the grave? Well, it certainly seems so, but Rebecca has some tricks up her sleeve yet.
Hitchcock photographs the film brilliantly. Reminiscent of Otto Preminger (I was forcibly reminded of Laura several times during the course of the film even though I know Rebecca came first), there is a romantic gothic sensibility to the photography here, fitting for the novelist Daphne du Maurier’s work. We get long lingering shots of the house, showing the caverns of each room, the high ceilings, the long staircases in beautiful shimmery black and white. The cinematography draws out the mystery, making gauzy window curtains seem as though they may contain a ghost.
There is a central mystery to Rebecca, but unraveling it here for you makes it no fun. There is a quiet beauty, something very unostentatious about this film. And really, it’s very creepy, but for very different reasons than any other traditional horror or suspense film.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10