Rebecca

Film , Thrillers
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It’s quite fitting that the central character of ‘Rebecca’ (Joan Fontaine) goes unnamed. When we first meet her, in Monte Carlo, she’s under the thumb of the grotesque Mrs Van Hopper (Florence Bates), a domineering pheasant of a woman who spends her time belittling her sparrow-like paid companion, gobbling down chocolates and stubbing fags out in the cold cream. After the dashing, aloof Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) makes a none-too-romantic proposal (‘I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool’), she decamps to his Cornwall pile, Manderley.

Here, under the constant scrutiny of his family, staff and spaniel Jasper, she is expected to slot into the hole left by his first wife, Rebecca, whose memory smothers the place like a dust-sheet – yet gives succour to Judith Anderson’s vulture-like housekeeper Mrs Danvers, whose creepy, monomaniac devotion to her late mistress understandably petrifies the young girl. Manderley’s oppressive atmosphere is also marked by the sheer number of things in the place, and the extra filters through which we frequently watch its action – muslin hangings, cobwebs, flames, even the light cast by a home movie projector. 

Hitchcock’s first US production, ‘Rebecca’ was overseen by the notoriously hands-on David O Selznick, and is somewhat tonally inconsistent; following the social comedy of Monte Carlo and suspense of Manderley, the pace slackens in the crime procedural of the final half-hour, which is all tell and no show. Still, Hitchcock shows superb technical control and attends to his trademark motifs, from monstrous mother figures to the fetishisation of clothing (strong foreshadowings of ‘Vertigo’). Struggling not to drown in a stifling miasma of nostalgia, expectation and soft furnishings, it’s no surprise that our heroine’s own identity barely gets a look-in.

Release details

Rated: PG
Release date: Friday June 30 2006
Duration: 131 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenwriter: Robert E Sherwood, Joan Harrison
Cast: Laurence Olivier
Joan Fontaine
George Sanders
Judith Anderson
Nigel Bruce
Gladys Cooper
Reginald Denny
C Aubrey Smith
Florence Bates
Melville Cooper
Leo G Carroll
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This brilliant film explores the new relationship between a young wife, the second Mrs De Winter (Joan Fontaine), and her widower husband, Maxim (Laurence Olivier). Hitchcock’s typical play with light reflects the changeable moods throughout the story, as well as the setting itself, Manderly; a large, lonely estate set somewhere in the south of England. The characters are eerie, much like the house, and all of them are preoccupied by the ghost of Rebecca, albeit she is only a ghost in terms of memories. The second Mrs De Winter is haunted by Rebecca’s ghost in particular, as the fantastically creepy housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) is loyal to Rebecca and her memory in an almost obsessive way, rendering the new wife almost helpless and certainly constantly reminding her of how unlike Rebecca she is, which in turn means she is quite unsuitable for her role (if any) next to Maxim and at Manderly. Maxim is distant and distracted with thoughts of Rebecca, but the second Mrs De Winter eventually finds out why... This thriller lends itself wonderfully to Hitchcock’s style and the performances reflect Du Maurier’s characters superbly well. No wonder this is a classic.