Rebecca (1940) *****
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
The title character of Hitchcock’s Rebecca is one of the most hateful and loathsome villains in movie history. Yet, no actress can claim the role as her own. Why? Because Rebecca is dead well before the film takes place. Rebecca is the name of the deceased wife of Maxim de Winter, the owner of the Manderlay estate. Maxim is played by the great Lawrence Olivier as a suave but sad man who falls for a young, sweet and innocent companion to a very mean woman, played wonderfully by Florence Bates. This young woman becomes the new Mrs. De Winter. With her new name, she must deal with constant comparisons to Rebecca, described as smart and beautiful. Mrs. De Winter, played exquisitely by Joan Fontaine, never had much of a sense of self-confidence, and having to be compared to someone so seemingly perfect just makes life very unhappy for her.
We are introduced to the house staff, headed by Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). Mrs. De Winter rightly thinks that Mrs. Danvers doesn’t like her. As Fontaine’s character meets those who know Maxim and knew Rebecca well, she learns that she is to be careful of Maxim’s violent temper. Mrs. De Winter feels trapped and haunted by the lingering presence of Rebecca that exists, not as a ghost, but in the affection of everyone around her, especially Maxim.
In the young woman’s mind, Maxim still loves Rebecca. Confirmation of this seems to continue over and over as Maxim grows more distant the more Mrs. De Winter inquires about and tries to take the place of Rebecca.
I could see the ending coming from far away. At least I thought I could. After a boat is found with a corpse in it (Rebecca’s body was found and identified a few years prior), the entire movie takes on a completely different twist. Characters we thought were bad become good and the focus of the story moves completely away from one character and onto another. I’m so glad the film did this, because I loved Joan Fontaine’s character and though she may not be the most important character in the film, I loved spending time with her journey into this most peculiar of situations.
For a film from 1940, Rebecca tackles some pretty provocative storylines. Mrs. Danvers is obviously a lesbian and a crazy one at that. When she shows Mrs. De Wilde Rebecca’s underwear drawer, I was amazed that the film wasn’t trying for any subtext. The homosexual undertones were blatant. While by today’s standards this plot point would not be very shocking, watching the film brought me back to a more innocent time in movies before graphic violence, bad language and nudity were commonplace. So when the film went for it all the way regarding the same-sex attraction, I was deeply surprised and ultimately impressed.
Rebecca takes the viewer on a clear journey for quite a while before abruptly driving down a different road. Even after the twist, we continue to be surprised. When I realized that I was wrong at first about where the movie was heading, I quickly changed my guess and figured it would be about the horrible ways characters need to cover up a crime. Mrs. De Winter is so good and pure throughout that I believed a contrast was inevitable. She would have to be corrupted. Well, actually, no. The film once again changes direction allowing Mrs. De Winter to remain a protagonist.
I’m noticing a pattern in Hitchcock movies regarding flawed women trapped in dangerous or terrible situations. Rebecca does include the woman trapped, but she really isn’t flawed much at all. This is the first Hitchcock heroine that I fully embraced. Even Janet Leigh in Psycho and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious have dark sides. If the fate of Mrs. De Winter was to become a monster, then Rebecca would have won. Ultimately, Rebecca loses big time! Her manipulative and evil nature pushes someone over the edge causing this character to do something crazy by the very end of the movie. Of course, I don’t believe in vigilante justice, but here is one of the few deceased characters that I’m glad finally got what she deserved!