1940: Rebecca

(Originally published July 18, 2012)

This 1940 Best Picture Winner never promises to be cheerful.  In fact, several characteristics converge to create a rather foreboding impression from the very beginning:

  1. It is directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
  1. It is based on a Gothic novel (Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, which, coincidentally, I read as a sophomore in high school and didn’t understand a whit.  We’ll see how it goes in DVD form…).
  1. The black and white film opens with a dream sequence marked by moonlight, fog, dense forest, and castle ruins.

However, these features also form the foundation for a mysterious, meaningful story of healing, restoration, and love.  One thing I really enjoy about watching these old films is that I have no expectations.  I don’t hear my friends’ opinions and I have no grasp of the plot except the summary on the back of the DVD cover.  Sometimes this makes it challenging for me to engage in the story, but more often it just means I am pleasantly surprised.

In the case of the Gothic Rebecca, I wouldn’t use the adverb “pleasantly” although I was often surprised.  I especially liked how the film explores psychopathology.  It adds to the depth of character development and illuminates motives.  It gives the audience a better understanding of why things are happening.

The story opens in Monte Carlo, with the young, unnamed narrator (Joan Fontaine) serving as a paid companion to an older lady.  While there, she quickly falls in love with Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), who is attempting to brood over the loss of his wife to the sea a year previous, and he falls in love right back.  He takes his new bride back to his country estate, and the fairy tale ends there.

The young Mrs. de Winter finds herself living in the eerie shadow of her predecessor.  The servants revere the memory of the beautiful, lively, stately Rebecca de Winter and the entire west wing of the manor remains untouched.  Rebecca even still has a hold on Maxim.

The creepiest is the head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.  Oh she is cordial enough when the newlyweds first arrive, but as the plot progresses, the evil glint in Mrs. Danvers eye grows more and more apparent.  Straight-up obsession.  She speaks softly, never smiles, beguiling.  She made my blood boil and my hair stand on end.   She knows when Mrs. de Winter has moved Rebecca’s hairbrush slightly on the vanity.  And she calmly moves it back.  She whispers suicidal encouragement into Mrs. de Winter’s ear as they stand beside an open window in Rebecca’s old room, “It would be so easy…why don’t you just do it…it would be so easy…go one now…”  Hella creepy.

The DVD synopsis is a little erroneous; it states that the young Mrs. de Winter begins to grow mad in the house where Rebecca clearly still reigns.  I would suggest that it is actually Mrs. Danvers who reveals her own insanity in the presence of this young woman who threatens the domain of her precious Rebecca.

In a stunning series of twists, capitulated by a midnight shipwreck, identities are clarified, loyalties are strengthened, and true feelings are revealed.  Suspenseful to the end, Maxim de Winter fears for the mortal survival of his young wife and the beautiful manor comes crashing down around insanity incarnate.

Basically, I was on the edge of my seat for the whole second half.  When my husband came home from work, he found me literally leaning forward and unwilling to turn it off.  He wondered what I had done with his wife, totally caught up in the suspenseful grip of a black and white film.  Rotten Tomatoes gives this film a 100%, a practically unheard of rating in comparison to modern films.  And yeah, I didn’t get any of this psychothrill from the book; so glad I gave it a second chance.

Major themes:

  • Love
  • Devotion, all sorts
  • Truth
  • Honor
  • Standing strong
  • Marriage
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