Movie Review: Rebecca (1940)

Seen: At the Harvard Film Archive on 35mm, part of their Complete Alfred Hitchcock retrospective.

The HFA has devoted a series to Alfred Hitchcock from July through September, showing almost everything in his rather large ouevre, and I finally got myself down there to catch some screenings. So expect a few more Hitchcocks in the future. Rebecca was a priority, mainly because I knew it was the only one of his films to win best picture, and I’d heard it was really good. I kind of hated the book, but whatever, I read it in high school so I was willing to assume my teenaged reading of it was misjudged. The story follows a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who meets and quickly marries a wealthy, middle-aged aristocrat (Laurence Olivier) while on holiday in the south of France. When the couple returns to his British estate, the shy and nervous new bride finds herself constantly met with derision from the head housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson), as well as unwanted reminders of her husband’s elegant first wife, Rebecca, who drowned a year prior.

Moody and slow-paced, Hitchcock’s Rebecca is Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic novel fully realized through majestic visuals, melodramatic interactions, and sweeping musical cues. I loved the optical tricks that create a ghostly atmosphere, including Mrs Danvers’ seemingly floating figure and the foggy landscape. A few details are changed- notably the age and background of Mrs Danvers, which allows for a definite homoerotic undertone that read as more motherly in the book. Joan Fontaine is solid casting in the lead (unnamed) role, aptly playing meek and unassuming and slowly morphing into someone more self-assured. Olivier is cold and intimidating, playing well off Fontaine’s naivete and uncertainty. George Sanders is the stand-out performance, in a small but extremely memorable role as Rebecca’s rakish cousin. He is forthright and charismatic, with a subtle hint of malice that underscores his every word. I kind of wish the movie was just about him, to be honest.

So here’s the thing: This is an impeccably crafted, thoughtfully scripted, very well-acted film, and generally very true to the source material. HOWEVER. I never actually liked this story. I don’t know, it’s been several years since I’ve read it, but Rebecca has always stuck with me. I remember predicting the big reveal pretty early on, so the mystery was boring to me. I remember disliking the lead character, who never gets a name (and thus is only identified by her marriage to Mr De Winter), who starts off as a child but in very little time is married and mistress of a major estate, and who is generally timid, useless, and whiny. I remember her relationship with Mr De Winter made me uncomfortable, since I could never get a handle on her age and was led to believe he was much older than her, and he treats her like a child most of the time. All of these things remain in the film, rightly so from an adaptational point of view, so I couldn’t really love it. Olivier being pervy around his young wife would have been enough to turn me off, honestly, I mean he literally calls her “child” and bemoans her loss of innocence when she finds out the truth about Rebecca’s death, since he loved her for her childlike wonder or something. It’s creepy.

There are so many good things about Rebecca that I must recognize Hitchcock’s mastery and the exquisite detail put into every frame. I loved the gliding camerawork and dramatic score, and the cast is superb. Seeing the unforgettable Mrs Danvers fleshed out onscreen by the eerie and intense Judith Anderson was wonderful, and her scenes with Fontaine lent the greatest tension to the whole film. But I find the protagonist and core story a bit bland, and there’s not much to be done about that.


Pair This Movie With: The moody atmosphere, pseudo-haunted British mansion, marriage mysteries, and tragic romance all put me in mind of Jane Eyre when I first read the book, and the film version retains those comparable elements. I loved the 2011 adaptation of the Brontë classic, and would pair that with Rebecca.

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