“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Alfred Hitchcock’s wonderful adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s gothic novel grips from the opening shot. Although it was his first American endeavour, REBECCA displays all the masterful touches of his earlier British classics. Images of waves and flames suffuse this tale of love, hate and power, the prolonged gazes between Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine reflecting the passionate nature of the story.
As directed by the master of suspense and produced by David O. Selznick (who won the Oscar for Best Film the previous year with GONE WITH THE WIND, and would do so again here), REBECCA shares many characteristics with other great psychological dramas. Hitchcock conjures up an unnerving atmosphere for much of the second half with a haunting soundtrack and richly gothic setting; violently flapping curtains and dramatic violin crescendos evoke this sense of the eerie unknown and raise expectations of supernatural terror.
He also devotes much of this psychological noir to the romance between de Winter and his new bride. The writers’ ability to keep the central relationship from becoming predictable, whilst maintaining the essential air of mystery to the story, is key, but so too are the performances. Olivier is perfectly cast as the unemotional aristocrat unable to move on from the past, while Fontaine credibly portrays a naive young woman swept up in to a world of wealth, passion and jealousy, quickly finding herself out of her depth.
Aside from Olivier and Fontaine, Judith Anderson’s terrifying Mrs Danvers injects ice-cold fear in to each one of her scenes, replacing light and hope with uncanny darkness, adding to the heady brew of portentous gloom. A tale of deceit, power and a love which stems from hatred, Rebecca is a masterpiece by any measure.