An unassuming, almost mousy woman (Joan Fontaine - we're never given a name for her) works as a paid companion to an unpleasant society woman but becomes the new bride of the brooding nobleman Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) after a few social dates. Intimidated by his big house, the servants and the odd behavior of her new husband, "The Second Mrs. de Winter" is encouraged by the cold, hostile housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) to obsess on her husband's first wife, the late Rebecca. Rebecca's presence is felt everywhere, especially in Maxim's irrational outbursts. Then events force a police investigation of Rebecca's death, and "The Second Mrs. de Winter" doesn't know what to think...
Joan Fontaine simps and frets and cowers through most of Rebecca, and does a good job of not coming off an idiot. Quite the opposite: She takes the key role in this realm of women's fantasy and embodies it well. The Second Mrs. de Winter is as ideal an identification figure for the unfulfilled female as Luke Skywalker is for the powerless male teenager. On their second date, she comes right out and asks DeWinter why he's paying attention to her. When she breaks some crockery, she's so ashamed and cowed by the imperious Mrs. Danvers, she hides the evidence of her inadequacy.
Savant spends a lot of time reminding readers that Alfred Hitchcock and Val Lewton were co-conversant, and that Hitchcock routinely cribbed from Lewton's movies for his own. In this case, it looks like a lot of Lewton's lukewarm gentility and fussiness can be traced to his old boss Selznick. After seeing Rebecca again, I Walked With a Zombie's 'Jane Eyre' influence looks more like a Rebecca influence. Or was Daphne De Maurier ripping off Bronte? Whatever the case, bookstore shelves are still lined with myriad clones of all three stories. And the forties made a brisk boxoffice business out of heroes and heroines obsessing over dead females and their portraits ... Laura, Portrait of Jennie.
Rebecca does a fine job of keeping its psychological undercurrents on the move, with various kinds of suspense sneaking in from the sidelines. The slightly suspicious character played by George Sanders is just one of a number of red herrings. The central emphasis on the dead Rebecca and the investigation of Manderlay's secret rooms brings the story as close to a ghost tale as a non-supernatural movie can. And the 'evil' Mrs. Danvers - is she a product of an impressionable woman's insecurity? Or something much worse? The story is so powerful that even a horror-sketch version of it, Riccardo Freda's The Horrible Doctor Hichcock (sic) works like a charm.
While definitely not a showcase for Hitchcock's outer reaches of creativity, Rebecca is an almost flawless technical production, with evocative lighting and camera movement and moving performances. Judith Anderson does the most with a very strange character harboring a possible lesbian affection for the dead Rebecca. Laurence Olivier has hardly to flex his acting muscles to create the best brooding Byronic figure in the movies. Although she has the full support of Hitchcock's camera, it is Fontaine who has every female in the audience solidly behind her when she finally (an hour into the film) asserts herself with her own tyrannical servant. It's just the beginning of the film's refined catfight.
Anchor Bay's DVD of Rebecca is the equal of the other titles in their David O. Selznick collection. Clean and glossy, it's a big improvement over previous lasers and beat-up television prints. There's no trailer or other extras. There must be more books on Hitchcock than any other director, should one become curious about the making of the film.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Rebecca rates:
Movie: Very Good
Packaging: Alpha case
Reviewed: March 10, 2001