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.