Rebecca will always have a special place in my heart as the first Hitchcock film I ever saw. Even though the story is not that typical of him, and it is not one of his most famous films, it’s still a good and important one. Rebecca deals with the psychological pressures of living up to the expectations of others, as well influence of memories.
Rebecca starts off with some dreamy (and rather annoying) voice over narration. I usually skip it actually. It’s just the narrator’s intro to the story told in flashback. We see where it ends, a gigantic mansion called Manderly where the narrator (Joan Fontaine) used to live but can’t return to. Then, we flashback to the beginning of the story, where a man is about to jump off a cliff but the narrator saves him by startling him. They later meet in the hotel, where the narrator’s employer introduces her to him as Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). They quickly become friendly and when the narrator has to leave, he abruptly proposes to her to prevent that from happening. At first rather startled, she accepts.
Mrs. Van Hopper, her employer, tells her rather insultingly that she thinks their marriage will be a failure. The narrator is not high class enough for Maxim, especially compared to his first wife, Rebecca. From then on in, everyone seems to be comparing her to Rebecca and she never seems to measure up. They all expect her to act and manage the house as she did, and hint that that’s what she should be doing.
The most off putting example of this is Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), Rebecca’s servant who is now the housekeeper since she died. She keeps all of Rebecca’s things exactly as she had them before she died. She creepily shows up unannounced and pretends to ask the narrator for advice, but really just wants to take another opportunity to tell her what she should do. She seems to read the narrator’s mind; she can see that she doesn’t feel comfortable being compared to Rebecca and that just fuels her wrath further. Mrs. Danvers is also terrifying because she doesn’t seem to have an identity outside of Rebecca and her memories of her. We never hear her first name, she only speaks of mundane household duties or Rebecca, and her name is Mrs. Danvers, so she must be married but a husband is never seen or mentioned.
Maxim is absolutely no help. He just whisks the narrator away without giving a thought to what happens after the honeymoon. I don’t know if that it’s just that he doesn’t think running a house all by yourself is no big deal or if that he just didn’t consider it, but he knows that the narrator has never been prepared for this and yet doesn’t help her very much. She warns him at the beginning that she can’t see herself managing Manderly, but he’s just like “whatever I want to marry you.” He doesn’t even say he loves her, which she can’t ever forget. She is crazy in love with him, and she puts up with Mrs. Danvers and his morbid moods (which she attributes to Rebecca’s memory) and hardly gets any help from him. She may not be a strong female character per se, but I always strongly sympathize with her.
Part of this is Joan Fontaine’s performance. She doesn’t wear that much makeup; it makes her look younger and less sophisticated. She always has this wide-eyed deer in the headlights look on her face, and it just gets wider when Mrs. Danvers shows up to antagonize her. When Maxim shows up however, she looks completely relaxed until some mention of Rebecca. Even though I’m not Olivier’s biggest fan (not even close actually), Fontaine’s character’s innocent trust in him sort of legitimized his performance for me.
Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers was also very good. She moved very unnaturally, like gliding instead of walking. She worn a long black dress for the whole film that enhanced this. Like Fontaine, her eyes were really wide the whole time but it was in a completely different way. Her expression was more of a trance than one of terror, and the contrast between them was really powerful. Similarly, her voice was very monotoned as if she was in a trance, but she was able to vary the intensity to become more intense when speaking of Rebecca.
The suspense in this film comes from our identification with the main character, who by the way doesn’t have a name. She is simply known as Mrs. de Winter after she is married, and before that we simply have nothing to call her. There’s one example of this early on, when she breaks a small statue and then hides it rather than confess her ineptitude to Maxim or Mrs. Danvers. Mrs. Danvers of course finds out, and immediately I thought of how this would affect the main character. There are so many socially awkward situations, sometimes engineered by Mrs. Danvers. We know that the narrator should not trust her, but she does anyway.
Rebecca is one of my favorite Hitchcock films. I first saw it because I had heard of the book, and from what I remember it’s pretty close (I actually read it after seeing the film I think). It’s very suspenseful for me at least because I can identify with the main character. If you have little patience for social awkwardness, I might have to warn you off this one though. I can see how some people would just want the narrator to grow up already, but I personally find it fascinating. This film also stands out from the rest of Hitchcock’s filmography as the only one to win best picture. Hitchcock did not win for directing though he was nominated, and the actors were all nominated but also didn’t win; the only other award the film won was for black and white cinematography. Still, it’s a good film and it’s worth it for any Hitchcock fan.
Long story short: 4/4 stars