Sunday, August 5, 2012

#720. Rebecca (1940)

Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders

Tag line: "The shadow of this woman darkened their love"

Trivia: The first film Alfred Hitchcock made in Hollywood and the only one that won a Best Picture Oscar

After a string of successful films in his native England, Alfred Hitchcock was lured to Hollywood by Producer David O. Selznick, thus launching the next phase of his prestigious career. And what was his first American movie? Rebecca, a motion picture with a distinctly British flavor, set in England, and starring that most English of actors, Sir Laurence Olivier! 

While vacationing on the Riviera, a shy young woman (Joan Fontaine) falls in love with the aristocratic Maxim de Winter (Olivier), and within days, the two are married. But when the happy bride arrives at her new home, a large estate named Mandarlay, she finds she’s not at all welcome, and is treated badly by the head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). It seems the memory of Maxim’s first wife, the late Rebecca, looms heavy over the entire house, so much so that the new Mrs. De Winter begins to question if Maxim truly loves her, or if he’s still devoted to Rebecca. So upset is the second Mrs. De Winter that, coerced by Mrs. Danvers, she contemplates taking her own life. Yet all is not as it seems in Mandarlay, and the truth behind Rebecca’s death is a well-kept secret that, if revealed, will turn their lives upside down. 

Mandarlay, the mansion that serves as the movie’s central location, is a dark, threatening structure, isolated from the rest of the world.  This physical seclusion only adds to the mental anguish of the film’s main character, the second Mrs. De Winter, who feels cut off not only from society, but her husband as well. Her agony is further fueled by Mrs. Danvers, played so wonderfully by Judith Anderson, who continually reminds her she’s nothing more than an inferior stand-in for the house’s previous mistress. In one gripping scene, Mrs. Danvers systematically destroys the second Mrs. De Winter’s psyche by talking about Rebecca. “You thought you could live in her house, walk in her steps, take the things that were hers”, Mrs. Danvers says, ever so coldly, “but she’s too strong for you”. Distraught and very alone, these harsh words push the young woman to the brink of suicide, at which point Mrs. Danvers slyly opens a window, saying “a little air will do you good”, yet leaving little doubt as to what she expects the new Mrs. De Winter to do. 

Based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier (who Hitchcock would return to a few decades later for The Birds), Rebecca is not a typical Hitchcock film. The director himself would admit as much during his interviews with Francois Truffaut, saying “the story is lacking in humor”, something that definitely makes Rebecca stand apart from many of his other works. Also, it's primarily a woman’s movie, told from the first-person perspective of Joan Fontaine’s troubled bride (more than likely the reason this character’s never given a name). And yet, in spite of all this, Hitchcock manages to infuse the film with a great deal of atmosphere, and plenty of his patented suspense. Even after all these years, Rebecca remains a very intense viewing experience.

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