When David 0. Selznick brought Alfred Hitchcock to the United States from England in 1939, Hitchcock's films had been popular as well as influential in this country since The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935). Rebecca, his first American film, remains a distinctly British work: a gothic mystery by a British author, set mostly in England, with a predominantly British cast. It is an expensively mounted film, typical of Selznick's production values, and the only Hitchcock film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. George Barnes also won a well-deserved Oscar for his black-and-white cinematography. Hitchcock had already made a film of a novel by Daphne du Maurier the preceding year, just before be moved to America—his unexceptional Jamaica Inn. Nonetheless, du Maurier's Rebecca, published in 1938, provided Hitchcock with an especially comfortable source, a stagy, atmospheric story of intrigue and deception readily adaptable to the kind of studio-bound production familiar to him in England.
Rebecca begins with a voice-over recollection—"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again"—and a shot through thick, dank foliage of the burned-out shell of a once grand English country house. It is the story of the narrator, an unnamed young girl (Joan Fontaine) who marries a haunted, aristocratic British widoWer, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), and gradually learns the truth about his first wife, Rebecca, and the circumstances of her death.
This gauche, timid girl, the traveling companion of a wealthy bourgeois American matron, Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates), meets de Winter in Monte Carlo. After a strange courtship during which he treats her both brusquely and superciliously, they marry and return to England to his family estate, Manderley. There the new Mrs. de Winter immediately encounters the enmity of the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), a sinister woman pathologically devoted to the memory of Rebecca.
Rebecca's presence fills the house, creating a stolid distance between de Winter and his bride. By chance, the boat in which Rebecca had presumably drowned turns up one night, with holes smashed in its bottom and her remains inside. Mrs. de Winter fears that this will revive old memories and widen the breach between her and her husband. For the first time de Winter talks to his wife about Rebecca and how she died. At the inquest Jack Faye11 (George Sanders), a "cousin" of Rebecca, had attempted blackmail with a letter that threw suspicion on de Winter. But he was cleared when an interview with Rebecca's doctor proved that she was dying from inoperable cancer. When de Winter returned to Manderley he found that Mrs. Danvers has set it afire, remaining inside with the memories of her beloved Rebecca. The final frames show the fire spreading across Rebecca's monogrammed pillow case.
The film embraces such notable Hitchcockian concerns as intimations of pervasive, faintly concealed evil, inescapable guilt, and the power that the dead can exercise over the living. Still, it remains a woman's picture, the story of a wife's nightmarish sojourn in the shadow of her predecessor, while its Brontelike atmosphere conveys the feeling of a costume drama.
Rebecca details the progressive victimization of a young woman whose sense of identity depends upon her pleasing others. At first she is dominated by Mrs. Van Hopper, then by de Winter, and finally by Mrs. Danvers. She serves Mrs. Van Hopper dutifully, although not enthusiastically, recognizing the absurdity of her mistress' attempts to be accepted by fashionable Continental society. After her marriage to de Winter, he continues to act condescendingly toward her; moreover, he actually shuts her out. She fights for her husband against a rival both strong and invisible, under the misapprehension that the dead woman was devoted and gracious, as much renowned for her character as for her beauty. That picture of Rebecca is reinforced by de Winter's unwitting brother-in-law (Nigel Bruce) and sister (Gladys Cooper), the Lacys, and, to be sure, by the reverent admiration of Mrs. Danvers. The new Mrs. de Winter understandably mistakes the guilty surliness and moodiness of her husband for sorrow. Mrs. Danvers first makes her feel unwelcome, like an intruder at a shrine; then she openly seeks to destroy her. An especially embarrassing and humiliating incident occurs at a large costume ball at Manderley, when, through Mrs. Danvers' design, the new wife unknowingly appears in a dress identical to one worn by Rebecca at an earlier ball. Afterwards, Mrs. Danvers encourages her to jump from the window onto the rocks below, leaving de Winter alone with "her."
The secret of Rebecca's life, as well as of her death, underlies the young woman's relationship with both her husband and Mrs. Danvers, directing it in ways that she, an outsider, cannot recognize. Mrs. Danvers obsessively protects her dead mistress, yet finally announces to the new Mrs. de Winter, with great pride, how clever and how manipulative Rebecca had been, how she had laughed at men because love was merely "a game" with her. But her death becomes a murder mystery that is never completely solved.
The high point of the film is de Winter's eight-minute monologue in the old boat house on the night that her boat reappears, the camera following his reconstruction of the events. Beginning with "Rebecca has won," he explains to his wife that he had come to hate the conniving, promiscuous Rebecca shortly after their marriage. One night in the boat house she was killed during one of their quarrels; and after putting her body in her boat, he sank it in the sea. It remains unclear whether he purposely killed her in his rage at her goading, thus making him guilty of murder and Rebecca, morally at least, guilty of suicide, or whether, regardless of his ultimate intentions, he in fact accidentally killed her in the tussle.
One of the strongest features of the film is its atmosphere. The bright, sharply lit scenes in Monte Carlo find enhancement in Mrs. Van Hopper, magnificently played by Florence Bates in her screen debut and best-remembered performance. Her antics fool no one. Despite her wealth she remains a petulant, chocolate-gorging vulgarian who puts out her cigarette in a jar of cold cream. A prefiguration of Mrs. Danvers, she proves even more demanding, although certainly less baleful. For the scenes at Manderley, especially, Hitchcock concentrates on subdued tones, sometimes shadows, to underline the mystery of Rebecca and the helplessness of the new wife. Judith Anderson's Mrs. Danvers expertly blends the macabre in this world with that of the next. Attired in black, she seems neither to come nor to go but simply to be an omnipresent extension of the darkness at Manderley.
The opportunistic Jack Favell introduces himself from the shadows outside the window, then enters and subsequently exits by climbing through it. As Favell, George Sanders projects a frank indecency that in its smoothness and complexity never offends and becomes almost attractive; he continually upstages Olivier's monochromatic de Winter. He is at the center of the best scenes in the film, in particular the one where he tries blackmail with a letter Rebecca had written to him on the day of her death, purportedly showing that she was hardly suicidal and, .by implication, that de Winter had killed her. After inviting himself to lunch with de Winter and his wife in their car, he helps himself to a drumstick and then blandly inquires of de Winter what one does with "old bones." In defeat he ungraciously but legitimately complains that class privilege shields de Winter from further investigation, the chief constable, Colonel Julyan (C. Aubrey Smith), being an old friend of de Winter.
Not entirely to the story's credit, peripheral factors have dimensions that outweigh the central relationships. Despite the sensitive portrayal by Joan Fontaine, the young wife commands little sympathy. Her ingenuousness and sincerity cannot match the air of patiently suffering masochism that surrounds her devotion to de Winter. She is a ninny, and her husband a boor, too preoccupied with his fear and guilt to recognize her loneliness or the indignity she suffers at the hands of Mrs. Danvers. Neither Hitchcock nor Olivier seem to know what to do with de Winter's character; and Olivier gives a bloodless, at times careless performance, leaving the wife's unflinching love nearly incredible. De Winter's love-hatred for Rebecca makes for a theme more worthy of development than his dispassionate second 'marriage, as does also the malevolent presence of Rebecca in her ally Mrs. Danvers that summons him to psychological destruction.
The film combines, not always successfully, melodrama with mystery, at¬mospheric effects, and the supernatural. It reflects the nostalgic romanticism of earlier Selznick products, notably Gone with the Wind (1939), and belongs to that group of moody, darkly executed films about the palpable influence of women either dead or thought to be dead, including William Wyler's Wuthering Heights (1939), Otto Preminger's Laura (1944), and George Cukor's Gaslight (1944). Rebecca has all the necessary carpentry for suspense: the old mansion presided over by a strange, tormented figure, the frightened girl innocent of the past, and the housekeeper in league with the world of spirits. The fire set by Mrs. Danvers presumably consumes the past, the horror and the guilt embedded in Manderley, thus releasing de Winter and his young wife to begin anew. As both domestic melodrama and Cinderella story, Rebecca has considerable appeal; but its best qualities derive from the traditions of the murder mystery and ghost story which give the film its particular flavor.