Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca was the director’s first American production. Released in 1940, it became the first and only Hitchcock-directed to film to win an Oscar for Best Picture, though Hitchcock himself would never win (except the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award).
Produced by David O. Selznick (Gone with the Wind), the film starred Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, and Judith Anderson. Rebecca was based on a 1938 novel of the same name written by Daphne Du Maurier. A year earlier, Hitchcock had adapted Jamaica Inn from her novel of the same name. His 1963 film The Birds was based on a Du Maurier short story. Rebecca the novel was a best seller at the time and is considered one of the author’s finest works. Hitchcock, at the urging of Selznick, made a faithful adaptation of the gothic novel. Rebecca is an engaging tale where nothing is quite what it seems. While not a masterpiece on the level of some of Hitchcock’s greatest films like North by Northwest or Vertigo, it’s a fascinating story that reveals its truths in a tantalizingly slow fashion.
Rebecca begins with narration from a disembodied female voice who tells us she dreamed of visiting Manderley again. Manderley is a huge gothic mansion that seems to have at one time been home to the narrator. We then flash back to sunny Monte Carlo, where we meet our heroine. One of the fascinating things about Rebecca is that the heroine (Fontaine) remains nameless. The heroine is somewhat of plain Jane young woman working as a companion to the gregarious elderly socialite Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates), when she is swept up in a romance with the rich and powerful Maximilian de Winter (Olivier). De Winter is a widower who takes a liking to the young woman’s naiveté, asking her to promise to “never be 36 years old.” De Winter quickly marries the girl when he discovers Van Hopper ‘s intent to whisk her away to America to attend Van Hopper’s daughter’s wedding.
The newlywed couple returns to Mr. de Winter’s home in Cornwall, England. The estate, known as Manderley, is unlike anything the young woman has ever seen. Its expansiveness, along with its crew of housemaids and caretakers, is so intimidating the young woman immediately wonders what she has gotten herself into. While the couple spent many carefree hours together in Monte Carlo, things take a solemn turn when everyday life at Manderley sets in. The new Mrs. de Winter is overwhelmed with the presence of de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca. Though Rebecca has been deceased for a year, her possessions fill Manderley. The new Mrs. de Winter does her best to become the lady of the house, but the primary house maid, Mrs. Danvers (Anderson), is not about to let her forget the first Mrs. de Winter.
One of the great aspects about Rebecca is that it never lets you get too comfortable in the story. The new Mrs. de Winter struggles in her role as the lady of the house, committing one faux pas after another, with almost no help from her new husband. All the while Rebecca is built up as the perfect wife and socialite who everyone loved. The new bride feels she could never be loved as much as Rebecca and is in constant despair and full of self-doubt. But Rebecca has secrets to reveal, and the film is at its best as it twists and turns to the truth. Where the movie falters somewhat is in its final acts. While the first part of the film is about showing, the final acts are about telling. What was initially fascinating to watch becomes a little less interesting and mysterious as the characters rush to tell the rest of the story through conversation rather than actions.
This could be a symptom of a too faithful adaptation of the novel. Perhaps there was too much in the novel to fit into a two-hour movie. The final scenes feel rushed, with each element being explained by one character to another. While there was a slow build at the beginning, the final secrets of Manderley and Rebecca are explained in a long monologue by Mr. de Winter. Because of the rushed nature of the final scenes some of the reactions of the characters, namely Mrs. de Winter, don’t feel believable. It’s still interesting, but a lot less fun than the beginning of the movie. What’s best about Rebecca are the characters, particularly the nameless heroine and Mrs. Danvers. Their interplay is the crux of the film. Anderson and Fontaine both turn in great performances as adversaries in constant battle.