Stream On: Hitchcock, du Maurier and Olivier, the perfect storm of ‘Rebecca’

By on April 13, 2023

Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) began to direct movies in 1925; the Daily Express described him as a “young man with a master mind,” and after a string of successful and innovative films in England, he moved to Hollywood in 1939. There he earned his first and only “Best Picture” Oscar with Rebecca.


/Amazon /Streaming on Roku /Trailer /1949 / 🍅98%🍿92% /NR

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”

Arch-Englishman Hitchcock didn’t easily assimilate into the culture of Hollywood, but he was impressed by the local movie industry’s budgets and efficiency. On the other hand, he remained at loggerheads with hands-on producer David O. Selznick, with whom he had signed a seven-year contract. But in the same way that Orson Welles had his only box-office success when he coöperated with his studio, it’s likely that Selznick’s interference with Hitchcock helped earn iconoclastic Hitch’s only best-picture Oscar. At any rate I believe it taught him some lessons about making successful American movies.

And although Rebecca was filmed in California, it was set in remote Cornwall county, back in England, as was Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 gothic novel.

Rebecca is the story of a young woman (Joan Fontaine, referred to as “the second Mrs. de Winter,” the first-person narrator of the novel) who marries fascinating widower Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier, Wuthering Heights) only to find out that she must live in the shadow of his former wife, Rebecca, who died mysteriously several years earlier.

Fontaine’s character is introduced as the hired “traveling companion” to Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper, an obnoxious, overbearing American woman in Monte Carlo who relentlessly pursues wealthy and famous guests at the various hotels she stays at to boost her own status. Mrs. Van Hopper is unhappy when her young, mousey employee catches the eye of George Fortescue Maximilian “Maxim” de Winter without even trying, and then actually marries him.

Olivier is dead-on as the aristocratic but debonair widower, living alone among others with the memory of his late wife, Rebecca. A tragically romantic figure, he’s chilly but can be charming as though by the flip of a switch when he wants.

After a picturesque whirlwind courtship (Hitchcock dressed his films as beautiful travelogues when the settings were appropriate) during which Max lets down his defenses and solicitously charms his amazed wife-to-be, they wed quickly and retire to Maxim’s stately fairy-tale mansion in Cornwall, “Manderley.” There she meets Mrs. Danvers (a very scary Dame Judith Anderson), the housekeeper, as stern and forbidding a character as ever quashed a dream. There, Mrs. Danvers passively-aggressively dangles the memory of the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, before her, implying that young Mrs. de Winter is only there by some fluke and that she is destined to fail to live up to Rebecca’s memory for the grieving Maxim. “I came here when the first Mrs. de Winter was a bride. I’ve managed the house since Mrs. de Winter’s death and Mr. de Winter has never complained.”

Rebecca’s dog Jasper is even still hanging disconsolately about the place, in mourning for his late mistress.

The second Mrs. de Winter quietly struggles to stay afloat while getting acquainted with and accustomed to the staff and Maxim’s friends. These are universally friendly to her. A roster of great guest stars tramp through Manderley here: George Sanders, as Rebecca’s flippant “favorite cousin” (side-eye emoji here); Leo G. Carroll (Topper), as Rebecca’s doctor; and Nigel Bruce (The Hound of the Baskervilles), as Maxim’s inappropriate but kindly brother-in-law. His wife, Rebecca’s sister, warns Mrs. de Winter about Mrs. Danvers (“She was absolutely devoted to Rebecca”), and we, picturing Mrs. Danvers, tremble.

Eventually constant reminders of Rebecca’s glamor and sophistication convince the new Mrs. de Winter that Maxim is still in love with his first wife, which could explain the irrational outbursts of anger that he still shows. She tries to please him by hosting a costume party as he and Rebecca used to. Danvers suggests she copy the dress that one of Maxim’s ancestors is seen wearing in a portrait. But when she appears in the costume, he’s appalled, as Rebecca had worn an identical dress at her last ball, just before her death.

This triggers the shocking second act, which involves murder—Hitchcock as his fans have come to expect—and riveting up until the roller-coaster ride and fiery resolution of this great movie. The movie was shot and effectively edited “in camera,” that is, Hitchcock exposed film only on what he planned to use, to deny Selznick any opportunity to edit it in the cutting room, and he evidently planned the heck out of it. Two Academy Awards and nine more nominations; and two American Film Institute honors: No. 80 in their 2003 100 Years…100 Thrills list, and Mrs. Danvers was the No. 31 villain in the 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains list.

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