Next to movies like Vertigo, Rear Window or Psycho, Rebecca often seems to be a little forgotten when it comes to Hitchcock-movies but this gothic love story from 1940 holds the distinction of being the only Best Picture winner ever directed by the master of suspense – an honor certainly deserved and Rebecca does not need to hide itself behind the more famous classics by Hitchcock since it is easily among the best he as has ever done.
Rebecca is based on the wonderful novel by Daphne du Maurier and tells the story of a young, shy and nameless woman who marries the wealthy Maxim de Winter and moves into his mansion Manderley. There, she constantly feels the presence of Maxim’s first wife, the beautiful Rebecca who drowned in the sea – a feeling increased by the character of Mrs. Denvers, the creepy housekeeper of Manderley who was lovingly devoted to Rebecca and does her best to keep her memory alive.
Just like most movies by Hitchcock, Rebecca is a masterpiece of quiet suspense – there are no frightening scenes or shocking images but there is still a constant feeling of danger and tension that fills every moment of the story. The image of Mrs. Denvers gliding along the corridors, the constant mention of the name ‘Rebecca’, Maxim’s mysterious character or a wrong dress at the wrong time create an unforgettable aura and turn Rebecca into a true masterpiece.
In a role that could have easily become an annoying collection of nervous tics, Joan Fontaine gives the performance of her career as the insecure and shy second Mrs. de Winter who almost collapses under the pressure of her new life and the memory of her predecessor – mentally and physically. Laurence Olivier is perfect as Maxim de Winter, a man who has learnt to keep every emotion to himself. And Judith Anderson gives one of the great supporting performances as Mrs. Denvers – a part she underplays with so much effect that she becomes an unforgettably eerie creation.
The cinematography and the art direction also help a lot to create the overall atmosphere of the movie. And the screenplay does it best to keep loyal to the novel and make the intentions of the second Mrs. de Winter understandable.
After Maxim’s revelation the whole story unfortunately drops the ghost-like atmosphere to turn into a crime story – but Hitchcock wouldn’t be Hitchcock if he hadn’t been able to tell this part of Rebecca with just as much suspense and tension as everything before.
From the first images of Manderly to the last scene with Judith Anderson – Rebecca is a highly entertaining suspense story and a fascinating character study which brings together some of the best work the talented cast and crew has ever done.