Thanks Niall for your help in getting this one to us!
Summary: When a morose widower marries again and brings his new bride back to his ancestral home, his late wife’s loyal maid begins a vendetta against the woman.
Spoilers as big as Manderley
Rebecca was Alfred Hitchcock’s first American movie. It was a big success, as was its source, a melodramatic gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier. The film was made on a lavish budget (far more lavish than what Hitchcock had been used to in England) and secured Hitchcock`s reputation as a hotshot young director. It has many of the director`s flourishes and some nifty camerawork. But it doesn`t really feel like a Hitchcock film.
To begin with, it isn`t really a thriller or a caper. And although there is a mystery and a good amount of suspense, it is not delivered at either the breakneck pace or with the nail-biting level of tension that we associate with the director. There is a killing, but it happens offscreen. There is little of Hitch`s dark humour. There is no MacGuffin to speak of. And it has a lush score that intrudes on and overwhelms much of it. It is most definitely the product of the studio system, with casting that reflects the prevailing taste of the times instead of serving the story. Above all, it is obviously a David O. Selznick film more than an Alfred Hitchcock film.
It was Selznkick who brought Hitchcock to Hollywood, and Selznick who picked the project and oversaw the production. The two men did not get on, and there is a story that years later when he made Rear Window, Hitchcock cast Raymond Burr as the villain because of his resemblance to Selznick.
The plot is silly, but here goes: a young and rather mousy woman – we never learn her name – is in Monte Carlo with her employer, Mrs Van Hopper, a truly horrendous, overbearing cow. They meet the widowed Max de Winter, owner of a Cornish stately home, Manderley. Max is still mourning the death of his beautiful wife, Rebecca (she drowned while out sailing: hence Max stares at the sea with anger).
Max and the young woman have a brief holiday romance (a very odd courtship in some ways; he`s a miserable, demanding sod and she acts as if a strong wind would blow her away). Anyway, they marry in haste, and of course things go great until they return to the de Winter family home: Manderley (it`s obviously a model; Selznick couldn`t find a mansion in England that he liked).
The main reason for the trauma back home is Mrs Danvers, the loyal maid of the first Mrs de Winter. To say that Mrs Danvers is jealous of her late employer`s memory is like saying that sometimes the Cornish weather is unsettled. Mrs Danvers is creepily devoted to Rebecca; she keeps her room exactly as it was, gently caresseses the woman`s clothes, and thrills at the touch of her underwear. Mrs Danvers is of course a lesbian; not just a lesbian, a completely batshit crazy lesbian (of the butch kind), and I suppose the scriptwriters deserve credit for getting the character past the Hays Office. She wears an expression on her face like the back of a bus, and she tries to drive a wedge between Max and the new Mrs de Winter – she also tries to get her to kill herself. There is also Rebecca`s “cousin“ Jack Favell, a smooth and smarmy car salesman, who was having an affair with Rebecca, and who attempts to blackmail Max after a shocking discovery alters everyone`s thoughts on Rebecca`s death.
The film is a little long and a bit slow in places, but it is a more than satisfying gothic romance, in spite of the casting of the two leads. The heroine is played by Joan Fontaine, and she`s really bloody annoying. You might just want her to jump out of the window, then we wouldn`t have to put up with her whining. She was young, I suppose, and the character is insipid. Max is played by Laurence Olivier, and he`s also all over the place: gruff one minute, soft-spoken the next. He is great, though, in the film`s big scene when he reveals the truth about Rebecca (and the scene has a knockout piece of camera movement to match the story that he tells).
Any pleasure, however, comes from the supporting players. Mrs Danvers is played by Judith Anderson, and she`s brilliant. Cold, domineering, and scary as hell. In comparison, Miss O Brien from Downton Abbey is the world`s sweetest maid. And George Sanders plays Favell, and he is as wonderfully slimy and superior as always.
The film has superb cinematography (George Barnes won the Oscar) and some great moments. One of its greatest strengths is that the character of the beautiful, stylish, sophisticated (and ultimately manipulative) Rebecca dominates the story, but we never see her (not even a photo). It`s all ludicrously melodramatic, but it was quite shocking in its day. One major change from the novel was made at the insistence of the Hays Office. In the novel max shoots Rebecca because she is having an affair with Favell. In the film he only contemplates killing her; her death is actually accidental. He mistakenly believes she is pregnant with Favell`s child: in fact she has cancer, and her motive seems to be to torment Max from beyond the grave.
While Rebecca may not seem to be a typical Hitchcock film, it is a wonderfully-made film, one from which Hitchcock learned a lot. Selznick reshot and recut much of the film, no doubt removing much of the director`s subtleties; Hitchcock vowed he would never cede control of a film again, and he never did.
Verdict: Four MacGuffins Out of Five – or Four Lace Nighties Out of Five if you prefer