Year of release: 1940 Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson, and George Sanders.
The two movies that made the most vivid impression on me as a child of ten or twelve were Howard Hawks’ screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby and Hitchcock’s melodramatic thriller Rebecca, his only film to win best picture. They are two of the few favorite films from my childhood that I continue to find endlessly rewarding regardless of how many times I rewatch them.
When you rewatch an old favorite that you haven’t seen in a few years, there is always the possibility that tastes have changed and what once connected powerfully with you will fail to do so now. At the same time, favorite movies from early teenage years are bound to leave a more lasting impact. The wonder and awe of childhood is still strong, but the cusp of transitioning into adulthood and a slightly greater awareness gives the films a unique power. For an entire generation those films were Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. For my generation it was The Lord of the Rings. For me personally it was Bringing Up Baby and Rebecca.
At eleven years old, or however old I was when I first watched Rebecca, the mood and atmosphere blew me away. I had no idea why. It might have even been the first Hitchcock film I saw. (I want to say that was Rear Window, but I’m not sure.) Either way, it was the first Hitchcock film to make an impression on me. (Vertigo made a similar impression, but that was a few years later.)
Watching Rebecca now, after having read Daphne du Maurier’s novel and watched most of Hitchcock’s filmography, the film is not only a masterpiece of Hitchcock’s techniques, but also a masterpiece in adaptation and how to bypass the production code. The biggest change from the novel, necessitated by the production code, is the reveal that sets up the third act. Hitchcock maintains the most important element that the new Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) learn the truth about Rebecca and the shadow hanging over the film be redirected. At the same time, he softens the circumstances surrounding her death while still maintaining a necessary amount of culpability and guilt.
The shadow cast by Rebecca and the nature of her death is apparent from the first shot of the film—a long tracking shot up the drive to Manderley, the fictional estate of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier)—accompanied by the famous line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” A dreamlike aura pervades the film, from the whirlwind romance where Maxim meets the nameless protagonist (maintained from the book’s first-person point-of-view), marries her, the couple returns to Manderley, and the new Mrs. de Winter tries to adopt to a lifestyle where everyone compares her to the illustrious Rebecca, including herself. All of this is aided by Franz Waxman’s score, which fluctuates in mood as if shifting between a dream and nightmare.
Only at the reveal which initiates the third act of the film do Maxim and his wife begin to wake up. For the two-thirds of the film leading up to that moment, the protagonist and the audience have taken for granted that she is the “wrong woman” to live at Manderley and attempt to replace Rebecca. She unquestionably is, but the way in which she is drives the mystery and suspense. Fontaine’s performance brilliantly emphasizes the anxiety and self-doubt that makes the protagonist seem to be in an indescribable danger. The falsely accused wrong man is a common Hitchcockian trope, and the application of it by the protagonist to herself is what gives the seemingly blissful Hollywood romance between Olivier and Fontaine an undercurrent of unease.
The first person to stoke that unease is Mrs. van Hopper (Florence Bates), for whom our protagonist works as travel companion. Mrs. van Hopper’s blithe dismissal of Maxim’s love for his new wife as loneliness feeds his wife’s self-doubt, which only becomes worse when she meets Manderley’s intimidating housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (a magnificent Judith Anderson).
Anderson perfectly maintains the cold demeanor of a housekeeper whose love for her deceased mistress exceeded all normal bonds. Rebecca was not only an idol for Mrs. Danvers, and her character is an iconic instance of queer-coding, and one that Anderson masterfully plays up with a deliberately unfeminine performance, serving as a contrast to the perfect lady we hear of Rebecca being. Mrs. Danvers keeps the spirit of Rebecca alive not only though her meticulous and reverent upkeep of Rebecca’s former room, but also through her subtle undermining of the new Mrs. de Winter. She is certainly not the most iconic Hitchcock villain, but her rigid clinging to the past makes her one of the most sinister ones.
The film itself is steeped in the past, making Mrs. Danvers a natural extension of the world into which Joan Fontaine enters. The grandiose estate, the opening dream of the past, and the constant reminders of Rebecca’s death by cuts to the sea with its crashing waves all combine to make Rebecca’s presence inescapable. When Fontaine enters that world, her presence inevitably starts to change it. The suspense as to whether she will succeed or whether it will destroy her is some of the greatest Hitchcock ever crafted.
When we reach the final act of the film—an inquest regarding the nature of Rebecca’s death—the truth is known to the viewer, and there is a fear it will be known to the world as well. If the lives of the wealthy are inherently subject to voyeurism, then Joan Fontaine’s protagonist has truly become one with Maxim in allowing herself to be subject to public scrutiny along with him. There’s only one way for them to escape the presence of Rebecca, and it is forced on them by the film’s end.
None of that would have been apparent when I first saw Rebecca nearly two decades ago. What was apparent was the memorable opening shot, Judith Anderson’s terrifying and dynamic performance, the constant threat to a happily ever after romance, and the always increasing suspense. Hitchcock brilliantly uses all those elements while also providing so many additional layers to this film, and while it may or may not be his best work, it is easily my favorite film of his.
Personal recommendation: A+