Rebecca – Alfred Hitchcock
One of the strongest features of the film is its atmosphere. The bright, sharply lit scenes in Monte Carlo find enhancement in Mrs. Van Hopper, magnificently played by Florence Bates in her screen debut and best-remembered performance. Her antics fool no one. Despite her wealth she remains a petulant, chocolate-gorging vulgarian who puts out her cigarette in a jar of cold cream. A prefiguration of Mrs. Danvers, she proves even more demanding, although certainly less baleful. For the scenes at Manderley, especially, Hitchcock concentrates on subdued tones, sometimes shadows, to underline the mystery of Rebecca and the helplessness of the new wife. Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers expertly blends the macabre in this world with that of the next. Attired in black, she seems neither to come nor to go but simply to be an omnipresent extension of the darkness at Manderley.
The opportunistic Jack Favell introduces himself from the shadows outside the window, then enters and subsequently exits by climbing through it. As Favell, George Sanders projects a frank indecency that in its smoothness and complexity never offends and becomes almost attractive; he continually upstages Olivier’s monochromatic de Winter. He is at the center of the best scenes in the film, in particular the one where he tries blackmail with a letter Rebecca had written to him on the day of her death, purportedly showing that she was hardly suicidal and, .by implication, that de Winter had killed her. After inviting himself to lunch with de Winter and his wife in their car, he helps himself to a drumstick and then blandly inquires of de Winter what one does with “old bones.” In defeat he ungraciously but legitimately complains that class privilege shields de Winter from further investigation, the chief constable, Colonel Julyan (C. Aubrey Smith), being an old friend of de Winter.
Not entirely to the story’s credit, peripheral factors have dimensions that outweigh the central relationships. Despite the sensitive portrayal by Joan Fontaine, the young wife commands little sympathy. Her ingenuousness and sincerity cannot match the air of patiently suffering masochism that surrounds her devotion to de Winter. She is a ninny, and her husband a boor, too preoccupied with his fear and guilt to recognize her loneliness or the indignity she suffers at the hands of Mrs. Danvers. Neither Hitchcock nor Olivier seem to know what to do with de Winter’s character; and Olivier gives a bloodless, at times careless performance, leaving the wife’s unflinching love nearly incredible. De Winter’s love-hatred for Rebecca makes for a theme more worthy of development than his dispassionate second ‘marriage, as does also the malevolent presence of Rebecca in her ally Mrs. Danvers that summons him to psychological destruction.
The film combines, not always successfully, melodrama with mystery, at¬mospheric effects, and the supernatural. It reflects the nostalgic romanticism of earlier Selznick products, notably Gone with the Wind (1939), and belongs to that group of moody, darkly executed films about the palpable influence of women either dead or thought to be dead, including William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (1939), Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), and George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944). Rebecca has all the necessary carpentry for suspense: the old mansion presided over by a strange, tormented figure, the frightened girl innocent of the past, and the housekeeper in league with the world of spirits. The fire set by Mrs. Danvers presumably consumes the past, the horror and the guilt embedded in Manderley, thus releasing de Winter and his young wife to begin anew. As both domestic melodrama and Cinderella story, Rebecca has considerable appeal; but its best qualities derive from the traditions of the murder mystery and ghost story which give the film its particular flavor.