Just as Citizen Kane is usually considered Orson Welles‘ best work, Rebecca, in my opinion, is Hitchcock’s greatest masterpiece. The reasoning is the same. They were first films and ones that the directors had the most control over. For Hitchcock, it was his first in the U.S. and he had considerable control because Producer David O. Selznick was too preoccupied with Gone with the Wind to be hands on with Rebecca.
When Maxim de Winter, played by Laurence Olivier, is on vacation in at some Europian hotspot he courts a young woman played by Joan Fontaine whom he marries. So for the first part of the film the story looks like a pleasant romance, but when the couple returns to the DeWinter estate, Manderlay, life is anything but pleasant for the new Mrs. de Winter. Maxim had been married before to Rebecca, whom we never see and are unsure of how she died. Traces of the first Mrs. de Winter remain throughout the estate and especially in the attitude of the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, played wonderfully by Judith Anderson. Mrs. de Winter feels as though Maxim is so overcome with his love for Rebecca and remorse over her death that he cannot properly love her. The mystery, however, lies in what did happen to Rebecca.
Anderson is fabulous as Mrs. Danvers. The woman worships Rebecca and goes to lengths to undermine the new mistress of the house. For an annual costume ball, she convinces the young woman to dress as one of the portraits on the wall of the mansion, which results in humiliation because Rebecca had worn the same dress to the same event in the past. Anderson gives off the appropriate lesbian vibe as well. When Mrs. de Winter finally sneaks into Rebecca’s room, Mrs. Danvers finds her and shows her, so sensually the dead woman’s silk lingerie and fine bed linens.
George Sanders also arrives as Rebecca’s cousin/lover, who is rather unwelcome at the estate yet buddy-buddy with Mrs. Danvers. He suspects Maxim killed Rebecca and sets out to prove it. In the end, Maxim and Mrs. de Winter are happy, but Mrs. Danvers loses it.
Fontaine’s character does not have a first name, just Mrs. de Winter as the servants and guests call her. Maxim sticks to pet names. Fontaine puts on a great performance as the subordinated lady of the house. She is perpetually nervous, frightened and unhappy. She is babied by Mrs. Danvers, and the doorknobs in the house, which are positioned at shoulder height, deliberately make the woman look like a child. Fontaine’s fantastic performance was in part because of Hitchcock’s off-screen meddling. Vivien Leigh, who was soon to marry Olivier, was considered for her part, so when the Gone with the Wind star did not get it, Olivier treated Fontaine accordingly. To add to Fontaine’s discomfort on the set, Hitchcock also treated her poorly and rudely. It is likely Fontaine’s performance would have been disappointing without that “encouragement”.
The MacGuffin: The first Mrs. de Winter and how she died.
Where’s Hitch? Walking past a phone booth just after George Sanders makes a call.
Source: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan
I will be posting reviews of Hitchcock movies every hour ending at 8 p.m. today, but other members of the Classic Movie Blog Association, which is hosting the blogathon, have plenty to offer also. Links to their articles is up at the CMBA site. Check them out!