Release Date: April 12th, 1940 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Alfred Hitchcock Actors: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, Judith Anderson, Nigel Bruce, Reginald Denny, C. Aubrey Smith, Gladys Cooper
n the south of France at the Princesse Hotel of Monte Carlo, George Maximilian “Maxim” de Winter (Laurence Olivier) speaks coldly to elderly guest Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates) and her paid companion (Joan Fontaine), a young, clumsy, inexperienced, uncultivated, unsophisticated, talkative girl. But the following morning, the generally reclusive, troubled man dines with the purposely unnamed, younger woman, and proceeds to court her over the next several days. When Edythe’s daughter back in the States is engaged to be married, the two then plan to depart immediately for New York, but the girl manages to sneak up to Maxim’s room, where he gives her a proposal ultimatum.
“I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool!” exclaims de Winter, when the soon-to-be Mrs. de Winter misunderstands his questioning of whether or not she’d prefer to go to New York or to Manderley, the enormous castle where he lives. In short time, when the newlyweds arrive, the numerous staff welcomes them, led by severe housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), a woman who approaches her work with a robotically emotionless methodology. She’s practically resentfully hostile in her extreme dispassion – assumed to be jealousy and anger over the loss of de Winter’s much adored, deceased first wife. Stationed in the previously unused East Wing, the second Mrs. de Winter struggles to acclimate to the drastically new lifestyle; simply navigating the labyrinthine house proves taxing. Maxim’s outspoken sister Beatrice (Gladys Cooper) and her husband Major Giles Lacy (Nigel Bruce) join them for lunch one afternoon, briefly mentioning their concerns over Maxim’s recovery from the death of his first wife, Rebecca, a little more than a year earlier.
From here, the film is very much a mystery, revealing tiny morsels of information about Rebecca and her mysterious demise – as well as Maxim’s relationship with the woman whose memory still has a powerful control over his sanity. Estate manager Frank Crawley (Reginald Denny) delivers a few details too, but further adds to de Winter’s consternation when he perpetuates the notion that no one can compare to the angelic beauty that was Rebecca. The second Mrs. de Winter can’t seem to do anything right, and Mrs. Danvers continues her nearly wordless persecution, apparently attempting to drive the replacement wife mad. In many ways, Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” borrows the haunting elements of a grand manor and its easily created and guarded secrets (a haunted house melodrama) from “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights.”
Joan Fontaine is sensational in the lead role, while Judith Anderson’s Danvers is the cinematic female monster precursor to such great villains as Norma Desmond, Nurse Ratched, and an assortment of wicked stepmothers. Rebecca’s “cousin” Jack Favell (George Sanders) is similarly dastardly, but in an instigating way, needling the authorities to investigate discounted accusations. Leading up to director Alfred Hitchcock’s most celebrated works (including “Vertigo” and “Psycho”), “Rebecca” includes masterful deception, notes of blackmail, dishonor, wanton scandal, and supreme evilness – as well as a striking surprise to the plot, presented much earlier than standard twist endings from newer pictures. An unforeseen inquest, ominous motives, and coincidental serendipity clash with the dreamlike remembrance of the rundown, lonely Manderley estate from the opening narration – not far removed from the desolation of Charles Foster Kane’s iconic mansion, gracing screens a year later. The dark structure attempts to hold onto its evocative presence as if it were a once fond Shangri-la, and not the charred remains of a terrifying madness.
– Mike Massie