Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first American film, which was produced under David O’Selznick. Due to O’Selznick’s influence/insistence, Hitchcock stayed more faithful to the original story in Rebecca than he does in any other book/film adaptation that I’ve watched so far.
Rebecca begins in Monte Carlo where Maxim de Winter of Manderly is vacationing. There he meets a young woman, who shortly thereafter becomes his bride. However, she is not the first Mrs. de Winter. The one before her tragically met her death at sea. Once the blissful newness of matrimony wears off, Mrs. de Winter finds herself haunted by Rebecca. She imagines that everyone, including her husband, is constantly weighing her inadequacies again the perfection that must have embodied the luxurious Rebecca. One phrase that plagues her;
“I suppose he just can’t get over his wife’s death. They say he simply adored her.”
Mrs. Van Hopper is the first minor character to whom we are introduced. She is the employer of the future Mrs. de Winter and she is the reason why the young heroine is in Monte Carlo. Mrs. Van Hopper was just how I’d imagined her while I was reading! She is so aptly portrayed by Florence Bates in the film. She is one of those maddening characters who is too amusing to hate! She’s obnoxious, snobbish, and overwhelmed with her own false sense of importance. She’s so concerned with the propriety – or lack thereof – of others that she fails to see her own vulgarity. I wanted to dislike her – but at the same time I couldn’t imagine the book or the film without her. She also provides a stark contrast to the heroine, the nameless Mrs. de Winter. The young girl’s nervous and timid ways are even more blatant, standing next to the likes of Mrs. Van Hopper.
Maxim de Winter, on the other hand, was not quite like I pictured him. In the film, he quickly jumps from cold and stern to gentle and affectionate. While in the book, he is more distant than stern and less forthcoming with his affections until near the resolution of the novel. The opening scene of the film sets Maxim up to be blunt and severe when we see him standing on the edge of a cliff, facing thunderous waves. After the young heroine yells out to him, thinking that he’s going to jump, he fiercely scolds her. In the novel, we do get a sense of his emotional distance in the beginning but he is far more complacent.
Joan Fontaine aptly maintains many of the mannerisms of du Maurier’s Mrs. de Winter with her nervous nail biting, her awkwardness, and her near painful timidity. Though they may have tried to make Joan Fontaine appear physically plain with her simple hair style and un-frilly clothes – well, come on! It’s Joan Fontaine; she can only be but so homely. And let’s not forget that we’re talking about Hitchcock. Would he have cast an unattractive woman in a leading role? Scandalous!
Finally, there’s Mrs. Danvers, the head housekeeper. She is the creepiest character in book and contributes to some truly chilling scenes in the film. Judith Anderson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the dark and sinister Ms. Danvers.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again . . .
Oh, Manderley! Manderly was just as it should be – a breathtakingly massive gothic stone structure – tousled and unkempt on the perimeter but pristine beyond the gates. The setting is brooding and atmospheric and even if you didn’t already know that you were watching a thriller of sorts, you’d feel it from the grey looming mists.
The ending is less dramatic in the film than in the book, however, this is due more to Hollywood film regulations at the time than to Hitchcock’s direction ***SPOILER ALERT***Those who have read the novel know that in the end we find out that Maxim actually despised, rather than adored, Rebecca and that he is the one who killed her. However, regulations at the time would not allow a film to depict a man who had murdered his wife to go unpunished, therefore it is said to have been an accident. In that way, the film does not pack quite the same punch as the book. I always thought it so curious that the Mrs. de Winter of the novel actually seemed relieved that Maxim had murdered Rebecca since that meant that he didn’t really love her. It didn’t seem to bother her in the slightest that she was married to a man who was capable of taking another human life, even if that person was as duplicitous and vile as Rebecca turned out to be.
Rebecca is the only one of Hitchcock’s films that won an Oscar. I’ve always found this fact to be a bit beyond my comprehension as his films – particularly North by Northwest and Vertigo – are some of the best ever made.
Rebecca, though not his finest work, still ranks high among Hitchcock’s best films.