Published on April 12th, 1940 | by Padraic Coffey0
Rebecca opens with a tracking shot that glides through a seemingly inanimate iron gate and leads us up the path to Manderley, a lavish mansion inhabited by Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) and his new bride (Joan Fontaine). It’s a technically stunning moment, particularly for 1940, predating similarly audacious camerawork in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane by a year, and betraying Alfred Hitchock’s confidence on what was his first American-produced film. Bearing the stamp of ubiquitous Hollywood producer David O Selznick (Gone with the Wind) and popular novelist Daphne du Maurier’s source material, Rebecca was destined to succeed with audiences, and indeed remains the only film Hitchcock ever directed to win a Best Picture Academy Award. Though falling somewhere between his formidable back catalogue of British films and later all-American efforts, Rebecca is an effective blend of romance and thriller, which wrong-foots its audience by delivering a final act replete with narrative twists and turns.
It centres on Fontaine, orphaned assistant to the vulgar Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates), a women given to stubbing out cigarettes in jars of skin-cream. On a trip to Monte Carlo, Fontaine meets the recently-widowed aristocrat Maxim (Laurence Olivier), grieving over the loss of his wife Rebecca, whose spectre will haunt Fontaine for the remainder of the film. Marrying Maxim in a whirlwind romance, Fontaine returns to Manderley, but finds herself the object of unfavourable comparisons with Rebecca by staff, not least the implacable Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). Almost driven to suicide by Mrs. Danvers constant scrutiny, tension is heightened when the boat in which Rebecca sank and drowned is discovered during a dinner party.
Though shot in America, Rebecca is distinctly English in its tone. The immaculate accents of Olivier and Fontaine spar with the screenplay’s sometimes Wildean dialogue. “Blackmail’s not so pure, nor so simple” chimes Colonel Julyan (C. Aubrey Smith) towards the films conclusion, recalling Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, where we were told “the truth is never pure and rarely simple”. Though it does not reach the diabolical levels of his later work, Rebecca is still very much a Hitchcock film, with many of the tropes associated with the Master of Suspense present in the storyline. There’s the grisly notion that a marked grave may hold the body of an unidentified corpse (Psycho), a harlot intent on blackmailing her husband whilst carrying the child of another man (Strangers on a Train) and some wonderfully dark humour. The question of “how do you get rid of old bones” is posed at one character facing accusations of murder, whilst tucking into a chicken drumstick.