May 21, 2008
Rebecca (1940)
Grade: 97/100

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson

What it's about. Moody but rich and handsome Laurence Olivier encounters timid beauty Joan Fontaine at a resort, where she is a servant girl to loud-mouthed socialite Florence Bates. Olivier is so entranced with Fontaine that he marries her, and takes her to Manderley, his palatial estate in England.

But Cinderella doesn't exactly live happily ever after. The creepy head servant, Judith Anderson, despises Fontaine, because she is taking the place of Olivier's first wife, Rebecca. Rebecca, regaled as the Perfect Woman, died alone in a boating accident not long ago. Rebecca's "cousin", the ever-acerbic George Sanders, also shows up to frighten poor Fontaine. Then there's Olivier's temper, which flares up outrageously without warning.

Other interesting character actors include C. Aubrey Smith, the elderly but active equivalent of sheriff, Nigel Bruce, an affable friend of Olivier's, and Gladys Cooper, who is married to Bruce, apparently for the laughs.

Rebecca is as much a mystery as it is a romance. Interesting plot twists occur in the final reels, which I will spare you on the remote chance you have not seen this remarkable film.

How others will see it. This movie is a banquet for classic movie fans. Aside from obvious false backgrounds, the quality is blatant. The only folks would could possibly be indifferent to it are children, who prefer cartoons, and those so artistically clueless that they would never consider watching an old black and white movie. Well, perhaps they will grow out of it. And I'm not talking about the children.

How I felt about it. Besides the splendid cast, led by ravishing Fontaine, there was major Hollywood talent behind Rebecca. Alfred Hitchcock was the director, making his first American film. The producer was David O. Selznick, still riding the glory of Gone With the Wind. The film was based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier, but don't worry. Rebecca is leagues better than Jamaica Inn, Hitchcock's previous film and also a du Maurier adaptation.

Fontaine's character is in practically every scene. She is a woman out of place in Manderley. She hopes for a continued courtship by Olivier, but instead pines away in an oversized mansion staffed by aloof servants. Emotionally, she is still an eager but awkward teenager, who prefers to follow orders rather than deliver them. It requires less artifice.

Fontaine's performance was so admired by Hitchcock that he promptly based a second film, Suspicion, around her bewildered, breathless character. Fontaine also played the lead in Jane Eyre, another movie with strong similarities to Rebecca.

Laurence Olivier is seen primarily through the eyes of Fontaine. It's clear that he's troubled by something, and whatever it is, it must be related to the late Rebecca. Fontaine naturally assumes that Olivier is still mourning Rebecca. This robs Fontaine of confidence, since you can't live up the standards of someone flawless that you have never met. Fontaine matures when she learns the truth about Olivier and Rebecca, that there are worse things than being a frightened wallflower.