They say he simply adored her.
Director Alfred Hitchcock winds the camera down the overgrowth to a once beautiful estate known as Manderley—now a shell of its former splendor and shrouded in shadows. He’s foreshadowing the forthcoming darkness so we don’t meet the bright eyed and innocent young “companion” of Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates) and believe we’re about to receive a whirlwind romance of love and life rather than pain and sorrow. No, the latter are firmly entrenched from frame one straight through the end despite subsequent appearances to the contrary and this truth weighs heavily on our intentionally nameless protagonist (Joan Fontaine‘s “I”). It’s why she encounters Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) under an air of suicide and why she struggles to escape the cloud of his late first wife’s memory.
Faithfully adapted by Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan and scripted by Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison from Daphne Du Maurier‘s text (producer David O. Selznick wouldn’t have it any other way as he believed any diversion would alienate readers of her celebrated novel), the titular Rebecca perhaps becomes the strongest character of them all despite never being shown on-screen. She passed a year previously in a boating accident and de Winter hasn’t returned home since. He’s mourning her when “I” stumbles upon him at the edge of a cliff overlooking a rocky shore and again when caught off-guard by Van Hopper in a Monte Carlo hotel lobby. It’s therefore no surprise that “I” would catch his attention. She’s everything Rebecca wasn’t: shy, joyful, and unencumbered by status.
While that might be a relief for him, however, it proves anything but for her. One day she’s a paid companion to a boorish woman and the next she’s the mistress of a mansion with wings, a full wait-staff, and a head housekeeper (Judith Anderson‘s Mrs. Danvers) who adored the former Mrs. De Winter enough to earnestly deserve the word infatuated. Everyone looks at “I” with surprise and curiosity. Everywhere she looks is a closed door or embroidered “R” reminding her of the footsteps she might never be able to fill. So “I” tiptoes around them all, dotes upon Maxim to distract from her rising anxiety and stress, and ultimately feels a fool opposite duplicitous operators (George Sanders‘ Jack Favell) and privileged in-laws (Gladys Cooper‘s Beatrice Lacy) alike.
The suspense is ratcheted up to its breaking point as with most Hitchcock thrillers despite this gothic romance seemingly progressing without so much as a twist or turn. We’re made to fear Mrs. Danvers’ piercing stare alongside “I” and become haunted by the ghost of Rebecca that lingers in every corner of every room inside and behind every tree outside. Maxim’s business manger Frank Crawley (Reginald Denny) appears to provide insight into his former employer’s demise (something no one else will explain) and “I” finds herself faced with the dilemma of easing her way into this life or pulling off the Band-Aid to tell the rest she’s in charge. Both options risk Maxim’s volatile temper and both force her to lose the innocent demeanor that won him over.
It’s the type of pressure Van Hopper warned about with a wry, vindictive grin and the transformation Maxim would love her to avoid despite it being exactly what everyone else pushes her towards as though every young woman’s dream is to bark orders and sit alone writing letters all day. It’s also a claustrophobic existence in large part due to the power Rebecca still holds. Half the house is closed off because it faces the water where she died. The boathouse with her things has been left in disarray. And anytime she dares to tread onto her late predecessor’s footsteps finds Maxim ready to explode in anguish and rage. He swore never to return, knowing Rebecca’s strong presence was immovable. Doing so with “I” now risks their sanity.
And that’s when everything changes. Hitchcock and Du Maurier lull us into a psychological thriller along class lines by throwing “I” to the wolves and pitting her against a beloved ghost only to expose a tragic flaw in her and our assumptions. With the type of grand climactic moment of shocked revelation most stories would save until the end, Rebecca is more or less reinvented a little past the midway point to set the record straight and prove things were even darker than previously thought. The mystery moves our focal point from “I” to Maxim as their roles as saved and savior become reversed. Distraction makes way for love. Patronization is replaced by protection. Suddenly there’s nothing but twists and turns in the most satisfying way.
The title of the film is therefore no mistake. Rebecca de Winter is the linchpin and everyone else her puppets—especially in death. Even though “I” never met her, she too isn’t spared that fate. We see it in Fontaine’s brilliantly emboldened performance as her fear and trepidation are shook to the floor upon recognizing just how different she is and needs to be from Rebecca to save them all from the nightmare many inside Manderley don’t even know exists. And Olivier equals her stunning duality with a complex performance we can only truly appreciate in hindsight after knowing the context of his dread. Rebecca does haunt him, but the reasons are far more complicated than pure grief. Soon we’ll see he’s as much a captive as “I”.
Hiring Hitchcock was therefore a stroke of genius because he knows suspense and how to fill a seemingly straightforward first act with the visual cues that are able to build it without our even knowing. He makes us look upon Maxim with disgust thanks to hearsay projecting a domineering image warped by perspective upon him and his visceral reaction to all things Rebecca that harbors dueling layers of psychological import. By using Anderson and Sanders as instigators pushing an agenda to which Danvers and Favell have also fallen prey, we easily worry that “I” is a victim being consumed by aristocratic monsters salivating at the chance to corrupt her virtue. But reality proves the opposite true. She might instead be their liberator from a prison they’ve unwittingly preserved.