While holidaying on the Riviera with a rich old dowager (Florence Bates), an unworldly
young woman (Joan Fontaine) meets wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) and
marries him after a whirlwind courtship. She comes to live at Manderley, her husband’s
vast estate in the English countryside, but there she feels uncomfortable with her husband
haunted by the memory of his first wife, as well as with Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson),
the sinister housekeeper who seems obsessed by her former mistress, Rebecca. There is
secrecy over the circumstances of Rebecca’s death that the new Mrs de Winter
discovers eventually to her shock.
Review by Keith Lofthouse:
Brought to America by producer David O. Selznick to make his first non-British film (which
was to be on the sinking of the Titanic) Alfred Hitchcock was instead assigned to
translate Daphne Du Maurier’s haunting bestseller to the screen. The result was a
lavish, compelling and disturbing thriller, which earned Hitchcock the first of five Oscar
nominations and became the only Hitchcock film to win Best Picture in his 53 film career.
With Gone With The Wind not yet released, Selznick chose not to cast Vivien Leigh beside
her off-screen lover for fear that news of their affair (they were both married to other
people at the time) would leak out and damage both films. Accordingly, Olivier was not
only cold towards his leading lady (Joan Fontaine’s sister, Olivia de Havilland, Anne
Baxter and Loretta Young were tested), but is claimed to have whispered obscenities in her
ear to unsettle her. The ploy might have enhanced her performance, but it diminished his
to one of curious disinterest.
Still, it’s a film never to tire of, with Olivier as the brooding and melancholy
Maxim de Winter (after Ronald Colman turned it down) the young English widower haunted by
the memory of his first wife Rebecca, who drowned mysteriously the year before. Fontaine,
who deserved her Oscar more for this than for her follow-up film for Hitchcock, Suspicion
(1941), is almost maddeningly shy and fragile. The nameless new mistress of Manderley is a
sheltered English rose, who is treated indifferently by its master (“I’m asking
you to marry me, you little fool”) and tormented by the forbidding Mrs Danvers, the
housekeeper whose lesbian interest in her former mistress is positively implied. Gloomy,
glowering and eerily omnipresent, Judith Anderson creates one of the screen’s most
fearsome and enduring characters. When Danvers whispers, “don’t be afraid”
it is tantamount to a threat.
One of the director’s masterstrokes was that Danvers is never seen walking. Hitchcock
reasoned that this would only humanise her. The pasty-faced witch would just appear at the
side or behind the frightened Fontaine, to leer and to menace, and in one electrifying
scene, urge her to leap from a high window to certain death.
Selznick had insisted that Hitchcock stick rigidly to the novel, which meant that the film
has few of the director’s trademark tricks and none of his humour. The suspense,
however, remains undiminished and the film retains a great gothic spookiness about it,
which is enhanced by the moody black and white photography and Franz Waxman’s
chilling score. The most distinguished cast ever assembled for a Hitchcock film includes
George Sanders as the despicable Favell who, in a heartless aside to the panic-stricken
Mrs de Winter sneers: “I say, marriage to Max is not exactly a bed of roses, is
it?” (No Bed Of Roses became the title of Fontaine’s 1978 autobiography).
In essence, the script fails to justify the bizarre behaviour of these bitter and
bewildered souls, but as a psychological mystery, few films are more intriguing and few
characters will linger in the lexicon longer than Mrs Danvers.
Published December 11, 2003
Email this article
BUY IT HERE
REBECCA: DVD (PG)
CAST: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, Judith Anderson
DIRECTOR: Alfred Hitchcock
SCRIPT: Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison
RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes
PRESENTATION: 4X3 full frame
SPECIAL FEATURES: Rare screen tests with Vivien Leigh, Anne Baxter and Joan Fontaine (25 minutes)
DVD DISTRIBUTOR: MRA Entertainment
DVD RELEASE: November 5, 2003
RIVERSIDE SNEAK PEEK PREMIERES
A program of premiere screenings of new movies prior to their commercial release
on 4 consecutive Tuesdays - March 10, 17, 24, 31, 2015 - at Riverside Theatre,
Curated & presented by Andrew L. Urban, discussion to
follow with special guests. Briefing notes provided.