Wednesday, July 05, 2006

REBECCA - a classic Hitchcock thriller

As part of its programme of rescuing old, withering prints, the British Film Institute has restored and re-issued the classic Hitchcock movie, REBECCA. Based on the best-selling novel by Daphne du Maurier, the movie is a dark psychological thriller, despite its veneer of Cinderella-ish charm. A pathetic young paid-companion is on holiday in Monte Carlo with a snobbish fat American. She meets a charming English aristocrat called Maxim de Winter, who proposes to her and takes her back to his country house, Manderlay, in Cornwall. There, she finds she is unsuited to the duties of lady of the manor and is paranoid that she is constantly being compared to Maxim’s first wife, Rebecca, and being found wanting. The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, and Rebecca’s sleazy cousin, Jack Favell, play on this insecurity. Indeed, Favell goes further, accusing Maxim of murdering Rebecca, leading to a court case.

What works in the transition from book to screen is almost entirely down to Hitchcock. Few know better how to combine cinematography, editing and score to create an atmosphere of brooding tension, paranoia and, finally, evil. However, the movie is also notable for its superlative casting. Joan Fontaine is wonderfully insipid as the unnamed – I hesitate to say “heroine” – of the film. Laurence Olivier is suitably dashing although perhaps not quite dark enough. Judith Anderson gives an iconic performance, in no part thanks to an iconic costume design, as Mrs Danvers. And George Sanders pulls off the fine balance between dandy and threat in his portrayal of Favell. If there is any fault to be found in the film, it is in the two changes in plot from novel to screen. Both serve to increase the gushing-romance-quota. In the novel one feels sympathy for the second Mrs de Winter but never empathy. By contrast, I imagine that a large part of the movie’s success is exactly that women want to empathise with her: they want to become the pillar of support for the dashing Laurence Olivier character. This is a great shame and serves to remind us that Hollywood was imposing formulae on dark material well before plastic teen-horror was invented. However, for all of the studio’s tampering this remains a gripping and superbly executed movie. It is well worth viewing on the big screen.

REBECCA was originally released in 1940 and won a clutch of Oscars. It is currently on re-release in the UK.


  1. You have blogs! The last time I checked I seem to have found none. And yay, movies!

    I had to study this film in English class a year ago. I found the novel a creepy, guilty-pleasure sort of affair that was quite enjoyable. The film made me want to hide away. Quite possibly because the combined efforts of Joan Fontaine in this and Jane Eyre put me off her work - I use the term loosely - forever.

    this remains a gripping and superbly executed movie.

    It has touches of brilliance that I do love. I'll never be able to watch it again, though. I think I engaged with it a little too much.

  2. It is interesting to mention Jane Eyre in the context of a discussion of Rebecca. The narrator of Rebecca is my least favourite heroine in English Literature after Fanny Price.

  3. All Fanny's give female emancipation a bad name. Wasn't it another limpid Fanny who got knocked up Terrence Stamp in Madding Crowd?