It seems inconceivable that the great Alfred Hitchcock only earned one Academy Award for Best Director and only one film named Best Picture. That’s the reality, however and Rebecca is as fine a film as any for such a deserving distinction. With one of the most memorable characters on film, Mrs. Danvers, Hitchcock’s thriller with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, in an Oscar-winning performance, holds up as a fascinating entre into the tales of love and death, past and present.
While on vacation on the Côte d’Azure, Maxim DeWinter meets the companion of an elderly, wealthy American named Mrs. Van Hooper. As is usually the case in these ‘rich and poor’ love stories, we know that the wealthy DeWinter will surely fall in love with the simple woman beholden to Van Hooper, who’s brought the young woman to such an enclave of wealth and influence.
Maxim and his new wife return to Mandalay, his family home, and Mrs. DeWinter quickly sees, hears, and feels the presence of his deceased wife Rebecca, all around the estate. When she explores her library, she sees monogrammed stationary with RDW beautifully embossed on the paper. In her bedroom, she find a lovely embroidered pillowcase with the same RDW initials. In fact, the viewer never learns Joan Fontaine’s character’s name. She is only referred to as Mrs. DeWinter. Even when working for Mrs. Van Hopper, she’s never spoken to by name. It is as if she is void of any personality, any humanity until she is married. And even then, she is a wife. She never has her own identity like Rebecca did and seemingly still does.
In this nameless existence, Mrs. DeWinter finds herself constantly compared to Rebecca by her personal maid, Mrs. Danvers. Judith Anderson creates one of cinema’s most compelling and chilling characters as the stilted, cold woman who once fiercely loved Rebecca and, arguably, still does. This tension between Mrs. Danvers’s loyalty to Rebecca and her new duty to Mrs. DeWinter leads to a crisis between husband and wife, similar to the tension between Maxim and Rebecca that ultimately led to the end of their marriage. Although a slower burn than other films like Psycho and North by Northwest, Rebecca is a classic Hitchcock film– full of intrigue, oddities, fine performances, and (of course) expert direction.
Rebecca (1940) 130 minutes. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson, George Sanders.