Rebecca (1940)

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Rebecca

black and white, mystery/suspense
released: 1940
director: Alfred Hitchcock
starring: Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, George Saunders, Judith Anderson
rated: PG
length: 2 hrs, 10 min

Age: 11+

Interests: mystery, suspense, romance, murder

In Alfred Hitchcock’s first film made in America – a film which captured his only Best Picture Oscar – a timid and penniless young woman falls for the dashing, wealthy widower Maxim DeWinter. He is moody and distracted, with a short temper, and still apparently mourning the death of his wife Rebecca who was lost at sea the previous year. After a whirlwind romance they marry and Maxim brings her home to his massive ancestral estate: Mandalay. The new Mrs. DeWinter is very aware that she has married far above her class (she is reminded of this pointedly by others). And the house is filled with reminders of the late Rebecca, haunted by her memory. At Mandalay the new Mrs. DeWinter is self-conscious and awkward, and struggles to fulfill her role as mistress of the house and staff. She has particular trouble with the frighteningly stern housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, who remains devoted to her former mistress and obsessed with preserving her memory. In one very creepy scene Mrs. Danvers gives the new bride a tour of the bedroom of the dead woman, untouched since her death. All attempts by Mrs. DeWinter to assert herself are sabotaged by Mrs. Danvers, who seems bent on driving the young woman to commit suicide.

(PARTIAL SPOILER ALERT – SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH TO AVOID) After a storm uncovers a long-missing sailboat in the harbour, still containing Rebecca’s body, it turns out that Maxim DeWinter is not, after all, still in love with the memory of his wife. The opposite turns out to be true – he despised her. Rebecca was a manipulative, evil woman, who was cheating on him rather openly. It’s a nice twist to discover that the incredibly beautiful Rebecca, whom everyone is reluctant to talk about, was not saintly and adored after all, but was rather feared and loathed by pretty much everyone besides Danvers and the reptilian Jack Favell – Rebecca’s cousin and lover (!). Maxim tells his new wife of his last, fateful confrontation with Rebecca, in which she gleefully revealed that she was pregnant with another man’s child. She then tripped and hit her head, rather conveniently. (Obviously a way to get around the original novel’s story, in which Maxim deliberately killed her.) Finding her dead, Maxim panicked and scuttled their sailboat with her inside. Now he fears he will be charged with her murder. An inquest follows, and some suspicion is cast on him, but in a final plot twist Maxim is exonerated completely. He returns to Mandalay to find it in flames. Mrs. Danvers has completely lost her mind and burned the place to the ground. Mrs. DeWinter escapes the fire but Mrs. Danvers perishes. (SPOILER PARAGRAPH ENDS HERE)

This rather lurid tale begins as a simple love story, though Maxim’s mood swings bode ill for the couple right from the get-go. After a slow start, the plot really starts rolling when they return to Mandalay, the dark and brooding mansion haunted by the memory of Rebecca. The new Mrs. DeWinter (strangely, her first name is never given) is so out of her element, intimidated by the memory of the ‘perfect’ Rebecca and terrified by Mrs. Danvers that you can’t help but feel sorry for her. Her character may seem unbelievably timid, but the chilly Mrs. Danvers is enough to strike fear into any heart. (The story goes that Hitchcock directed Judith Anderson to stare without blinking whenever the camera was on her.) The character of Mrs. Danvers is so over the top that even young viewers today will find her compelling.

The movie is slow to get going, and the final act gets bogged down by police procedurals and lots of talk, but the suspense is nicely seeded in the very first scene and maintained throughout. Will Maxim’s life be ruined by the memory of Rebecca? Can he live happily ever after with his new wife? Above all, what will Mrs. Danvers do next??

Engaging and atmospheric, this film is full of abrupt turns and surprises. Requires some patience with the slow pace, but the spooky atmosphere and suspense should keep everyone on board. As well, all the characters are wonderfully rounded, fully realized and well played, right down to the most minor roles. There is nothing very dodgy or inappropriate here, the romance is limited to embraces and kissing, and Rebecca’s adultery is only referred to in the dialogue. The scene of her death isn’t even shown, it’s simply retold by Maxim. The only disturbing moment is the sight of Mrs. Danvers inside the burning house, though again, it’s not graphic and shouldn’t be a problem for ages eleven and up. This film could start a discussion about class distinctions, and also about the attitudes of the day toward gender roles, as Maxim’s treatment of his young wife is pretty condescending.

Trivia: Listen carefully to the voice of George Saunders, who plays the cad Jack Favell. Sound familiar? He provided the voice for the enchantingly evil Shere Khan in Disney’s The Jungle Book.

Also: Hitchcock made a habit of appearing briefly onscreen in all of his movies. This movie is no exception, though his cameo appearance in Rebecca is particularly fleeting. Can you spot him?

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Laurence Oliver and Joan Fontaine

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Mandalay

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George Saunders, Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson

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Nooo! Don’t listen to Mrs. Danvers!

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.