Rebecca (United States, 1940)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Spoilers Ahead! The movie is 68 years old and it's based on a novel that's even older, but one never knows…

It is perhaps the height of irony that the only film directed by the "Master of Suspense" to win a Best Picture Oscar is a gothic melodrama. That's not to say there's no tension to be found in Rebecca, but this is about as far from his comfortable thriller territory as Hitchcock has ever strayed. The result exhibits that the director is capable of a range few would credit him with. With Rebecca, he illustrates an aptitude for crafting not only psychological terror but drama and romance. In terms of Oscar recognition, Rebecca, Hitchcock's American debut (after producer David O. Selznick brought him over from England), was his most lauded. That's an amazing statement when one considers his body of work.

Over the years, Rebecca has lost some its luster and is no longer considered to be in the top tier of the director's films. Some of this has to do with the tone and subject matter of the movie. Late in his career and especially after his death, Hitchcock became synonymous with the thriller and Rebecca doesn't fit the mold. Then there's the simple fact that Rebecca isn't as accomplished as Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and a few other titles. It's a good movie, to be sure, but Hitchcock produced much better - even though the Academy failed to recognize this. Still, Rebecca's 11 nominations and two wins stand for something, especially in an era when the Oscar meant more than it does today.

The movie is a reasonably faithful adaptation of what many consider to be Daphne Du Marurier's best novel. The screenplay makes a couple of changes (more on those later) but, on the whole, is an accurate representation of the story. At one time, Du Maurier indicated that Rebecca was one of the few adaptations of any of her writings of which she approved. Hitchcock went to her work three times for inspiration. Her novel Jamaica Inn was the basis for his 1939 production (and was the first time anything she had written was brought to the screen) and one of her stories was adapted into The Birds. Hitchcock's version of Rebecca was the first of many times this tale would grace the big and small screens, and most critics consider it to be the best interpretation.

The story begins in Monte Carlo, where a young woman (Joan Fontaine) is making her living as the paid companion of a rich American lady. While the lady is abed with the flu, the young woman meets and is captivated by a gentleman from Cornwall, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). He's brooding and handsome and she falls madly in love with him and he apparently with her. Their whirlwind romance leads to a marriage and he brings her home as "the second Mrs. de Winter." This is not the first time Maxim has been married. His previous wife, Rebecca, died in a boating accident several years ago and her death is said to have broken him. But something in his new wife's innocence of spirit has rekindled a love of life, even if he claims he can never truly be happy.

The new Mrs. de Winter does not find it easy going being the mistress of Manderlay, her husband's vast estate. She relies on the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), for help in the day-to-day running of things, but does not realize that Mrs. Danvers may not have her best interests at heart. Meanwhile, the memory of Rebecca, palpable as a specter, haunts the mansion. Her chambers are kept almost as a shrine and her possessions can be found all around the great house. It doesn't take long before the second Mrs. de Winter feels she is in competition with her predecessor for her husband's affections, and she is losing to a presence she can never defeat.

Two aspects of Du Maurier's novel have been changed for the movie. The first involves the means of Rebecca's death. In the book, Maxim shoots her, although one could argue that the homicide is justified. However, the Hays Code, under which the movie was made, demanded consequences for acts such as murder, so the script maintains that she died an accidental death. The second change is that the ambiguous ending of the novel is clarified. Manderlay goes up in flames and Mrs. Danvers perishes in the blaze.

There are two interesting omissions in the story, one of which is carried over from the novel and the other of which is of Hitchcock's devising. The character played by Joan Fontaine, who is the narrator of the book, has no name. She is known only as "the second Mrs. de Winter," which emphasizes her inferiority to Rebecca. It is also noteworthy that the director elects not to show any image of the title character, although one might suppose it to be natural that there would be a photograph or portrait of her somewhere in the house, especially considering how strong her influence is over the servants. Nevertheless, Hitchcock never shows Rebecca and informs viewers of only two things about her physical appearance: she was incredibly beautiful and had long, dark hair. It is left to the viewer to construct an image of her.

Joan Fontaine was one in a long series of blondes preferred by Hitchcock for leading roles. This was the first of two appearances she would make in his films. She was nominated for an Oscar for Rebecca and won one for Suspicion. The early 1940s represented the pinnacle of Fontaine's career. During this fertile time, she would go on to play Jane Eyre in Robert Stevenson's 1944 adaptation. This is intriguing because it is widely acknowledged that Du Maurier based Rebecca in part on Jane Eyre. Fontaine's qualities of innocence and vulnerability serve her well in this role. The film's most tense sequences are those in which paranoia and fear begin to grip the second Mrs. de Winter, and those are the scenes in which Fontaine shines.

The '40s also represented a pinnacle for Laurence Olivier both as an actor and as a filmmaker. When he made Rebecca, he was nine years away from his Oscar-winning Hamlet, but this was the decade in which the respected stage actor became a screen icon. He achieved Academy Award nominations for two consecutive gothic melodramas - 1939's Wuthering Heights and 1940's Rebecca - and those films cemented him in the public mind as a leading man. His next role after Rebecca was as Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. No one could brood as well as Olivier, as was proven when he unleashed his interpretation of Hamlet on the cinematic world in 1949.

Mrs. Danvers is considered by many literary critics to be among the best 20th century villainesses. Judith Anderson's portrayal enhances the reputation. From the first time she steps before the camera to welcome Maxim and his new bride to Manderlay, there's something fierce and unsettling about this cold, creepy woman. Her feelings for Rebecca are too strong to be merely platonic but the movie, made in 1940, could not allow them to be expressed explicitly. The only time Mrs. Danvers loses her severity is during a short sequence in which she is lost in imagining things as they used to be. This is the moment when the second Mrs. de Winter truly becomes afraid of her.

The fourth significant individual in Rebecca is Jack Favell, Rebecca's cousin and former lover. Initially, he appears to be a minor character and appears in only one scene during the film's first half. He becomes a major figure during the film's final act, however, as he becomes determined to blackmail Maxim. He's played with panache and an element of cunning by George Sanders, who was near the beginning of a long career in which he predominantly played villains.

Rebecca falls neatly into the three-act pattern that defines many classic Hollywood stories. The first portion is a simple love story. It is told with tenderness and feeling and illustrates that if Hitchcock had wanted to, he could have been a great director of big Hollywood romances. The second act, which encompasses the second Mrs. de Winter's uneasy relationship with Manderlay and its servants, her "battle" with Rebecca, and Maxim's revelation of the truth, is more typically Hitchcockian than the rest of the movie. The director uses camera angles, editing, and music to emphasize the lead character's claustrophobia as it escalates to near-hysteria. Finally, the third section is part police procedural and part drama as the movie accelerates to its logical conclusion.

Rebecca is an expertly filmed melodrama, but there's nothing stylistically unique that would set it apart as one of the director's most historically revered motion pictures. It proves, however, that a filmmaker accustomed to making small pictures in England could embrace the Hollywood system and develop a big movie that would find favor with critics and audiences alike. Choosing Du Maurier's story was an excellent decision because it allowed Hitchcock to mix styles and genres. Those familiar only with his thrillers may find this to be a surprising change-of-pace but hopefully a welcome one. There is a contemporary issue, however. While Rebecca has been released on DVD in two versions (one by Anchor Bay and one by Criterion), neither is in print, so this atypical Hitchcock can be a challenge to track down.

Rebecca (United States, 1940)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1