Rebecca isn’t Hitchcock’s best film. Not by a long shot. But everything that made him a good director is visible here: the way he frames each shot, his fascination with the transformation of a girl into a woman, his willingness to trust in the strength of the original source material. (I only wish he could have hooked up with Bernard Herrmann before 1955, because a Herrmann score for Manderley would have been both lovely and appropriately eerie. The real score is flowery and over-wrought. Oh, well. ???????????.) He also made several good decisions on the picture: he didn’t cast Vivien Leigh in the role of the unnamed narrator (though oddly enough I always imagine her, when I imagine Rebecca’s character), and he waited until his producer Selznick was away to get the subtler, creepier ending that he really wanted.
The thing that struck me watching the film this time was Joan Fontaine’s nervy, twitchy lead performance. She does all the heavy lifting, which is saying something when her co-star was Olivier. Even Judith Anderson can’t really touch her, except for during a few quiet moments when she’s actually allowed to speak and not simply loom over the set. (That looming is still quite powerful in its silence; I think it informed some of the animation of Cinderella’s stepmother Lady Tremaine, ten years later.) duMaurier’s novel was met with indifference by critics, but Fontaine’s performance really pulls out the discomfort the narrator feels in her new position, and makes the viewer feel it, too. She’s almost grating in the first quarter, which makes the fourth that much more rewarding. Part of it is Hitchcock’s ability to pluck out all the relevant tensions and flay them open: after a discussion about the narrator’s father, Olivier’s deWinter instructs the narrator to eat her lunch “like a good girl.” There are similar moments throughout, but that one tells you everything you need to know. Even before we meet Mrs. Danvers, there’s something intrinsically horrifying about the situation. Then it all unravels, gorgeously, into a story about the vicious competition that can exist between women, and the danger of comparing oneself to an ultimately hollow ideal.
Thanks, Mom, for introducing me to the book.