Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (1940)

De Winters' Tale

Anyone who has watched a few Hitchcock movies tend to have their favourites and the name of "Rebecca" crops up quite frequently. And admittedly "Rebecca" is a very good movie, an above average movie full of romance, drama and intrigue as well as brilliant twists. But here is the thing, there are 3 elements to why "Rebecca" is so good and whilst one of them is Alfred Hitchcock the others are the cast and more importantly a fantastic story from Daphne Du Maurier, a storyline which is so good that even if you are not a big reader leads you to want to read Du Maurier's novel.

Whilst in the South of Francis working for Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates), a shy young assistant meets sad widower 'Maxim' de Winter (Laurence Olivier - Spartacus) staring over the edge of a cliff. It is the first of a series of meetings which develop into dates and before she knows it Maxim has proposed and wanting to take her back to Cornwall and the family home of Manderley. Not accustomed to being the lady of the house with staff at her beck and the call the new Mrs de Winter (Joan Fontaine - Gunga Din) struggles as the staff, especially housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) held the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, in such high esteem.

Judith Anderson and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (1940)

Now when you try to categorize "Rebecca" it is not that simple especially when placed next to Hitchcock's other movies. Calling it a thriller seems wrong when compared to his later movies and calling it just a melodrama doesn't do it justice because it is atmospheric and thrilling in its own right. It is one of the reasons why it ends up such a good movie because it creates this wonderful atmosphere taking us from a melodrama into a thriller whilst still holding on to the melodrama aspects.

It does mean that in a way "Rebecca" is a movie of two parts with the first half basically focussing on the shy, nameless assistant becoming the new Mrs. de Winter. In particular after the semi romantic almost light hearted opening which sees Maxim and the young lady grow close and have a quickie marriage the focus is on the presence of Rebecca still having a hold on Manderley. We watch as the staff keep mentioning her especially Mrs. Danvers whilst Maxim refuses to speak about her and whilst we are aware that she died we wonder what else there is to it. But it is more than that because Mrs. Danvers is an ominous figure, creepily appearing from nowhere, an obsessed guardian of the past and everything Rebecca did to the point she is willing to try and unsettle new Mrs. de Winter by various means.

But that is just the first part because we also have the death of Rebecca as we learn what happened which with out spoiling anything is the second half of the movie as something happens and Maxim finally talks about it to his new wife. And this is where it gets thrilling because through a series of twists we have various possibilities as to what could happen next. It makes what had been a slightly ominous movie into an exciting one which even when you think it has peaked finds one masterful crescendo to take it to another level for the ending.

Now the thing about "Rebecca" is that it was Hitchcock's first movie made in Hollywood and it is an assured piece of directing with some nice elements thanks to Hitchcock. It is because of Hitchcock that Mrs. Danvers ends up being very unsettling, appearing as if to float into a room and whilst Judith Anderson deserves praise for getting it right it is Hitchcock who had the vision for how Mrs. Danvers should be. Yet in truth the strength of "Rebecca" is less to do with Hitchcock's assured direction and more to do with the strength of the story. It is absolutely fantastic and it really sucks you into what appears to be the drama before then shifting it as the twists appear becoming a thriller.

Now in a way Hitchcock deserves further praise because it is reported that Hitchcock had noticed that Laurence Olivier made Joan Fontaine unsettled and so had her believe that no one on set liked her making her very edgy and it makes her unease and timidness tangible during the early scenes as she not only struggles working for Mrs. Van Hopper but also when she comes to Manderley. But Fontaine blossoms as the storyline grows and she evolves into this amazingly beautiful and strong character making her so easy to watch and understand. Fontaine is not the only great performance as Laurence Olivier delivers expected brilliance as Maxim de Winter delivering a conflicted character whose mystery is intriguing because you are never entirely sure of him.

What this all boils down to is that "Rebecca" is a brilliant movie despite now being over 70 years old. But whilst for some it is their favourite Hitchcock movie for me the strength of it comes from the storyline which is brilliant, it is the way the storyline which evolves and the performances especially from Joan Fontaine which makes it so captivating.