As part of my self-education in film, I’m slowly working through Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre. Some of his early, lesser-known movies (lesser known to me at least) have been quite fun: The 39 Steps, Lifeboat, The Foreign Correspondent. Despite the era’s different sense of pacing, and what seems a willingness to accept a less than realistic plot, Hitchcock’s films possess a driving energy that’s hard to resist.
One I really enjoyed was Rebecca (1940) — based on the eponymous novel by Daphne du Maurier — a wonderful mix of Cinderella, Bluebeard, and Alice in Wonderland, seasoned with a heavy dash of Jane Eyre.
Joan Fontaine plays the second Mrs. de Winter, new wife to the brooding and enigmatic Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier). She is of humble origins (and only ever addressed as Mrs. de Winter; we never learn her given name). He is scion of a noble family and master of a vast estate called Manderley.
The plot turns on Fontaine’s right to legitimately claim the title of Mrs. de Winter. Max’s first wife, Rebecca, casts a long, long shadow over Manderley. Her death in a tragic and somewhat mysterious boating accident a few years prior, Max’s agony over the sudden loss, and tales of the woman’s unearthly beauty have transformed Rebecca’s post-mortem into legend. Joan fears she will never measure up, never be good enough, forever looked down upon as a faint successor to Rebecca. Who can’t sympathize?
Compounding Fontaine’s sense of dread and alienation is the dour, ashen faced head-of-staff, Mrs. Danvers. She can barely check her disdain for the second Mrs. de Winter. Danvers is forever extolling the character and beauty – especially the beauty – of Rebecca de Winter: how singular she was; that Max could never love anyone as he did her. It becomes clear that underneath Mrs. Danvers’s admiration is an attachment to the first wife more intimate, more sensual, than that of employer and domestic.
Claustrophobia reigns at Manderley. The mansion’s cavernous bulk is filmed in muted b&w. But Rebecca’s bedroom wing, untouched since the day she died, glows with the ferocity of a fairytale castle. And Joan hardly ever leaves the estate. She wanders the labyrinthine halls like a lost waif. Look for the doorknobs set at shoulder height. They’re a nice visual to her status as the child bride. When Fontaine does venture outside, it’s only as far as the crashing seashore, beyond which churns the water in which Rebecca drowned.
Then there are the people. Mrs. Danvers circles Joan like a hungry corpse crow. The in-laws regard Fontaine with suspicion. A goggle-eyed simpleton haunts the beachside cottage. And a strange man, introduced only as Rebecca’s “favorite cousin,” comes and goes solely through the casement windows.
Will Joan ever shake her status as the much younger woman wed in a moment of loneliness? Does Max love her? Why is there a mystery surrounding Rebecca’s death? The anxiety nearly drives her mad and provides the film’s moments of suspense.
The gorgeous Fontaine ably demonstrates a range of emotions as she moves from happy-go-lucky young woman, to anxious bride, to near-suicidal wife. Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers is perfectly creepy. Only Olivier I found wooden. I kept hoping to witness the skill that earned him the acclaim as one of the best actors of his generation. (My only previous experience of Olivier in a movie was as Zeus in Clash of the Titans. Any acting mojo would’ve been lost on my twelve-year-old self.) However, in the scene that begins the film’s dénouement, he is brilliant. I suspect his earlier mannequin-like bearing is meant to suggest de Winter’s deep repression.
The movie’s resolution is much brighter than the novel’s ending. I suppose the censors of the day had problems with the sinister turn presented in the final pages. It doesn’t matter. I found Rebecca very much worth watching.