A LONELY MAN, A LOVELY GIRL… STRUGGLING AGAINST THE SECRET OF MANDERLEY.
As Alfred Hitchcock was making his first Hollywood movie, producer David O. Selznick tried his best to influence the British director. Selznick insisted that the script should stay as faithful as possible to Daphne du Maurier’s successful 1938 novel, but there were still changes made, some of them out of necessity because of the Production Code; an important aspect of Rebecca de Winter’s death was altered, but perhaps for the better, adding another layer of mystery to the story.
Selznick was deeply involved in the postproduction, but there was one thing he demanded that Hitchcock made sure never happened. Selznick had an idea that could have turned the climax into a huge stunt, but Hitchcock defied him and made sure the scene had greater subtlety. In the end, Rebecca convincingly established Hitchcock as a great Hollywood talent.
Meeting on the French Riviera
Somewhere on the French Riviera, a young woman (Joan Fontaine) suddenly encounters a dashing gentleman (Laurence Olivier) who gives her the impression that he might jump off a cliff. The man brushes her off, embarrassed. A while later they meet again and the man introduces himself as Maxim de Winter, a British aristocrat who is still mourning the loss of his wife Rebecca. Soon they fall in love and the young woman agrees to marry Maxim.
They travel back to England and Manderley, the grand estate where Maxim grew up and lived with Rebecca. There, the new Mrs. de Winter is introduced to the staff, including the forbidding housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). Over the following weeks and months, Mrs. de Winter tries to find her place at Manderley, but Rebecca’s shadow is everywhere.
Obsessed with her former mistress
There was no way that any hint of a romance between Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers would be allowed in the script, but it’s impossible to watch the movie now and not consider that likelihood. The housekeeper is obsessed with her former mistress, keeping her room intact the way it was when Rebecca disappeared. The film’s most famous scene has Mrs. Danvers inviting Rebecca’s replacement into this ”museum”, showing her the wardrobe and causing her great emotional distress; there’s an eerie moment when Mrs. Danvers opens the window and presents the terrified, distraught Mrs. de Winter with the opportunity of jumping out the window, telling her how easy it would be to just end things. Suicide and accidental death are constantly present throughout the story, from the first meeting between Maxim and his future bride to the climax where Mrs. Danvers goes through with a drastic plan that must seem logical to her.
Rebecca’s fate haunts both Maxim and Manderley as a whole, a secret series of events that cause great tension near the end as the suavely diabolical Jack Favell (George Sanders), Rebecca’s cousin, intends to blackmail Maxim. Darkness and danger hang like an evil cloud over Manderley, emphasized by George Barnes’s cinematography, which used deep focus shots (one year before Gregg Toland’s celebrated work on Citizen Kane) to give us and Fontaine’s character an overwhelming impression of the mansion, and Rebecca’s room in particular; Franz Waxman’s music score has a dreamlike quality and makes us feel the wind and ocean near Manderley.
Olivier was unhappy about the casting of Fontaine, as the story goes; he would have preferred his girlfriend, Vivien Leigh. If there was tension between him and Fontaine, it only served to highlight the barrier between their characters. They’re both excellent, superbly aided by Anderson in her most memorable screen appearance (an unforgettably tragic and horrifying figure in the climax) and Sanders as the fop who loved Rebecca.
Rebecca 1940-U.S. 130 min. B/W. Produced by David O. Selznick. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay: Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison. Novel: Daphne du Maurier. Cinematography: George Barnes. Music: Franz Waxman. Cast: Laurence Olivier (Maxim de Winter), Joan Fontaine (Mrs. de Winter), George Sanders (Jack Favell), Judith Anderson, Nigel Bruce, Reginald Denny… Gladys Cooper, Leo G. Carroll.
Trivia: Olivia de Havilland was reportedly considered for her sister Fontaine’s role. Later a stage play and an opera. Remade many times, including in India in 1964, as two miniseries in 1979 and 1997, as an Italian TV movie in 2008 and as Rebecca (2020).
Oscars: Best Picture, Cinematography.
Quote: “You’re overwrought, madam. I’ve opened a window for you. A little air will do you good. Why don’t you go? Why don’t you leave Manderley? He doesn’t need you. He’s got his memories. He doesn’t love you – he wants to be alone again with her. You’ve nothing to stay for. You’ve nothing to live for, have you, really? Look down there. It’s easy, isn’t it? Why don’t you go? Go on, go on. Don’t be afraid…” (Anderson to Fontaine)
Last word: “Mrs Danvers was almost never seen walking and was rarely shown in motion. If she entered a room in which the heroine was, what happened is that the girl suddenly heard a sound and there was the ever-present Mrs Danvers, standing perfectly still by her side. In this way the whole situation was projected from the heroine’s point of view; she never knew when Mrs Danvers might turn up, and this, in itself, was terrifying. To have shown Mrs Danvers walking would have been to humanize her.” (Hitchcock, interview with François Truffaut)