I’d been curious about Rebecca since I heard about it about a decade ago. It doesn’t really feel a whole ton like the other Hitchcock films I’ve seen, it’s much more character based than something like North By Northwest. And the romance is a thing I can really believe in for the first time outside of maybe Rear Window. I read the back of the Criterion case and it sounded a heck of a lot like Jane Eyre with the class difference between the man and the woman and the man’s mysterious past that haunts his (big and beautiful) house. But this is its own thing, enhanced by some superb acting and Hitchcock’s amazing eye for detail and manipulation of the frame.
Lawrence Olivier as Maxim de Winter is a suave, charming dude, clearly born with a silver spoon in his mouth but not so arrogant as to deny his attraction to Joan Fontaine’s unnamed character. She’s a paid companion to a real piece of work and revels in the opportunity to get away from her employer, first for just a few hours, then for forever. But she finds that Maxim’s dead wife, Rebecca, has left her mark all over the glorious Manderley mansion and it really starts to get to her. What happened to Rebecca? What was Maxim’s role in everything? And why is he becoming ever more distant from his wife? Hitch plays all of these beats marvelously, and Fontaine’s performance is pitch perfect as she gets more and more obsessed with figuring out her new husband’s past. Olivier is perfect, too, as he seems to be the height of charm at one moment and then dangerous the next.
Rebecca is a gothic romance, so secrets abound and an air of the macabre hangs over the house too big to really reckon with. A rundown boat house on the beachfront property is overcome with cobwebs and sets the scene for the dramatic showdown between Mrs. de Winter and Maxim. As Maxim tells his story, the camera follows the action in the small, dank house as if Rebecca’s ghost were there and replaying her role. It’s a wonderful bit of filmmaking that also demonstrates just how powerful memories can be. For Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca’s place in the house and in the new Mrs. de Winter’s mind has become so strong that she can command the camera to move even though she has died long ago.
There’s a big court case that doesn’t do much for me except give George Sanders some delightfully smarmy stuff before getting his comeuppance. But the really astounding bit comes at the very end as one housekeeper tries desperately to keep the new Mrs. de Winter from dethroning Rebecca’s place in the house and in Maxim’s mind. What a spectacular scene of violence and terror! It’s filmed in gorgeous, rich black and white, but for that scene alone I wished it was a color film, something big and bright and technicolor. It’d be even more brilliant. As is, though, this is still a new favorite Hitchcock for me, and it’s fun to see such a young Olivier showing off his brooding side.