“…I suppose sooner or later in the life of everyone comes a moment of trial. We all of us have our particular devil who rides us and torments us, and we must give battle in the end” (Daphne Du Maurier “Rebecca” (1938)).
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, “Rebecca” is adapted from the best-selling novel by Dalphne Du Maurier, and tells of a mysterious widower, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), the owner of a grand estate Manderley, who stumbles across a shy and awkward young girl (Joan Fontaine) while on a trip in Monte Carlo. De Winter hurriedly marries our heroine, but upon the arrival to his estate, the new Mrs de Winter feels like a trespasser. She realises that every corner of the house is permeated by the spirit of Maxim’s beautiful, charming and intelligent previous wife, Rebecca, and senses that her husband still re-lives the happy moments that he had with his former wife.
“Rebecca” is Alfred Hitchcock’s first film made in Hollywood and, in 1941, it won the Academy Awards in the Best Picture and Best Cinematography categories, alongside being nominated for numerous others. It is easy to see why the film proved to be so successful and popular. Firstly, the film’s main themes resonate well with the audience, as well as prey on the audience’s biggest fears. These themes are alienation, discrimination, loss, hope, fear of the future, torments of the past, and even spirituality and destiny. There is also the exploration of that kind of a relationship where two people are physically close to one another, but are mentally and emotionally a world away from each other. In “Rebecca”, the main heroine manages to capture the attention and the loving nature of Maxim de Winter most of the time, but, as the book (film) progresses, the gulf between them grows wider. At one point in the book, she says: “….The gulf that lay between us was wider now than it had ever been, and he stood away from me, with his back turned, on the further shore. I felt young, and small and very much alone…” The fallibility of human memory, the human inability to recapture past fleeting moments of happiness, and the mistakes we sometimes make and what their price may be are the predominant topics of the film/book. While the unnamed heroine is tormented by happy memories which she cannot recapture again, Maxim de Winter is tormented by his past action and its foreseeable consequences. For example, our heroine says: “…I wanted to go back again, to recapture the moment that had gone, and then it came to me that if we did it would not be the same.”
Secondly, “Rebecca” largely remains true to the spirit and content of the novel. The movie is at times so faithful to the novel that it follows the book from scene to scene and from dialogue to dialogue. The plot progression and pace is good, and, at least in the beginning, the movie is an absolute pleasure to watch. The film starts strongly with the main heroine virtually reading from the novel, describing her recent nightmare involving Manderley (Mr de Winter’s estate). “Rebecca” then shows the charmingly romantic encounters between the heroine and Mr de Winter in Monte Carlo, behind the back of snobby Mrs. Van Hopper. Here, there is a clever scene invention not included in the book, but which is necessary in the film to present our heroine as a “saviour” of Mr de Winter – our heroine calls out to Maxim as he stands on the cliff (maybe ready to jump), and, in this way, potentially saves Maxim from death. All this follows the scenes of the unsettling, menacing atmosphere of Manderley and the chilling thrills involving the present Mrs Winter being alone with Mrs Danvers, a hostile housekeeper, who “just adored Rebecca”. Then follows one of the most exciting of the scenes – the masquerade ball where the second Mrs de Winter unwittingly dresses up as Rebecca and upsets her husband and his close relatives. Strangely, after this, the script starts to rush forward with an unbelievable speed, and we do not even get to see how the second Mrs de Winter endures the evening of fun pretending to be happy (this is detailed in the book). All this is then followed by Rebecca’s boat discovery, her note to Favell, and the final twist.
The biggest plot change comes nearer the final act. In the novel, the twist is that Maxim de Winter shot Rebecca who was taunting him, but the Hollywood Production Code at the time made it clear that the murder of a spouse had to be punished. To comply, the movie was changed to look as though Rebecca’s death was accidental. This change is understandable, but very unfortunate for the movie, because it makes “Rebecca” less thought-provoking and robs the story of its essential drama. This change from the shooting of Rebecca to her accidental death is also illogical. Firstly, if Maxim de Winter really did not mean to kill his wife, and she fell and hit her head, then he could have confessed to that, and received sympathy, although he would probably have had to carry out some sentence. One of the main points of the novel was to demonstrate how the power of love could be so strong as to start defending the indefensible, i.e. a murder of another human being, and, given that the film deals only with an accident, the ending is underwhelming. Secondly, if Maxim de Winter really just hit Rebecca, and she fell and injured her head, the big chance is that there would be some fraction or deformity, even a scratch, found on her skull, and that means no suicide could be determined, but a foul-play. In the movie, nothing like this was found on Rebecca’s body, even though the body would have been inspected to determine the identity.
The casting is nearly perfect, and the chemistry between Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine is very good. Laurence Olivier seems a perfect cast for the handsome, but moody “Max” de Winter. In Du Maurier’s novel, our heroine describes her first impression of Maxim in the following words: “…He belonged to a walled city of the fifteenth century, a city of narrow, cobbled streets, and thin spires, where the inhabitants wore pointed shoes and worsted hose. His face was arresting, sensitive, medieval in some strange inexplicable way, and I was reminded of a portrait seen in a gallery…of a certain Gentleman Unknown…who cloaked and secret, walked a corridor by night”. Olivier looks the part, and the only fault here is that he always looks very grim. Now, Maxim in the novel is, of course, stricken with grief, but, at least in Monte Carlo, he also smiles and laughs, and this is something Olivier does not do much, if at all, in the movie. Olivier shows the hidden trauma of Mr de Winter, but he forgets to put that easy-going charm, which maybe comes more naturally to such actors as Clark Gable or Gregory Peck.
Joan Fontaine in the role of the second Mrs de Winter is perfectly cast; Fontaine is not glamorously beautiful, but quietly attractive, and in her role, she is an unassuming, shy, almost a “girl-next-door” type of a woman, and it is great the way different comparisons are made between her and Rebecca in the movie. The surprising cast here is Judith Anderson in the role Mrs Danvers. Anderson is too young to play Mrs Danvers because in the novel Mrs Danvers is presented as a childhood nanny of Rebecca. Anderson is also too menacing-looking for Mrs Danvers. The point of the whole Manderley set-up is too show hidden, camouflaged dangers and threats, not some overt, downright hostility, and Anderson makes Mrs Danvers too unpleasant and unwelcoming.
Olivier, Fontaine and Anderson’s acting was excellent, and all of them were nominated for the Academy Awards, as well as Alfred Hitchcock himself. However, who impressed me the most was George Sanders in the role of Jack Favell, Rebecca’s cousin. Sanders plays a rogue, a charlatan, but, most of the time, he is also very charming and amusing, putting himself above Olivier, and his remarks about Rebecca’s death sound perfectly reasonable to the audience.
Overall, Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” is a masterfully executed film, with excellent cast, acting and a thought-provoking ending. It stays true to the story – until at least the final act. Although black and white, the film is gripping, suspenseful, romantic and entertaining to watch. Despite its obvious weaknesses, such as the rushing of the middle act, the confusing cast of Mrs Danvers and the forced changing of the final act, “Rebecca” is still a memorable “must-see” classic. 9/10
 David O. Selznick (“Gone with the Wind” (1939), “Spellbound” (1945)), the producer of the film and the owner of Selznick International Pictures, took the Best Picture Award.