Written by: Robert E. Sherwood & Joan Harrison
Starring: Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison, Judith Anderson, George Sanders
Stepping into a relationship with anyone with a dating history comes with expectations and comparisons based on previous entanglements. Obviously, with the start of a new relationship, it indicates the previous one ended for one reason or another. However, elements of the past can continue to haunt and hamper the future, which Rebecca truly nails down with its creepy mood surrounding mysterious circumstances.
Meeting during the offseason at Monte Carlo, a young woman (Jane Fontaine) and Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) meet, fall in love, and decide to get married. As the new Mrs. de Winter, she learns more about Maxim’s previous wife, Rebecca, who while no longer living continues to have a presence amongst everyone in their home.
Baffling to this day that Rebecca stands as the one and only film by Alfred Hitchcock film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Certainly, one of the very best of Hitchcock’s works, if not widely underseen other than by those who know because of its accolades, this feature proves its worth. It tells its very own haunting story as Hitchcock takes a soapy narrative and adds his very own sense of tension to create something beguiling at times as we try to unearth the truth of this circumstance and exactly what the new Mrs. de Winter has gotten herself into.
The dynamics on display in this film inform plenty about where these characters start and where they end towards the conclusion of the narrative. It begins with a young woman who has nothing truly going for her other than working for a very demanding Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates) allowing her to travel as part of her occupation. She gets presented with the opportunity of a lifetime to marry Maxim and be swept away to a completely different life. Then you have Maxim, still reeling from the death of his first wife with all of the power and notoriety one could dream of but looking for someone to fill this void. It allows their interactions in Monte Carlo to bring them together rapidly, but the feature purposefully makes their connection something never feeling truly organic or potent in their affection. Instead, their dynamic becomes one of necessity under the guise of love even if they believe it to be completely pure.
Reaching the grand estate of Manderlay turns the budding romance formed in Monte Carlo into the beginning of a haunting affair, which includes the introduction of Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). She runs the house and cares not for the new Mrs. de Winter not because of a personal dislike but simply because she’s not Rebecca. This becomes evident very quickly from their first interaction and turns disturbing as the events of the narrative transpire.
Rebecca’s presence remains through every interaction and discussion occurring once the narrative reaches Manderlay. She exists as a ghost and a figure whose name should not be uttered because of what she means to the individuals in the house. We receive bits and pieces of her from her prominent role as the lady of the house and the influence she has on others. So much of it remains mysterious because it comes from so many different second-hand sources beginning to put the pieces together of the reality of who this woman was. Hitchcock creates the tension of the circumstance so well and allows Jane Fontaine to shine in how it has a meaningful impact on her psyche. Several scenes throughout the film have a lasting impact in their effectiveness in creating this haunting atmosphere. A shot displaying a figure through some curtains truly stands out as the defining image of this feature.
With so much praise this film deserves, when it gets to the third act, it begins to falter and ultimately precludes it from being one of Hitchock’s several masterpieces. Examining the plot, the film becomes less about the creepy atmosphere and more so about getting to a truth in a way proving to be wholly uninteresting. It still manages to get told in the best way it possibly could considering the source material provided but when compared to the unparalleled greatness of the first two-thirds, the struggle to get to the finish line slightly diminishes its total potential.
A defining feature and one truly helped along by its director’s mastery of suspense and tension, Rebecca remains an intriguing choice as Hitchcock’s sole Best Picture winner but it certainly deserves the praise it has accumulated. It creates a haunting and intoxicating experience where the new Mrs. de Winter finds herself in a mix of heaven and hell in her new life. The film shows the horrors of trying to live up to an ex-lover who everyone adored and you seemingly have to measure up to but in a much darker and mysterious way.