(There are spoilers in this review, so you may wish to avoid it if you have not seen the film.)
Hitchcock's first Hollywood foray wasn't an altogether happy experience, with the director prevented from exercising his accustomed autonomy by authorially-minded producer David O Selznick. The finished film bears few signs of those problems (some ill-fitting synching of dialogue is a telltale of Selznick’s late-hour rewrites), but displays all the added polish that studio dollars could bring. (Not that funds were running freely from a tap; Selznick International Pictures had a distribution deal with United Artists, but had seriously over-stretched itself funding Gone with the Wind, released the year before.) The final film is possibly more loved by fans of classical Hollywood cinema than Hitchcock devotees, but it remains a compelling piece of work. The great director is somewhat constricted by his producer’s desire to adhere closely to the source material but emerges with a film that may have actually been better for the limitations imposed upon him.
The director didn't go in for adaptations of established literary works very often, preferring the freedom to stamp his own character and style on his material. He probably foresaw no significant restrictions, as Daphen Du Maurier’s novel was not revered as a sacred text. It had been published in 1938 to popular, if not resounding critical, success. But fidelity was one of the areas he clashed with Selznick on, particularly in terms of humorous content. He opined to Francois Truffaut that there was none, although this really isn’t true. His wicked sense of humour is on display throughout, and he bookends the film with two deliciously comic turns (Florence Bates as Mrs Van Hopper and George Sanders as Jack Favell). In the middle, of course, is reliable duffer Nigel Bruce, equipped with an inflatable barbell.
A more famous disagreement with Selznick was over the producer’s idea of ending the film with the smoke of the burning house forming the letter R; Hitchcock reduced this to a decidedly more sane shot of a monogram of the letter. Also frustrating to Selznick, who had gone through three directors on Gone with the Wind, was Hitch’s style of editing “in camera”; there was simply no additional footage shot, so the producer couldn’t re-edit.
Critic Richard Schickel suggested that to an extent this was Hitch taking on a “women’s film”, and it’s true that we are bound to protagonist Joan Fontaine’s (we never learn her first name) journey in an initially more straightforward manner than we might expect from the director. But. from the spooky opening remembrance of the house that defines the film (“Last night I dreamt of Manderlay again”) shown as a crumbling ruin, it is evident that there will be more to the film than straight melodrama. Accordingly, during its course the story manages to reconfigure itself several times. It begins as something approaching a frothy romantic comedy, evolves into the gothic mystery that has defined it, and then a more typical suspense plot asserts itself in the final act (what will the fates decide for unhappy Maximillian De Winter?)
The structure provides the director with the opportunity to indulge in the type of subjective viewpoint that is his forte. For more than two-thirds of the film we're Fontaine's constant companion, not privy to information external to her or the truth behind the torment of her remote new husband (Maxim, Laurence Oliver). Fontaine convinces completely as the naïve, besotted innocent in awe of Maxim. Apparently Hitchcock extracted her performance by telling the actress that everyone on set hated her (she was already upset by Olivier treating her badly as he had wanted squeeze Vivien Leigh for Fontaine's role). True or not (and she went on to win an Oscar for her next film Suspicion, also with the director, so it can’t have been too unpleasant an experience), the story certainly resonates in scenes where she is driven to nervous exhaustion by the oppressive presence of the former Mrs De Winter (this is a ghost story really, which Mrs Danvers alludes to at one point).
As winning as Fontaine is, there is a feeling that the film makes slightly too much of her as the wilting violet. You want her to tire of getting pushed around, be it by imperious housekeeper Mrs Danvers or Maxim (who is largely unhelpful in easing her adjustment to Manderlay, and most frequently patronises her as little more than a child). This would be acceptable if there was sufficient pay-off but, just when she looks as if she has grasped the mettle (proclaiming to the housekeeper that she is Mrs De Winter), Mrs Danvers delivers a knockout blow at the costume ball. So ultimately it is less-than-satisfying that her strength asserts itself as a result of a shift in her understanding of circumstances between Maxim and Rebecca, rather than a desire not to take any more crap. She only becomes strong through supporting him in his weakness, rather than triumphing over the odds. While the sustaining of tension requires that characters don’t respond as we might wish them to, the problem with Fontaine is that she ends up testing our patience due to her lack of proactivity.
The lengthy confession scene that propels the film into its final act has received criticism from some quarters as cutting the film dead. Maybe a more effective method of dealing with the exposition could have been employed, although not showing Rebecca (even in photos) is arguably more powerful than encountering her in flashbacks. I think the scene works because the content is engrossing. Olivier may wring out the theatricality occasionally but the scene works dramatically, breaking down his barriers and simultaneously building Fontaine's up.
It’s interesting to see Olivier at the beginning of screen stardom. Perhaps it’s a case of not associating him with contemporary roles, but he seems like a fresh presence cast as romantic lead (although his performance in the following year’s 49th Parallel should be visited for a really fun Olivier part in that period).
The greatest significance of this point in the story is that the focus shifts to Maxim once the truth about Rebecca is revealed. Fontaine isn’t afforded a showdown with Mrs Danvers, and it’s a testament to the juicy dramatics in the final reel, as Hitchcock milks the accusations and revelations, that we don’t immediately miss this. It’s ironic that once the film becomes all about Olivier, Sanders steal it from under him. The actor louches his way through his every scene, reveling in Favell’s caddishness, so shamelessly slippery that you can't but love him.
It’s not so unusual for Hitchcock’s films to suddenly swerve off narratively. Most famous is Psycho, wearing its misdirection of character as a badge of pride. Then there’s Stage Fright, with its untruthful flashback. But reducing the lead character to second fiddle so far through the story speaks more of fidelity to the text than responding to the needs of the screen adaptation. Ironically, the last section of the film is where the greatest deviation from the novel is found. The censor would not have allowed Maxim to get away with murder as he does in the book, even if the audience was willing to accept it. Accordingly, the death of Rebecca is accidental. This will likely hurt the integrity of the piece only if you came to the novel first, as the guilt felt by Maxim makes sense even in a reduced form.
The chances are that the most abiding memory from seeing the film for the first time will be Judith Anderson’s performance as Mrs Danvers. She’s a dominating, transfixing presence, and Anderson pitches the character just the right side of mentalist (that is, in Alan Partridge's definition of the word). Witness the scene where she gently goads the despairing Fontaine to jump to her death, or the cruel hauteur with which she reveals why she sabotaged the ball. And, as the extent of her obsession with Rebecca is gradually revealed, it would be the most blithe viewer who didn’t infer lesbian tendencies. Apparently the Hayes Office was concerned lest there be any suggestiveness of Mrs Danvers' preferences, but if that's the case they didn’t succeed. The key scene occurs as she shows Fontaine round Rebecca's immaculately preserved room. This includes a particularly suggestive moment as she reveres one the former Mrs De Winter's nightie, which is see-through. It’s both a slap in the face to the virginal Fontaine and a signifier of, at very least, the sights to which the housekeeper has been privy.
George Barnes’ black and white deep focus photography is gorgeous, and it’s no surprise that he won an Oscar. Hitchcock resisted shooting in colour as he felt it would work against the gothic qualities in the story. What’s on screen testifies to that; Fontaine’s first sight of Manderlay (a model) through a rain-spattered windscreen, billowing fog rearing around the house, the vast impeccably arranged interiors. California doubled for Cornwall, and the director remarked to Truffaut that the sense of isolation this dictated for the house might be seen to have worked in the story’s favour.
The film won the 1941 Best Picture Oscar, and saw the director’s first nomination out of five (he was never to win) which made it more a triumph for Selznick (he had also won the previous year for Gone with the Wind).
Not as infused with pure Hitchness as his later work, this is still far from the director operating merely as gun-for-hire. It’s the first chance to see his mastery at work on a significant scale, and the result is sumptuous. This would likely have made a satisfying adaptation of a gripping yarn without his involvement, but his presence ensures that it is told with the skill of a consummate craftsman.