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.