A young paid companion meets Maxim de Winter whilst accompanying her employer in Monte Carlo. After a brief courtship, she agrees to become the second Mrs de Winter, marrying the wealthy and older Maxim. Taking her back to his Cornwall estate, the new Mrs de Winter realises that the memory of first wife Rebecca persists in the minds of Maxim and his servants…
Hitchcock’s first American film, Rebecca is a treat. The film is wholly absorbing, gripping audiences from start to finish. An adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, the opening sequence is haunting with its memorable narration. This sets the film up perfectly; offering a taste of eerie atmosphere that pervades throughout.
The 1940 film excels in comedy just as much as it does in suspense. The first half of Rebecca, particularly the Monte Carlo scenes, is filled with humorous lines and reactions. This comedy is provided by the secondary characters for the most part, the two protagonists remain fairly straight-faced. The humour in the film stands up well today, over seventy years after the film’s initial release.
Rebecca proves just why Hitchcock has been dubbed ‘the master of suspense’. The tension in the film is palpable. The viewer is made to identify with the unnamed Mrs de Winter, gradually finding out about her predecessor at the same time as the audience. Suspense builds to the reveal, which is a superb dramatic set piece.
Rebecca is a great example of what Todorov describes as ‘the fantastic’. From the very beginning, it is made clear that Rebecca has passed away. Yet her presence dominates the film, shadowing every step taken by the new Mrs de Winter. Hitchcock amplifies the aura of mystery surrounding Rebecca by never depicting her, despite the numerous descriptions of her given throughout the film. Despite her absence, the character takes on an otherworldly ubiquity.
Joan Fontaine is great as Mrs de Winter, exhibiting the innocence and awkwardness that the character requires. Lawrence Olivier is suitably brusque and thoroughly convincing as Maxim. Judith Anderson stands out as the unsettling Mrs Danvers, and Florence Bates is glorious in the small comedic role of Mrs Van Hopper.
With its hallmarks of the dark shadows and dramatic castle, Rebecca is every inch the Gothic tale. The film is even more atmospheric on the big screen.
Rebecca was shown at the British Film Institute as part of their Members Select screenings.