Rebecca is a 1940 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. It tells the story of the second Mrs. de Winter (played by Ms. Fontaine) as she struggles to find her place in the heart of her new husband, Maxim de Winter (played by Mr. Olivier), and his massive estate, in lieu of the death of Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca. The second Mrs. de Winter is led astray by the diabolical maid, Mrs. Danvers (played by Judith Anderson), and is often left in confusion by the murky past of Maxim and the unclear circumstances of Rebecca’s death at sea. Through the film, the audience watches as the second Mrs. de Winter loses her innocence and turns from an innocent girl into a wife who must bear the burden of her husband’s lies and wealth.
David O. Selznick produced the film, and it is Mr. Hitchcock’s first American film. It is an adaptation of a 1938 novel of the same name written by Daphne du Maurier. It was nominated for 11 awards at the 13th Academy Awards, and it won the awards for best picture and best cinematography, undoubtedly establishing Mr. Hitchcock as a star director in Hollywood. On a reported budget of $1.29-million, the film made $6-million at the box office.
The film unfolds slowly in the beginning, opening with Maxim contemplating suicide atop a rocky precipice. However, Maxim’s internal conflict quickly turns outward as he begins to court the second Mrs. de Winter while they both stay at a hotel in the French Riviera. The hotel setting allows the characters to have a variety of interactions in a variety of settings, accompanied with comedic relief from Mrs. Edith Van Hopper (played by Florence Bates), the employer of the second Mrs. de Winter.
An early, notable scene is Edith’s speech to the second Mrs. de Winter after it is disclosed that she is engaged to Maxim. It is Ms. Bates’s finest acting in the film and it reveals Mrs. Van Hopper’s belief that her employee will be incapable of handling the weight of being the second Mrs. de Winter. In the end, all Mrs. Van Hopper can say is “goodbye my dear and good luck.”
Upon arrival at the de Winters’s Manderley estate, this simmering drama begins to turn into a rolling boil. The Gothic mansion becomes the setting for most of the film and is host to its most memorable scenes. One of note is the scene that introduces Jack Favell (played by George Sanders). His smiling demeanor and air of British class provides some welcome levity to a film that, up to this point, has been wrought with nerves, secrets and depression. His gentry-like introduction is misleading, as Mr. Sanders’s character is the least chaste of all the characters, as his sexuality is immediately evident as he eyes Ms. Fontaine up and down as he delivers some innuendo-laced lines of dialogue. Jack Favell was Rebecca’s favourite cousin, and it is later revealed that he had an affair with Rebecca. It is he who will later demand the truth as to whether Maxim murdered Rebecca.
In the third part of the story, when the question becomes whether Maxim murdered Rebecca or not, the audience’s sympathy is left in conflict. As the main characters, the audience wants to see Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter be happy, although it is revealed that Maxim’s hands are not completely washed of the blood from Rebecca’s water-logged corpse. It seems that Jack Favell may be the most righteous character, although even his righteous acts are laced with a dark underbelly. Jack Favell has reason to believe that it was neither a suicide nor a cap-sized boat that killed Rebecca, but rather a homicide. However, it is as if the director and writers wanted us to be in support of Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter despite what we know about what truly happened to Rebecca on her fateful night. It is a curious play that gives the film some of its depth and worthwhileness.
Rebecca currently holds a 100-per-cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Although I believe that rating to be too gracious, it is a movie that is unique, well crafted and leaves the audience suspended in the thrill of melodrama. There is more to be said about the movie, like a discussion on sexuality (hetero and homo), the role of the Hollywood Production Code, the costumes, and, of course, the acting performances of Mr. Olivier and Ms. Anderson. But for now, I leave you with my rating: 7.5/10.
You can watch the movie for free and in high quality on YouTube (in Canada) at the following link: Rebecca (1940) Alfred Hitchcock | Full HD Movie | Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson - YouTube