`Last night I dreamt I was at Manderly again.' As with Daphne DuMaurier's novel, so begins Alfred Hitchcock's classic film adaptation, and the only one of his films to be awarded an Academy Award for Best Picture. It should also be noted that the film also won an Oscar for Best Cinematography, Black and White. Hitchcock, Fontaine, Olivier, and Anderson were also nominated in their respective categories.
Rebecca was Alfred Hitchcock's first American movie, and much has been written about the interference by David O. Selznick with its production. That is not the purpose of this review, though. Frankly, I don't know all that much about what went on behind the scenes, but I do know that the resulting film is a masterpiece.
Rebecca can be divided into three parts: Monte Carlo, Manderly, and the inquest after the discovery of Rebecca' sunken boat.
At Monte Carlo, we are introduced to Joan Fontaine's character, a complete nonentity (in fact, we never learn her real name) who is serving as a paid companion to Mrs. Van Hopper, an obnoxious, wealthy matron delightfully played by Florence Bates. While there, she meets George Fortescu Maximillian de Winter (Maxim for short,played by Laurence Olivier), fabulously wealthy and as charming as Mrs. Van Hopper is boorish. Maxim has been traveling trying to recover from his first wife Rebecca's untimely death in a drowning accident. At the end of her stay at Monte Carlo, the young woman is surprised to have Maxim ask her to marry him, although not with as much romance as she would probably have liked, and much to the consternation of her erstwhile employer Mrs. Van Hopper.
The movie then takes us to Manderly, the palatial family estate of the de Winter family. Here Fontaine's character truly finds herself out of her depth as the new mistress of Manderly. Not only has she never had to deal with such a large house and a retinue of servants, but she gets a decidedly chilly reception from Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), and everywhere she goes and everyone with whom she speaks reminds her of the beauty and accomplishments of Rebecca. She feels overwhelmed by the specter of Maxim's first wife and of his abiding love for her. Not only that, but Fontaine's character is treated like a child, both in Monte Carlo and at Manderly, whether it is in the dismissive way of Mrs. Van Hopper, the fatherly manner of Maxim, or in the gently patronizing way of Frith, Manderly's head butler. One gets the feeling that the new Mrs. de Winter is a child lost in this great house, afraid of making any false steps.
Judith Anderson is amazing as Mrs. Danvers. Although she never raises her voice, and always speaks with seeming respect to her new mistress, Anderson nonetheless allows Mrs. Danver's malevolence to come through. She is the archetype for all the cold-hearted housekeepers who have come since, and none can match her. She never lets Mrs. de Winter forget Rebecca and how she was loved by everyone, especially Maxim. Haunted by the specter of Rebecca, the new Mrs. de Winter seems to feel like an intruder, trespassing on Rebecca's home and sleeping in her bed.
Mrs. Danvers finally reveals the depth of her hatred by suggesting a costume for Mrs. de Winter to wear at a party that was originally worn by Rebecca. After Maxim's expected negative reaction, Mrs. Danvers urges her, in arguably the most memorable scene in the movie, to commit suicide by throwing herself from the window. Mrs. de Winter is saved, though, by the wreck of a boat near Manderly and the noise of the rescue that is undertaken.
During the course of the rescue, another boat is found: the one in which Rebecca died. Having discovered Rebecca's corpse inside, it is announced that an inquest must take place to investigate her death. When his wife tries to comfort Maxim, he reveals to her the truth behind his relationship with Rebecca: that he hated her, and was trapped by her into a sham of a marriage. He also tells her of how Rebecca died; that he had killed her in a rage and sunk the boat with her body inside. After this revelation, a change comes over the new Mrs. de Winter: she grows up, and is visibly more self-assured. She and Maxim, to a certain extent, reverse roles, in that he loses hope and she must comfort him and reassure him that all will be well, when in fact all seems hopeless. She is now truly the mistress of Manderly.
During the inquest, it is discovered that Rebecca's boat was scuttled, and had not capsized as was previously thought. Circumstantial evidence begins to pile up against Maxim, until a visit to Rebecca's personal physician reveals her ultimate betrayal and clears Maxim's name.
Rebecca is, essentially, a drama of mystery and romance, and in lesser hands it could easily fall into the trap of melodrama. But Hitchcock's deft direction, the superb cinematography, and the outstanding performances by the entire cast make it one of the greatest romances ever made, and one of my favorite films.
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