Gothic Romance (Rebecca)
Rebecca returns to Manderley
Rebecca was relatively faithful to its source, the novel by Daphne du Maurier, a British author Hitchcock returned to decades later when he made The Birds from one of her stories. Rebecca is like a Bronte sisters Gothic romance transposed to the 20th century, featuring an innocent heroine who marries a strange brooding man, who brings her to his castle by the roiling sea. The servants, especially the housekeeper, are holding secrets.
As with all the great films from the period, Rebecca is a masterful combination of a
smart script spoken by superb actors playing memorable characters in an
unforgettable setting. Joan Fontaine, an unknown actress when chosen as the
unnamed protagonist, brought a fresh and natural presence to the screen. Much
like her contemporary, Ingrid Bergman, Fontaine was the antithesis of the
Maxim de Winter, the man who rescues her from the drudgery of serving as paid companion to an American snob, corresponds to the fairytale prince in love with the servant girl but also to the haunted men with dark pasts of Gothic fiction. He is played by the great Laurence Olivier as moody and mysterious, barely keeping his demons in their bottles. The cork keeps popping whenever a stray word or reference triggers an angry sulk or an explosive outburst.
The menacing housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is a grim
and unsmiling killjoy fanatically devoted to Rebecca, “the first Mrs. de
Winter,” as she calls her.
Rebecca stands apart from most of Hitchcock’s films. There is relatively little suspense and less humor than usual. Encouraged by the film’s hands-on producer, David O. Selznick, Hitchcock suffused Rebecca with a lush atmosphere of obsession and dread, often visualized in scenes where the second Mrs. de Winter appears bound in cages of shadow as she explores the twilight chambers of Manderley.