“Marriage with Max is not exactly a bed of roses, is it?”
The shy personal assistant (Joan Fontaine) of a brash society lady (Florence Bates) falls in love with a wealthy widower (Laurence Olivier) whose deceased wife, Rebecca, continues to haunt the memories of those she left behind.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- George Sanders Films
- Hitchcock Films
- Joan Fontaine Films
- Judith Anderson Films
- Laurence Olivier Films
- Widows and Widowers
Response to Peary’s Review:
The unnamed heroine in Daphne DuMaurier’s best-selling gothic romance novel — simply referred to as “the second Mrs. DeWinter” — represents the fulfillment of most girls’ dreams: a mousy, self-effacing young woman in an unsatisfying job, she is literally swept off her feet by a handsome millionaire, and taken to live in a gorgeous, postcard-perfect mansion in the English countryside. The fairy tale quickly turns sour, however, once the new Mrs. DeWinter (played here by Joan Fontaine in her “captivating” leading-role debut) encounters the household’s domineering housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) — a “witch in black” — and realizes that her position as lady of the house will be continuously overshadowed by a “ghost” (the memory of her husband’s larger-than-life former wife, Rebecca). The tautly scripted three-act narrative of this Oscar-winning “best picture” neatly takes us through Fontaine’s whirlwind romance with Mr. DeWinter (Laurence Olivier), her insecurity as mistress of a household haunted by its troubled past, and a police investigation in which numerous secrets are revealed and Fontaine’s loyalty to her husband is severely tested.
If Rebecca isn’t “great Hitchcock” (it doesn’t stand among his very best work), it’s still fine entertainment. The performances throughout are uniformly excellent, with Olivier appropriately haunted and restrained as Fontaine’s brooding husband, and Fontaine perfectly portraying the brew of conflicted emotions felt by her character, who remains both nervously submissive and incredulous about her position until a pivotal shift in the plot later on (a point at which Peary argues the film “loses its power”, but I disagree). The supporting cast is fine as well, with Anderson delivering the performance of her lifetime as disturbed Mrs. Danvers (Peary refers to her portrayal as “chilling” and “soulless”); George Sanders briefly stealing the scenery in a characteristically smarmy role later in the film; and Florence Bates nicely capturing the essence of an overbearing society woman who borders on caricature but just manages to avoid this fate (listen to her conflicted reaction upon hearing about her assistant’s sudden engagement to Mr. DeWinter). A combination of appropriately spooky sets (Manderlay is a truly haunted house), George Barnes’ Oscar-winning “atmospheric cinematography”, “Franz Waxman’s moody score”, and “the clever way Hitchcock uses space so that Fontaine seems dominated by her surroundings” contribute to the film’s “amazing tension”, and turn it into a suspenseful mystery we’re eager to keep watching.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. DeWinter (nominated by Peary as Best Actress of the Year in his Alternate Oscars book)
- Laurence Olivier as Mr. DeWinter
- Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers
- George Sanders as Jack Favell
- Florence Bates as Mrs. Van Hopper
- Impressive sets
- George Barnes’ cinematography
- Franz Waxman’s score
Yes, as Hitchcock’s only Oscar-winning picture (and one of only a few, shamefully, to even have been nominated).
- Important Director
- Oscar Winner or Nominee
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)