Last night I saw Rebecca again.
Really; I’m not trying to be corny, but that’s it. I was in the mood for a Hitchcock film, and having recently seen Pride and Prejudice again, I was also very keen on watching more of Olivier’s work. So Rebecca it was. Based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel, this was Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film, even though it’s set in England (in Cornwall, to be precise) and has an almost totally British cast.
The film begins with one of the most famous opening lines in literature: “Last night I dreamt of Manderley again,” with the camera moving slowly across the ruins of a palatial mansion, shrouded in gloom and mist. After an initial couple of minutes in which it is established that Manderley is now dead and gone forever, the story moves into flashback, to glittery Monte Carlo. Bossy, pretentious social climber Edythe van Hopper (Florence Bates) is holidaying in Monte Carlo with her young paid companion (Joan Fontaine—as in the book, this character’s first name is never revealed).
One evening at the hotel, Mrs van Hopper pounces on a passing guest, the handsome and wealthy George Fortescue Maximilian `Max’ de Winter, whom she recalls having met some years back. Her companion recognises Max as being the man whom she halted on the verge of committing suicide by leaping off the cliff. She doesn’t say anything, though. In any case, the nasty Mrs van Hopper is talking enough for the three of them, and is unforgivably nasty to her companion—so much so that Max, disgusted, leaves.
The next day, Mrs van Hopper has a cold and takes to her bed, leaving her companion to spend her time as she wishes. The girl, a painfully shy, somewhat butterfingered and ingenuous creature, is soon befriended by Max de Winter. They spend most of their days together, until one fine day Mrs van Hopper suddenly announces that she’s received news that her daughter’s got engaged—so they must leave.
Mrs van Hopper’s companion, distraught, makes an excuse to slip back into the hotel and rushes to tell Max, whom she fears she’ll never see again. Max ends up proposing to her, and the girl’s delirious with joy—so happy, in fact, that when Mrs van Hopper turns up and tells the girl (in Max’s absence) that she will never be able to take the place of Max’s elegant and well-bred first wife, the girl’s not bothered.
They go off and get married, and after a wonderful honeymoon, Max brings his bride to his home, the brooding seaside castle of Manderley in Cornwall. Mrs de Winter is awestruck and even frightened by the house. Just about everything within Manderley intimidates her: the servants lined up to greet her, the long table at which she’s expected to dine, the spooky west wing, now kept locked up… and most of all, the obviously disapproving housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson).
It is Mrs Danvers who tells the new Mrs de Winter, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that she’s not a patch on Rebecca, the first Mrs de Winter. Rebecca, it transpires, had everything one could want of a perfect wife: brains, beauty and breeding. Max adored her, and after she drowned in a sailing accident the previous year—her body was found washed up at Edgecoombe, and was duly identified by Max—he hasn’t been the same.
And Rebecca, realises Mrs de Winter with dismay, is still everywhere. The desk in the morning room has her monogrammed stationery:
The napkin on her plate is embroidered with Rebecca’s initials:
And she is too girlish, too clumsy and incapable of taking Rebecca’s place. Max himself treats her like a child. He doesn’t seem to want his new wife to make any attempt at being the `great lady’—in fact, he isn’t at all enthusiastic when she gets herself a fashionable new gown and does her hair differently. Rebecca, realises her successor, was inimitable; nothing she can ever do will match up to Rebecca.
Max’s sister Beatrice (Gladys Cooper), a forthright and frank person who comes by on a visit, warms to her new sister-in-law, but admits that Rebecca’s death has changed Max. Max’s estate manager, Frank Crawley (Reginald Denny), when pressured by the new Mrs de Winter, admits that Rebecca was “the most beautiful woman he had ever seen”. He also tells her that Mrs Danvers was devoted to Rebecca.
And there are other people and other places too that begin to prey on our timid heroine’s mind. Down by the seashore, much to Max’s annoyance, his new wife discovers a cottage now occupied by the half-insane Ben (Leonard Carey). The cottage, it turns out, was used by Rebecca off and on: she was an avid sailor and loved to spend time there. Ben asks, apropos of nothing, that “she won’t come back, will she?” and insists that he doesn’t know anything.
Then there’s the suave but slimy Jack Favell (George Sanders), Rebecca’s cousin, who turns up one day while Max is away. He’s on the best of terms with Mrs Danvers—whom he calls `Danny’—and seems to have had an affection for Rebecca that went beyond the merely cousinly. Favell persuades Mrs de Winter to hide the news of his visit from Max, because it’ll disturb him.
The person most disturbed by all this is Mrs de Winter herself. Mrs Danvers shows her Rebecca’s old rooms, still maintained exactly as they were when she was alive. She shows off Rebecca’s dresses, the expensive furs gifted by Max; she recounts Rebecca’s cheerfulness and love of life; the parties the de Winters went to and hosted… Mrs Danvers, in fact, insists she can still feel Rebecca’s presence in the house. Her new mistress is not merely shaken by all of this; she’s close to panic.
But Max’s wife rallies around and tries to assert herself. All that she’s seen and heard has convinced her that she can never win Max’s love—that is Rebecca’s—but she can be mistress of Manderley. So she persuades Max (after much resistance from him) to let her host a costume ball. She’s undecided about what her costume will be, but Mrs Danvers makes a suggestion: a dress painted on a portrait of one of Max’s ancestors would be perfect.
Mrs de Winter agrees, and is too excited to let anyone but her maid know what she’s going to be dressed as. On the night of the costume ball, having stopped even Beatrice from seeing her, Mrs de Winter comes down the stairs in her costume—and runs into the wrath of her husband. Max is furious at her, and tells her to go change into anything she has. Beatrice, solicitous, explains: Rebecca had worn the same costume once.
And while Mrs de Winter, sobbing and half-hysterical, changes her clothes, there’s a sudden disaster by the seashore near Manderley: a ship’s in trouble. Max, his guests, servants and other people from the vicinity go down to the shore to help—and by the time Mrs de Winter arrives, a diver has gone down below the ship to help in salvaging it: and he’s made an interesting discovery. Rebecca de Winter’s sailing boat is lying below the waves, and there’s a body inside it…
This is probably too well-known a story for me to need to say more, but if you haven’t seen it, do so.
Hitchcock at his best. It did, in fact, win an Oscar for Best Picture.
What I liked about this film:
The atmosphere. Hitchcock uses vignettes: Rebecca’s dog Jasper sitting outside what used to be her room; the monogrammed pillowcase; the porcelain cupid that Mrs de Winter knocks over—to create a picture of a timid girl haunted by her husband’s past. And Mrs Danvers’s pokerfaced (yet deeply emotional) recollections of Rebecca are a fine example of the effectiveness of suggestion. I’d never imagined a memory of brushing someone’s hair as she laughed and talked could be so eerily recounted.
The acting. George Sanders is excellent as the oily Favell, as is Judith Anderson as the supercilious Mrs Danvers. And Laurence Olivier—another of my favourites—is brilliant.
What I didn’t like:
Not much. Rebecca is, overall, a superb film. But yes, I do think Joan Fontaine’s acting could’ve been a little more restrained in a couple of scenes. There are places where I found myself thinking that even if somebody had been as shy, timid and eager to please as the second Mrs de Winter, she wouldn’t have behaved the way she did at times. Just slightly over the top.
Forgivable, though. Especially as the rest of it—the story with its sudden twists, Laurence Olivier, the supporting actors, etc—fits in together so well. Excellent, and much recommended.
By the way, I first saw Rebecca when I was a child, well over 25 years ago. And I still remember large sections of it, which just goes to show.