Rebecca (1940, Alfred Hitchcock)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A secretary marries a widower, but finds life difficult when they return to his ancestral home…

A ghost story without a ghost in it, Rebecca begins with a spooky, eerie sequence that reveals the mysterious Cornish country house of Manderley. It’s a horror-movie opening, full of fog and forests and foreboding. We know we’re heading into a story where the past will never quite let us go…

In Monte Carlo, a shy young woman (Joan Fontaine) is working for a rich harridan as a secretary/travelling companion/general dogsbody. But when she meets a widower called George Fortescue Maximilian de Winter, aka Maxim (Laurence Olivier), they fall in love, she quits her job, and they quickly get married… The unnamed central character was not Fontaine’s only Hitchcock role – she returned the following year to play another woman whose marriage is not what she expected in Suspicion. She gives a fine performance here as a woman whose happiness is short-lived.

After their honeymoon, the pair travel to Manderley, a house deep in the West Country woods. It’s near the sea and seems to have its own weather system (rain begins on cue as they approach). It’s a Gothic pile of unused wings, huge, echoing rooms and too many servants. But despite the vast interior, the new Mrs de Winter quickly feels suffocated – especially when Maxim’s relatives and creepy housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson, giving a performance that has become a movie standard) keep mentioning the former lady of the house.

The character of Rebecca, Maxim’s late wife, never actually appears on screen. We don’t even see a photograph of her. But she hangs over the whole story, casting a shadow on Fontaine’s character, who can’t escape the implication that she’s not up to the job of replacing this saintly woman. What started out as a romantic melodrama in the south of France becomes a Victorian horror. Our lead is metaphorically trapped in a castle-like prison, friendless and hopeless. Maxim begins to feel more and more like a villain. The paranoia builds, the menace rises, the swirling, romantic score turns mysterious.

But then the myth of Rebecca is shattered when Maxim reveals how she died: despite everything we’ve been told, their marriage was anything but idyllic and he accidentally killed her during an argument. The captivating revelation scene sees Hitchcock’s camera move around the room as Maxim recounts what happened – if it were following a ghostly Rebecca recreating her final moments. It’s also one of several examples of the director’s amazing command of the material. Throughout the film, he artfully shifts the tone from light to dark, comedy to tragedy, suspense to shocks. Because of this authorial control, the story seduces you and never bores you, even though for long stretches nothing much actually happens. It’s absolute magic.

The effect perhaps has a wobble during the final third of the movie, in which plot starts to dominate mood and when Rebecca’s cousin/lover Jack (George Sanders) takes focus and fails to convince. Fontaine also fades away into the background, which is a real shame. But nearly 80 years after it was released, this film is still casting its shadow.

Nine men near the phone box out of 10

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