Rebecca – Alfred Hitchcock
When David 0. Selznick brought Alfred Hitchcock to the United States from England in 1939, Hitchcock’s films had been popular as well as influential in this country since The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935). Rebecca, his first American film, remains a distinctly British work: a gothic mystery by a British author, set mostly in England, with a predominantly British cast. It is an expensively mounted film, typical of Selznick’s production values, and the only Hitchcock film ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. George Barnes also won a well-deserved Oscar for his black-and-white cinematography. Hitchcock had already made a film of a novel by Daphne du Maurier the preceding year, just before be moved to America—his unexceptional Jamaica Inn. Nonetheless, du Maurier’s Rebecca, published in 1938, provided Hitchcock with an especially comfortable source, a stagy, atmospheric story of intrigue and deception readily adaptable to the kind of studio-bound production familiar to him in England.
Rebecca begins with a voice-over recollection—”Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”—and a shot through thick, dank foliage of the burned-out shell of a once grand English country house. It is the story of the narrator, an unnamed young girl (Joan Fontaine) who marries a haunted, aristocratic British widoWer, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), and gradually learns the truth about his first wife, Rebecca, and the circumstances of her death.
This gauche, timid girl, the traveling companion of a wealthy bourgeois American matron, Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates), meets de Winter in Monte Carlo. After a strange courtship during which he treats her both brusquely and superciliously, they marry and return to England to his family estate, Manderley. There the new Mrs. de Winter immediately encounters the enmity of the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), a sinister woman pathologically devoted to the memory of Rebecca.
Rebecca’s presence fills the house, creating a stolid distance between de Winter and his bride. By chance, the boat in which Rebecca had presumably drowned turns up one night, with holes smashed in its bottom and her remains inside. Mrs. de Winter fears that this will revive old memories and widen the breach between her and her husband. For the first time de Winter talks to his wife about Rebecca and how she died. At the inquest Jack Faye11 (George Sanders), a “cousin” of Rebecca, had attempted blackmail with a letter that threw suspicion on de Winter. But he was cleared when an interview with Rebecca’s doctor proved that she was dying from inoperable cancer. When de Winter returned to Manderley he found that Mrs. Danvers has set it afire, remaining inside with the memories of her beloved Rebecca. The final frames show the fire spreading across Rebecca’s monogrammed pillow case.