“He had a theory that if you should find one perfect thing, or place or person, you should stick to it. Do you think that’s very silly?”
Rebecca snatches from a lot of classic literature in true Gothic style. At times, I felt I was reading Jane Eyre, with its mysterious, brooding man elevating a girl of charming lower class through marriage, only for her to find he has kept dark secrets. So, then, I also felt as though I was watching A Place in the Sun (based on a classic 1925 novel), with its desperate plea for a happy ending, even though the past has yet to catch up with its protagonist. Rarely did I feel like I was watching Psycho or North by Northwest, although I was just as entertained, speaking to Hitchcock’s mastery of cinematic storytelling.
A charming but naïve young woman (Joan Fontaine) finds work in Monte Carlo where she meets the handsome aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). They fall in love and marry, only for the newly titled “Mrs. de Winter” to find that she is constantly compared to Maxim’s former wife, the original “Mrs. de Winter.” Everyone in the manor seems to question the new wife’s place as a housekeeper, especially the cold, calculating housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) who seems to be undermining Mrs. de Winter at ever turn, furious at her attempt to replace a woman she deemed superior.
The central theme is duality of identity, and its repercussions. The protagonist is only named Mrs. de Winter, while the original Mrs. de Winter is granted a first name. Meanwhile, Mr. de Winter has a handful of first names, rattling them off jokingly as if he has many to spare. This duality is represented in countless ways throughout the film, such as the East wing and West wing where the two wives live in the manor, or even in other characters such as the straight-laced, bitter Mr. de Winter and the scheming, playful villain Jack Favell (George Sanders).
I’ve never been as charmed by the way these sort of movies always seem to end with a legal proceeding. It’s the very classic notion that movies have to tie up every loose end for an undisputed happy ending, and everything past Joan Fontaine’s big confession speech to Mrs. de Winter feels like the weakest part of the movie. It’s satisfying to see their legal battle play out, but it marks a shift from most of the movie that just isn’t as interesting in my opinion. It’s not a major detractor, but I just feel that the soul of the movie comes from Mrs. de Witt’s notions and frustrations surrounding the almost godlike Rebecca, and when the truth is actually revealed, it takes away a lot of the punch.
That being said, I think this is one of Hitchcock’s most refined movies. It’s neat to see him constrained to such a rigid, conventional source material. It brings out a different style of directing when he has to build suspense without killer birds or a psycho killer roaming about. Shots of the manor are beautiful, but he also does a great job at making Mrs. de Witt feel small by presenting such a large, vacuous space. He also provides pivotal character information through his direction alone, even when those details aren’t mentioned until later (with Jack Favell and Mrs. Danvers being prime examples).
I think I’ll always enjoy looser, zanier narratives more than a conventional romantic drama, but as much as my own personal tastes are holding me back, I still found myself captivated by large portions of Rebecca. It’s a hypnotic film that feels loaded with stakes and marks unquestionable Hitchcockian talent. It impressed me less with its action and more with its “in betweens,” and I’ll always take that as a sign of a great film.
Films Left to Watch: 842