Rebecca Movie Review
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson, George Sanders, Reginald Denny, Gladys Cooper, C. Aubrey Smith, Nigel Bruce, Florence Bates, Edward Fielding, Melville Cooper, Leo G. Carroll, Leonard Carey, Lumsden Hare, Forrester Harvey, Philip Winter
Oscar Wins: Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Picture
Other Nominations: Best Actor (Laurence Olivier), Best Actress (Joan Fontaine), Best Supporting Actress (Judith Anderson), Best Art Direction (Black and White), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Musical Score, Best Special Effects, Best Screenplay
Alfred Hitchcock. It’s a name synonymous with psychological suspense and mystery. But before he shocked us with Psycho and Rear Window, before Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Man Who Knew Too Much, To Catch a Thief and The Birds, he brought to life a story of abuse and dominance – a murder mystery where the characters are not only haunted by the ghosts of their past, but by their inability to control them.
Based on the Daphne de Maurier novel of the same name, Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film. Though it doesn’t tote the same suspenseful thrills of his later works, this movie still features the themes and plot devices that would come to make him one of Hollywood’s best directors.
This romantic thriller begins as any great love story begins – boy meets girl, boy woos girl, boy and girl get married. Our boy in this case is one Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a brooding, Aristocratic widower who is in need of a new wife. On a vacation in Monte Carlo, he meets a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who becomes utterly captivated by his charm and fantastic mustache (or maybe that was just me). The two fall madly in love and are hastily married before returning to Maxim’s ancestral estate, Manderley.
The Second Mrs. de Winter, as she comes to be called, is introduced to the Manderley staff, all of whom exhibit hostility towards her. After all, they all adored Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, whose death is shrouded in mystery and whose spirit still haunts the mansion grounds. The second wife comes to rely on the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) for help in the day-to-day running of things at Manderley, but fails to realize Mrs. Danvers may not have her best interests at heart, either.
As the servants become more hostile, the Second Mrs. de Winter grows more fearful. It doesn’t take long before she feels she is in competition with her predecessor for her husband’s affections and she’s losing to something she can never defeat – that is until she eventually learns the secret of what REALLY happened to Rebecca.
Just as in the novel, the Second Mrs. de Winter is never given a name, emphasizing her inferiority to Rebecca. Though we never see Rebecca in the flesh (or in a photo for that matter), her presence feels more real to us than that of Maxim’s second wife, who can never compare to Rebecca’s charm or beauty.
The inferiority given to Maxim’s second wife is really what makes Rebecca so unnerving. We can all see ourselves in this role, plunged into unfamiliar territory, plagued with the uncertainty that we are the wrong person, in the wrong place. As the heroine of the film, she fails to leave an impression of what she is called anywhere, while Rebecca’s initials appear on everything from stationary to the pillowcases.
Though a young, naïve woman brought into the life and home of a dashing bizillionare might make Rebecca feel like a romance, it’s completely free of it. If anything, it’s a film about abusive relationships and the way power shifts within them. There’s no love between Maxim and his second wife, she’s merely brought in to act as stand-in for the woman he lost. The opening line of the film (and the novel), “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” immediately leads us into a world of make-believe. Everyone is just playing a part in this twisted romance between ego and assumption.
Ironically this would be Hitchcock’s only film to win a Best Picture Academy Award. It was nominated for 10 others, including Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Best Art Direction, Best Special Effects and Best Cinematography, which it also won.
The finale of Rebecca boasts a great reveal (slightly different from the novel) and everyone’s true nature comes to light. It’s a great Hitchcockian ending that would help define him, filled with powerful imagery, psychological suspense and plenty of twists and turns along the way.