A young girl (Joan Fontaine) marries a widower, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), who brings her to his home, Manderley, where she is met with less than open arms by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Dame Judith Anderson), who was devoted to the deceased first Mrs. de Winter, also named
Alfred Hitchcock's first American film fairly drips with melodrama, but retains a level of sophistication that makes it palatable to discerning moviegoers, just as Daphne du Maurier's
novel has been embraced by all types of readers. Joan Fontaine plays the girl (she is given no name, so that the audience may more readily see themselves in her position) all wide-eyed innocence that develops quickly into a necessary maturity.
Maxim is portrayed by the great Laurence Olivier, fresh off his success in
Wuthering Heights. He brings the character a surprising tenderness and seems to truly love the girl, despite what the manipulative Mrs. Danvers would have her believe. (Fontaine, Olivier, and Anderson were all Oscar-nominated for their roles, only winning for Film and Cinematography. However, it is widely thought that Fontaine's Oscar for
Suspicion, made the following year, also for Hitchcock, was simply remuneration for ignoring her for her role in
The film is made by its wonderful supporting players, though, specifically Anderson as Mrs. Danvers and the always watchable George Sanders as Jack Favell, Rebecca's cousin (and, possibly, lover). They really put their all into these roles and Sanders looks as if he is having a lot of fun.
Rebecca is definitely a melodrama. Love triumphs, evil doesn't, everyone is painted with strokes of black or white (although Sanders can't seem to decide; he wears a lot of gray), and the ending is an example of that -- it was a compromise between Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick, who wanted it to be even further over the top. (He seemed satisfied, however. In publicity, Selznick referred to Hitchcock as the "Master of Melodrama," whereas Hitch preferred his later moniker, "Master of Suspense.")
The story carries the day, in any case, and fans of the film should definitely check out Daphne du Maurier's source novel,
Rebecca, which goes into more detail and features a stunning scene with Rebecca's grandmother that is not in the film. (For further information about the history of this and all the other Hitchcock films, pick up the recent definitive biography by Patrick McGilligan that is also a terrific read, the marvelous
Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light).
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