Original release: April 12th, 1940
Running time: 130 minutes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Philip MacDonald, Michael Hogan
Cast: Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson
Not long after I moved to London, I discovered the weekend newspapers sometimes contained DVD’s with all sorts of films. This was new to me and I started to eagerly look out for movies I wanted to watch.
This is how I stumbled upon Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca for the first time, and although I missed some of the dialogue as my English wasn’t great at the time, I could still relate to the young woman played by Joan Fontaine.
At that point in my life I felt much like her; she’s out of place and needs to learn about a new world, one she doesn’t fully understand.
Fontaine, whose character is never named in Rebecca, is a paid companion to the wealthy and quite unpleasant Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates). This is a life of opportunities but very little dignity for someone who tries to climb from an underprivileged background.
In the beginning of the film, Fontaine’s character strikes me as an ambitious person in spite of having very little confidence. She is in Monte Carlo with Mrs Van Hopper and sometimes I wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t met Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier).
They first run into each other when Fontaine’s character spots the aristocratic widower standing on a cliff edge almost as if he was contemplating suicide.
In the following days, they get to know each other, but when Mrs Van Hopper suddenly needs to leave for New York, Maxim swiftly proposes so he can stay with his new girlfriend.
After a quick and informal marriage ceremony, Fontaine’s character becomes the “second Mrs de Winter” and her new life begins in Maxim’s country house, Manderley in Cornwall, England. Their relationship starts in an ultra-conservative fashion; Maxim often speaks to her patronisingly and it turns out he can lose his temper every once in a while. What makes Rebecca great is the way it shows the new Mrs de Winter gradually gaining confidence and taking control of Manderley.
There is much Mrs de Winter doesn’t know about Maxim’s troubled past and has to find out later. She doesn’t know the circumstances of Rebecca’s – the first Mrs de Winter – death that still lingers in Maxim’s mind. While the servants accept her as the new lady of the house, Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson), the housekeeper is very hostile towards her.
Mrs Danvers’s obsession with the late Rebecca is reminiscent of worship – with possible romantic undertones that become evident when she gently cherishes Rebecca’s expensive underwear.
Mrs Danvers’ hostility soon turns into obvious hatred when she makes it clear to Mrs de Winter that she can never take Rebecca’s place in a memorable scene where she also tries to convince her to commit suicide. Mrs Danvers is under the spell of Rebecca who is never seen but has a palpable presence in the film that makes its title rightly bear her name. She’s one of the greatest off-screen characters of cinema; a femme fatale who is capable of holding people hostage from beyond the grave.
The eventual revelation of the accidental nature of her death is something that feels strongly out of place even to someone who’s never heard of the Hays Production Code. This is just something we have to put up with; or perhaps it can be seen as a charming note from the censorship era. Since film characters were not allowed to get away with murder at the time, Rebecca is said to have died in an unfortunate accident – moments before the murderer was to strike her.
For me, Alfred Hitchcock’s first film made in the United States is the story of the second Mrs de Winter, beautifully played by Joan Fontaine. She’s the young and shy woman who found herself in the vast and unfamiliar Manderley and had to take control of her life there.
I felt at the time much like I feel today. London is like my very own Manderley; I still feel lost sometimes and come across unfamiliar aspects of everyday life here, but I take a little more control one step at a time, and as I do – it’s beginning to feel like home.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.