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The Guardian (30/Jun/2006) - Review: Rebecca

(c) The Guardian (30/Jun/2006)


"I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool!" The flourish of that line is a minor, representative jewel in this classic Hitchcock thriller from 1940, adapted from the Daphne du Maurier bestseller and created under the aegis of producer David O Selznick. It was Hitchcock's first American film, and a fascinatingly auspicious start to a legendary Hollywood career, and it is now being revived in a glistening new print by the British Film Institute. The sheer, swooning pleasure that this film affords - its melodrama, its romance, its extravagant menace - makes it a must-see. Quite rightly, it was included in this paper's recent list of the best cinematic adaptations, and it really is a masterclass in craftsmanship. The novel is expertly opened out in visual and dramatic terms, and shows something rare in any film from any period: characters who change, and are satisfyingly seen to do so during the course of the story. And the voiceover is austerely limited to that famous opening sentence: "Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again..."

Joan Fontaine plays the mousy and maladroit young woman who finds herself unhappily employed as the companion-helpmeet to a cantankerous, snobbish old dame who is whiling away the off-season at a fine hotel in the south of France. By chance, they happen across a fashionable man of leisure: the enigmatic widower Max de Winter, played by the incomparable Laurence Olivier. Melancholy, saturnine, refined, De Winter is cold with this frightful old woman trying to scrape an acquaintance with him (his behaviour is a demonstration of how an English gentleman is never rude unintentionally), but intrigued by the artless and submissive young companion who senses his inner pain. Olivier's performance is superb: insouciant and patrician, and showing off some magnificent tailoring, he is perhaps the one British actor who was able to absorb Hollywood glamour to its fullest extent and yet still remain so entirely a product of the English classical stage.

De Winter marries the young woman - a pretty little scene at the local mairie - and takes her back to be the terrified, unprepared chatelaine of his stupendous Cornish estate, Manderley. It is here that the spirit of Max's first wife, Rebecca, haunts every cranny, assisted by the malign loyalty of the sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers, played by Judith Anderson. Hitchcock and Selznick made Manderley look absolutely gigantic. This really is an English country house conceived on Californian lines: it looks as big as Castle Howard, and surely far bigger than anything Du Maurier imagined. And it is here that the unspeakable Mrs Danvers begins her campaign to destabilise the second Mrs de Winter and drive her mad.

Watched again, it is easy to see how vivid was the influence of Selznick: the final, catastrophic fire at Manderley is very like the flames at the end of Gone With the Wind. But Hitchcock's own intensity, his feel for the intimate horror and fear within a marriage, is beginning to show through. Perhaps the most distinctive Hitchcockian moment comes at the very beginning: the close shot behind De Winter's head as he stares down from a clifftop at the swirling sea: apparently about to jump. For a moment, the image is not merely poignant, but nightmarish and disquieting in a way that no other director could have contrived.

Charlotte Brontë is the author always mentioned when Rebecca is discussed, but seeing this again, the book that came into my mind was Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust: there are similar themes of loneliness, humiliation and sexual infidelity among the English leisured classes (in fact, Nigel Bruce, playing De Winter's hearty and good-natured brother-in-law, looks extraordinarily like the older Waugh). A superb cast is rounded off by George Sanders, playing Rebecca's caddish cousin: again, a superb lightness and virility in the acting, and, again, some exquisite suitings. A gorgeous treat from one of cinema's masters. Not to be missed.