“Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”
So goes the most famous opening line to any Hitchcock film, perhaps the most famous opening line in all cinema. Well, apart from “Rosebud.” After the anti-climatic conclusion to Hitchcock’s British period, his Hollywood debut, Rebecca, was a critical and box office smash and is still held to be one of the All Time Greats. Indeed, it’s the only Hitchcock film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Does it deserve such high praise?
We follow a nameless heroine (played by Joan Fontaine) in her whirlwind romance with wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) who she meets in Monte Carlo. When they return to Manderley, Maxim’s country house in Cornwall, the new Mrs. de Winter feels out of place in the overbearing world of the English aristocracy. Try as she might, she cannot shake the feeling that she inferior to Max’s first wife, Rebecca. As Max becomes more distant and the ice-cold housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), continues to remind her that she doesn’t belong, it seems that the shadow of Rebecca forever darkens Manderley.
This was a passion project for Hitchcock. He’d wanted to do the film since Daphne du Maurier’s original novel was published in 1938, but until now he was unable to afford the rights. Mistrust and secrecy within marriage is a popular Hitchcock theme we’ve already seen in The Pleasure Garden, Easy Virtue and Sabotage, but here it’s implemented most successfully.
The unseen presence of the late Mrs. de Winter is so strong it’s almost palpable. Hitchcock’s slow-tracking shots through empty corridors and staircases creates a the foreboding presence that looms over film, adding to its mystery and mounting suspense. Credit must also go Judith Anderson’s superb performance as Mrs. Danvers who’s fanatical devotion to the memory of Rebecca – with subtle homoerotic undertones – makes her one of the more psychologically interesting villains in the Hitchcock canon.
Fontaine is exceptional as the lead, taking us through the emotional decline of a naive young romantic thrown into an oppressive and unfamiliar world. Olivier as Maxim is brooding and involved, especially compared to the lacklustre performance by his lifelong rival John Gielgud in The Secret Agent.
Overall, Rebecca is a expertly executed drama and a thrilling start to Hitchcock’s Hollywood career.