by Allan Fish
(USA 1940 133m) DVD1/2
The perfect symmetry of those walls
p David O.Selznick d Alfred Hitchcock w Robert Sherwood, Joan Harrison novel Daphne du Maurier ph George Barnes ed Hal C.Kern m Franz Waxman art Lyle Wheeler cos uncredited (probably Walter Plunkett or Irene)
Joan Fontaine (Mrs de Winter), Laurence Olivier (George Fortescue Maximilian “Maxim” de Winter), George Sanders (Jack Favell), Judith Anderson (Mrs Danvers), Nigel Bruce (Maj.Giles Lacy), Gladys Cooper (Beatrice Lacy), Reginald Denny (Frank Crawley), C.Aubrey Smith (Col.Julyan), Florence Bates (Edythe Van Hopper), Leonard Carey (Ben), Leo G.Carroll (Dr Baker), Melville Cooper (coroner), Edward Fielding (Frith), Lumsden Hare (Tabbs), Philip Winter (Robert), Forrester Harvey, Billy Bevan,
Rebecca is a film unlike any other in Hitchcock’s CV. It’s a woman’s picture, when analysed to its basic function, but it’s also a whole lot more besides. It’s suffered more than any other film from the incredible post mortem discussions carried out on Hitchcock’s work. Many now would exclaim that his Rear Window, Vertigo or Psycho have greater depth. Indeed, they are masterpieces all, but as an exercise in direction and use of a studio’s resources, Rebecca is in itself a masterpiece. This is not merely an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Brontëesque romance, but a multi-layered analysis of what it is to be haunted by the past. No other film, not even Vertigo, has the feeling of there being someone else watching, someone dead. When Mrs Danvers says “do you believe the dead come back to watch the living?” you know Rebecca truly does haunt us still.
The story is told in flashback by Mrs de Winter (“last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…)” who recalls how at Monte Carlo she met her husband, an aristocratic English widower still seemingly haunted by his wife’s death. She develops a silly schoolgirl sort of crush on him, falls in love and he takes her out on drives and to dinner. When he actually asks her to marry him, it’s like some modern day fairytale. What she doesn’t seem to recall is that all fairytales have their wicked queen and the trouble really begins back home at Manderley.
Fresh off the back of Gone with the Wind, Selznick was in a position to command the respect of everyone and indeed get anyone to work for him. This was to be Hitch’s first picture, and Olivier’s second in Hollywood following Wuthering Heights. Both wanted a different leading lady to the one they got, with Olivier naturally wanting his wife Vivien Leigh. Joan Fontaine may not have been quite as strong an actress as her sister, Olivia de Havilland, but she was perfect as the young heroine, expressing a wonderful mixture of nervousness and terror at the prospect of being lady of the house, and childish glee at seeing her husband, like a teenage daughter welcoming home daddy from work. Yet Fontaine’s is not the only superb performance here. Olivier may only come to life during the boathouse confession scene, but during and after that he’s electric, Bruce and Cooper play wonderfully to type as the Laceys, Smith as the personification of the 19th hole mentality, Denny everyone’s loyal friend and as for Bates, if any one woman in history deserved to meet Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, it’s her Edythe Van Hopper, as exquisite an excuse for euthanasia as could be offered. Yet it’s the villains of the peace who one always remembers; Sanders perfect as the car salesman (definitely a Bentley sort of a guy) who tells the young bride that “marriage with Max isn’t exactly a bed of roses, is it?” and Anderson iconic as the terrifying vulture of a housekeeper, who just appears into scenes without you noticing, like the Ghost of Manderley Past, and whose lesbian necrophilia for the departed first wife is so blatant as to be impossible to ignore. Yet for all their work, and in spite of the gorgeous photography and score, this is Hitchock’s baby. Never has a British director made a bigger splash in his first Hollywood film and it is, along with Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman (also with Fontaine), the greatest woman’s picture ever made in Hollywood, best seen in Criterion’s wonderful new Region 1 DVD print.