After a series of successful thrillers in England, Alfred Hitchcock made his way to America in 1940 to make movies for Hollywood. He hit the ground running with Rebecca, an adaptation of a recent bestselling novel that earned him a Best Picture Oscar.
Rebecca stars Joan Fontaine as a timid young woman who works as a personal assistant for a domineering old rich lady, vacationing in Monte Carlo. Fontaine (whose character is never given a name) soon falls in love with Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), an aristocrat spending time away from his manor after the death of his wife, Rebecca.
He soon proposes to her, and they return to his mansion, Manderley. Manderley is an unsettling place, a shrine to Rebecca, where all of her things remain untouched, and not a moment passes where the servants, especially the cruel Mrs. Danvers, compares Fontaine unfavorably to the former Mrs. de Winter. Maxim will not speak of Rebecca at all, and flies into a fit of rage when reminded of her. Soon, the presence of Rebecca weighs heavily on Fontaine, pushing her into despair, and ultimately, a confrontation with Rebecca's past.
Rebecca is a quintessential Hitchcock movie, in which he explores how people can often be in the control of other people. Even the dead can hold sway over us. It's a ghost story without an actual ghost. I love the techniques Hitchcock employs to make Mrs. de Winter seem insignificant. In addition to keeping her character nameless, he also made everything in Manderley seem way too big for her. The house itself oppresses her, with huge doorways with handles so high that she has to reach up to open them. Even in a low angle, the walls are so high that they stretch endlessly above the top of the frame. We are given no hint of a ceiling.
The entire cast is great, but Rebecca is Joan Fontaine's movie all the way. She begins the movie young and clumsy and eager to please, full of innocence but with very little self worth. By the end of the events of the movie, she is transformed into a different woman, innocence gone, but walking taller.
I won't spoil the story for those of you who aren't familiar with it, but there is a twist in the third act, that sets the entire story into a different direction. The twist is smart and surprising, and I certainly wanted to see how the rest of the story played out, but the third act is never quite as enthralling as the first two. There's absolutely no way I'm the first reviewer to say it like this, but the first two acts of the movie overshadow the third, much in the way that Rebecca holds sway over the new Mrs. de Winter and Manderley.
Rebecca is still great, though. Hitchcock was already making great movies by this time, but this movie pushed him up to another level.