Urban Cinefile
"Playing M (in Bond) and then playing Queen Victoria was just like my whole career"  -Judi Dench on the variety of her film roles
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Friday May 22, 2020 

Printable page PRINTABLE PAGE



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


(US, 1940)

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 RELEASE: November 5, 2003

© Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020