Synopsis: For his first American film, Alfred Hitchcock teamed up with producer David O. Selznick (Gone With the Wind) to create a “spine-tingling” (LA Weekly) romantic thriller that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Based on Daphne Du Maurier’s timeless novel, this dark, atmospheric tale of fatal obsession features Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson, as well as a “haunting score by Franz Waxman” (Leonard Maltin).
After a whirlwind romance, mysterious widower Maxim de Winter (Olivier) brings his shy, young bride (Fontaine) home to his imposing estate, Manderley. But the new Mrs. de Winter finds her married life dominated by the sinister, almost spectral influence of Maxim’s late wife: the brilliant, ravishingly beautiful Rebecca, who, she suspects, still rules both Manderley and Maxim from beyond the grave!
eyelights: the cinematography. the performances. the characters.
eyesores: the languor of the first 2/3. the characters.
“She knew everyone that mattered. Everyone loved her.”
‘Rebecca’ is Alfred Hitchcock’s first American motion picture. It is based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel, which was released only two years prior and it stars Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders and Judith Andersen. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, eventually winning for Best Picture and Best Cinematography, Black and White.
Despite the pedigree of this production, I’ve always had mixed feelings about the film. While I recognize its quality (hence the rating), I can’t say that I’ve ever been enamoured with it. For some reason, I find it slow, lacking in charm; every time that I consider watching it, a part of me is bored at the thought.
And yet it’s an incredibly well-constructed film. The staging, the performances, the script, the cinematography, the sets, all are extremely well done. One can’t help but love gazing at the rich black and white shots that comprise ‘Rebecca’: the black are deep black, the shadows fill the spaces, cover and fill their environments; it’s a beautiful film.
Frankly, the performances alone are worth seeing the film for. Given the era, which tended towards a more showy style of acting, ‘Rebecca’ delivers a relatively credible set of characters – something that is unexpected, seeing as the key players are all unusual in their own ways, prone to atypical behaviour:
– Maxim de Winter has a tendency to moodiness when the subject of his ex-wife, Rebecca, is brought up. Laurence Olivier plays him slightly heavy-handedly but makes a strong character out of a frail, damaged man.
– Joan Fontaine plays de Winter’s paramour, a woman as nameless as she is overshadowed by Rebecca. She is insecure, reserved, slightly awkward, and unused to the lifestyle that she is suddenly propelled into.
– Mrs. Danvers is de Winter’s Housekeeper, a terse woman who has an obsession with Rebecca and who doesn’t take too kindly to the arrival of a new mistress, sabotaging her efforts to fit in. Judith Andersen imbues her with a delicious creepiness.
Also of note is Florence Bates’ turn as Edythe van Hopper, Joan Fontaine’s employer. She is a rich traveler whose attempts at mingling with people of repute are forced and uncomfortable; as her subjects make all sorts of efforts to extract themselves from her presence, she finds ways to justify their rebuffs, living in a reality all her own. She is annoying, but amusing.
The setting is absolutely lovely. ‘Rebecca’ begins in Monte Carlo, in a hotel and surrounding cliffs. The opulence on display is but a taste of the majesty of Manderley, de Winter’s home in England. This is a massive manor, with over a hundred rooms. I’m not sure if it was all a set, but it was lavish and a sight to behold; constructed for the film or not, it’s breathtaking.
As one can expect by the title, the film revolves around the former Ms. de Winter. Beloved by most, but not all, the enigmatic Rebecca has influence even in her absence, casting a pall over all attempts at a fresh existence for Mr. de Winter and his new love. But, more than that, her past comes back to haunt them. That’s when the film finally gains momentum, reaching an unforgettable crescendo.
‘Rebecca’ is an excellent film from all standpoints; I would be loathe not to recommend it, and rate it accordingly. But it is extremely slow by today’s standards and its characters are intriguing but mildly unappealing. It’s likely a film that fans of drama and older cinema would delight over. But fans of Hitchcock’s more suspenseful works should approach it with this in mind.
Date of viewing: April 22, 2013