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Rebecca is dead, but her room is the same.
The servants still miss her and whisper her name.
Her husband is grieving, and tries to move on,
But Mrs. de Winter is not fully gone.
Her secrets remain, as do Mr. de Winter’s,
Secrets that torture him daily like splinters.
His new wife is innocent, nervous, and shy;
She shouldn’t learn them, nor understand why.
But secrets have habits of being found out,
Casting suspicion and panic and doubt.
Rebecca is dead, Mrs. Danvers knows well,
And yet Manderley is still under her spell.

After seeing Hitchcock’s last great film based off a Daphne du Maurier story (The Birds), I thought I’d see his first great American film based off a Daphne du Maurier story, Rebecca. A Gothic tale with distinct similarities to Jane Eyre, Rebecca won the 1940 Academy Award for Best Picture and was indeed far better than a certain disliked competitor (ahem, The Philadelphia Story.)

Laurence Olivier is both dashing and brusque as Maxim de Winter, a widower haunted by the loss of his first wife Rebecca. When he runs into the lovely Joan Fontaine, her naiveté and complete contrast to Rebecca attract him, and a somewhat comedic whirlwind romance makes the unnamed heroine the second Mrs. de Winter. When they return to de Winter’s sprawling estate of Manderley, his new bride begins to feel more and more uncomfortable as semi-famous villain Mrs. Danvers psychologically torments her with unfortunate comparisons. By the end, the narrative takes some unexpected twists that either improve or destroy certain characters.

In contrast to many old Gothic films (like Merle Oberon’s laughable scenes in 1939’s Wuthering Heights), Rebecca avoids old-fashioned histrionics and provides some genuinely great performances from Olivier, Fontaine, and Dame Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers, the black-clothed matron with an unhealthy fascination with her late employer. (My VC became frustrated with Fontaine’s constant timidity, but I thought it was handled well, considering her age and limited experience. Her apprehensions are much like a child’s, like when she accidentally breaks a statue and hides it, only to feel and look foolish when the truth comes out.) The film transitions thrice, first from an unexpected romance to a dark psychological mystery and then to a whodunit in which the audience actually hopes the investigation is unsuccessful. That’s no mean feat, and Hitchcock’s direction creates just the right aura of intrigue, meant to fascinate and frighten both the protagonist and the audience. While it owes much to past classics of the genre and the ending is a bit abrupt, Rebecca promised that America could expect some great things from Alfred Hitchcock.

Best line: (Mrs. Van Hopper, the heroine’s employer) “Most girls would give their eyes for the chance to see Monte [Carlo]!”   (Maxim de Winter) “Wouldn’t that rather defeat the purpose?”

Rank: List Runner-Up

© 2015 S. G. Liput

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