“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…” ~ Joanne Fontaine in Rebecca
In normal circumstances, voice-over introductions rarely resonate but for some reason, the ethereal tones of Joan Fontaine opening Rebecca leave a lasting impact and that’s after well nigh 80 years.
This was Alfred Hitchcock’s first film in Hollywood and it truly is a stunning debut but if you take a step back and see who was working behind the scenes, it soon because fairly plain that this was as much of a David O. Selznick film as it was a Hitchcock one, if not more so. Because Selznick had Hitch under contract and he was following up the grandeur of Gone with the Wind (1939) with another costume drama positioned to be a smash hit.
Though Rebecca was slightly less ornate and preoccupied with its more gothic sensibilities, Daphne du Maurier’s novel was nevertheless ripe for a Selznick treatment with a sturdily constructed story and quality production values all across. And of course, you have the acting talent which while not necessarily head and shoulders above all of Hitch’s previous works was nevertheless top of the line.
First, of course, is Laurence Olivier providing a great deal of import to the part of one of our protagonists, George Fortescue Maximilian De Winter, the tortured man of breeding whose life is stricken with past tragedies. But equally crucial is Joan Fontaine’s role as the unnamed woman who subsequently becomes the second Mrs. De Winter after a whirlwind courtship in Monte Carlo. She began as the meek lady in waiting for a boorish socialite Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper only to fall in love with the older man.
Fontaine inhabits the role with a breathless wide-eyed timidity that’s immediately attractive and makes her the object of our sympathies. She always gives off the appearance of a frazzled little deer in the headlights like she doesn’t quite know what to say or what to do in the presence of others whom she deems more important than herself.
It’s that very quality that drew me to Fontaine from the outset the first time I saw Rebecca and no doubt a similar quality that draws Maxim de Winter to her character. There’s an undeniable innocence there full of an angelic beauty that exerts itself each time she interacts with others, eyes wide with mouth agape. That in itself is an immaculate illusion given Fontaine’s own life full of estrangement. Here she is faultless and demure.
And that comes into focus even more clearly because Maxim can often be an unfeeling man, swarmed with past demons though he might be. Put them together and he’s certainly the dominant figure. The same goes for their arrival at his stately home Manderley. The current Mrs. De Winters is totally overwhelmed by this grand estate and the staff that frequent its halls.
The shining example is the apparition of a housekeeper Ms. Danvers (Judith Anderson) and it’s a career-defining role for a character actress who always could be imperious and a little unscrupulous. But she was never as harrowing as the fiercely loyal woman who starts playing mind games with her new employer.
You also have the incomparable George Sanders playing his English gentleman with biting wit and a touch of blackmail. He becomes pivotal to the story for the very sake that he speaks up on the deceased Rebecca’s behalf as much as Mrs. Danvers does. They adored this woman that Maxim loathed so deeply by the end of their relationship. And it’s in this chafing that the ultimate conflict is uncovered — the type of conflict that threatens to rip Maxim away from his new love and splatter his reputation in the courtroom drama that ensues.
Much like Laura (1944) in her eponymous film, Rebecca lingers over the entire narrative and haunts its frames from start to finish. Yet in the latter work of Otto Preminger, the lady actually makes an appearance on screen incarnated by the entrancing Gene Tierney.
Here Rebecca is a specter who never tries to show herself. There is no physical semblance of her, only signs and references of her being — most memorably the scripted letter “R.” Because, truthfully, she doesn’t need to show her face. She almost wields more power without being seen. It’s that rather unnerving feeling of impending dread that’s hanging over the audience as much as it does Mrs. De Winter.
In the end, Hitchcock didn’t exactly get the murder that he would have liked but in any case, it does not fully take away from the impact of Rebecca. Instead of being a film of overt actions it starts to work on our psyches as a sterling psychological exercise matched by its deliciously dark atmosphere. The mental distress is heightened by the eerie interiors marked by layers of shadow and the shrouded impressionistic seaside that envelops the De Winter compound. Fittingly, Manderley is razed to the ground once and for all.
Ironically enough, though the production is very much on the Hollywood scale, it’s probably the most “British” film that Hitchcock ever made in America based on not only the subject matter but the majority of the acting talent because on top of Olivier and Sanders you have such esteemed character actors as C. Aubrey Smith, Nigel Bruce, Melville Cooper, and Leo G. Carroll (a Hitchcock favorite).
Still, he was blessed with the best talent he had at his disposal since the infancy of his career, in part because of his move across the Atlantic. Joan Harrison who would become one of the most prominent and only female producers in Hollywood turned in work on the script along with Robert E. Sherwood with the score being composed by Hollywood icon Franz Waxman. Even if the players at work are not necessarily evocative of the many trademarks we usually attribute to the director, that hardly makes Rebecca any less of a delight.
Furthermore, there is something inherently honest about the lead portrayals throughout the film. Not necessarily because they’re realistic but they are full of fear and hatred and emotion and you see it in the words and on the faces of the characters. This is hardly a playful film. It’s not trying to subvert drama with humor or dry tonal reversals. But it’s candid in its despair as much as in its joy.
For all their intrigues and complexities in technical feats, storytelling, and psychology, sincerity is not always something you look for in a Hitchcock picture. Here it works. Casting this devasting love story up against the backdrop of gothic horror makes it all the more affecting. The marriage of the talents of David O Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock turns out to be a surprisingly bountiful proposition. Even if it wasn’t made to last.