Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
When a naive young woman marries a rich widower and settles in his gigantic mansion, she finds the memory of the first wife maintaining a grip on her husband and the servants.
Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar for best director. He only had one movie win an Oscar for best picture. That movie was his first made on American soil. The movie was called Rebecca (1940). It is rarely mentioned as one of Hitchcock’s best, but it does have its interesting points.
After conquering all there was to conquer in the British film industry, Hitchcock decided to make the move across the pond to America where he would have bigger budgets and higher quality equipment. He was signed to a contract by David O. Selznick, he of Gone with the Wind (1939) producing fame. For the most part, the contract with Selznick wasn’t an enjoyable one for either man. Hitchcock had little freedom and Selznick had little use for the director. Having to pay for all the production costs on Gone with the Wind, Selznick was more than happy to lend the star British director out to fellow production companies in exchange for a handsome fee.
Rebecca was made for Selznick though. It was closely based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, who also wrote the short story The Birds (1963) was based on. Rebecca is about a presence. The presence of death and the memory of death.
Joan Fontaine plays an American girl who is the companion of the rich Mrs. Van Hopper in Monte Carlo. One day, Fontaine ends up meeting the widower Maxim de Winter, played by Laurence Olivier. After a tenuous courtship, Maxim asks for her hand in marriage and she accepts. The two move to his estate, Manderley.
Much like Hitchcock couldn’t escape the presence of Selznick on the set, Fontaine can’t escape the presence of the dead Rebecca, who still rules the house in the persona of the evil Mrs. Danvers, played by Judith Anderson. Mrs. Danvers makes life terrible for Fontaine. The whole town does. Rebecca had been put up on a pedestal by everyone because of her terrible death.
With her confidence shot due to these comparisons between an average American girl and the God-like Rebecca, Fontaine becomes melancholy. But after some investigating and a confession from her husband, she realizes that Rebecca wasn’t perfect. In fact she was an immoral tramp who committed suicide when she found out she had cancer. The suicide was committed in such a way that it appeared like Maxim had committed a murder.
Of course Fontaine stands by her man during the impending murder trial. Maxim is found not guilty, much to the dismay of Mrs. Danvers. In a rage, Mrs. Danvers sets fire to Manderley and ends up killing herself along with the memories of Rebecca.
Rebecca suffers from being too melodramatic for today’s audiences. The basic story is a good one; it is just that the atmosphere is nothing special. Selznick insisted that atmospheric music be inserted at any suspenseful period. This is contrary to what Hitchcock would do in the future. Hitch always used music sparingly. Today, this music kills the mood that Hitchcock’s direction has created.
On a positive note, Rebecca did have a profound influence on Orson Welles. When Welles made Citizen Kane the next year, he copied the beginning and ending shots from Rebecca. Rebecca begins with a slow camera walk from the gates of Manderley up to the spooky mansion window, where we presume Rebecca is watching. The movie ends with us leaving the Manderley mansion.
This is a movie that should appeal to those fans of Alfred Hitchcock or Sir Laurence Olivier. Otherwise, it isn’t an outstanding movie, more of an interesting, but outdated in places, story.