Although I believe that Hitchcock would go on to make much greater films, I think that Rebecca is one of the most beautifully shot and memorably acted works of his career. The question today is whether or not it’s flaws outweigh it’s strengths.
Effectively, Rebecca is a ghost story. A short time after the death of his wife, the troubled Maxim de Winter (played with austerity by Laurence Olivier) takes a new wife (Joan Fontaine) whom he brings to his shadowy manor in England. She cannot live up to the expectations imposed by the service staff, including Judith Danvers playing one of the creepiest villains I have ever seen. Their friends and family persistently compare the new Mrs de Winter with the deceased Mrs de Winter, and we increasingly feel that Rebecca de Winter still lingers in the household. Though dead, her presence is unshakeable.
My initial reaction is to try understand how we are to respond to the new Mrs de Winter and to think about her in the context of identity. Unnamed in both book and film, she functions as a kind of canvas, a blank fixture which invites us to project our own identity. We experience Manderlay through her eyes; she is us. Yet as much as we are to project ourselves onto her, she also comes to embody the attitudes of the Manderlay household, being subtly moulded into her predecessor. Who is this woman? The plot doesn’t need her, she just gives the audience a way in. She is nobody…like the prior Mrs de Winter, she is a ghost.
The problem here is that this makes her quite flat and boring. Mrs de Winter doesn’t have much of a personality and because the film never quite reaches a climax equal to Vertigo or Rope, we’re left wondering why on earth we cared about her in the first place.
Speaking of the climax, this is another of the film’s weaker components. Signalled by a series of revelations about what has truly become of Rebecca de Winter, the final scene reveals her solemn and lonely secret. The issue is that the film grinds to a halt to reveal the succession of facts and past events, resulting in very little screen action. In fact, anything which happens is merely described, effectively removing any sort of threat or excitement we may have had seeing these events played out. Nothing really happens at the height of the film other than old men talking about stuff that’s already happened. Not particularly interesting.
And yet the visuals are truly stunning. Massive gothic architecture dominates Manderlay Manor, complete with flaming candles and billowing curtains. Mrs Danvers, the scary housemaid, is dark and chilling as she swoops through the corridors. And Laurence Olivier, nominated for an Academy Award for his performance, demonstrates why he is revered as one of the greatest actors of the twentieth century – watch this space (although quietly I wished that Clarke Gable was playing the role…what a hunk).
As a first time watch I found Rebecca more of a curiousity than a consummate example of Hitchcock’s work. He would go on to do everything he does here again, only a bit better. Still, there was no way of knowing that Hitchcock would carry on for another thirty years making better and better films, so the fact that this picture was honoured so early in his American career is testimony to his pedigree as one of the greatest film directors in memory.