If you haven’t seen it:
With Rebecca Hitchcock won his first “Best Picture” Oscar. It was his first Hollywood movie.
Joan Fontaine plays a young woman who falls for a handsome widower, played by Laurence Olivier . The widower has a dark past though, and the memory of his first wife haunts the pair of them.
This is a gothic thriller, with elements of romance and melodrama. The movie has some delightfully sinister characters, and it has a decent mystery at its heart. It also has the great Laurence Olivier, who was widely regarded among critics as the best theatre actor of his generation. It also features, in a supporting role, George “Shere Khan” Sanders, who is widely regarded in my household as the greatest Disney villain of all time.
If you have seen it:
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SPOILER ALERT: The plot summary and comments below contain details that might spoil your enjoyment of the movie if you have not already seen it.
A young woman (Joan Fontaine) meets rich widower Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier) while travelling in Europe. After a brief courtship they are married, and go to live in his mansion (Manderly) in England. Mrs de Winter tries to assume the role of the lady of the house, but feels inadequate. In particular, the housekeeper Mrs Danvers is cold and hostile, and constantly compares her unfavorably to the first Mrs de Winter, Rebecca, who drowned a year earlier.
Mrs Danvers schemes to drive a wedge between the newlyweds, and tricks the young woman into wearing a dress that Rebecca had previously worn, provoking Max to fly into a fit of rage. The argument is interrupted however, by news that a body has been discovered, and it is revealed to be Rebecca’s.
Max and his young bride find themselves alone together, and he confesses all to her. He and Rebecca had hated each other. One day they were arguing, and she fell, hit her head, and died. Max disposed of her body at sea and falsely identified another body as hers.
Rebecca had had a string of affairs, including Jack Favell (George Sanders), who now reappears and accuses Max of murder. He believes Max killed Rebecca when she told him she was pregnant with his child, but when they speak to Rebecca’s doctor, it turns out she was not pregnant, but dying of cancer. The police choose not to press charges against Max, and he returns home.
When he gets back to Manderly though, he finds the mansion ablaze. Mrs Danvers has set fire to it – she cannot bear the thought on the Max living at the house with his new young wife. The mansion burns down, and Mrs Danvers perishes, but everyone else escapes.
Steve Sunday Says:
I wonder what it was that attracted our heroine to the millionaire Max de Winter? Was it the way he was still apparently in love with his first wife, or the way spoke to her like she was a child (“eat it all up, there’s a good girl”), or perhaps she just likes men with suicidal tendencies? Hmm…well, a cynic might think she was in it for the money. On the other hand, perhaps she was just attracted by his good looks (he looks like Timothy Dalton, don’t you think?) and confident manner. Or perhaps, and I think this is the most likely explanation, it was simply to get away from the monstrous Mrs van Hopper. A horrible woman. When Mrs van Hopper first came on screen I thought it was Alfred Hitchcock in a wig and a frock, doing his customary cameo appearance in a more flamboyant manner than usual.
Mrs van Hopper is not the only unpleasant woman in this movie of course; many critics have pointed out how unsympathetic all of the main female characters are. Mrs Danver is psychotic, Rebecca was clearly evil, and our heroine is so weak that she goes to pieces at the slightest hint of bullying. Joan Fontaine is beautiful, and sweet, but at one point it seems she would rather throw herself out of a window than stand up for herself, or even just talk to her husband. Come on girl, grow a pair!
There are a few unanswered questions in this movie, and a lot of sub-texts. The thought going through my mind as the final credits rolled though, was not about the death of the first Mrs de Winter, nor about the motivation or possible lesbian inclination of Mrs Danvers, it was “I hope Manderley is insured!” If not, then Mr and Mrs de Winters’s happily ever after could well have been spent in an inner city slum with Max working in a factory.
Trivia Trish Says:
There are several major differences between the movie and the novel the film was based on. In the book, Jack Favell is a drunken slob, Mrs Danvers was an older woman, and Max is a little more caring and sensitive. The biggest difference though, is the death of Rebecca. In the movie Rebecca is killed when she falls and hits her head on a boat tackle, whereas in the novel Rebecca is in fact shot by Max after she provokes him with the preganancy lie. It was because of movie censorship rules that the story was changed – in 1940 a movie would not have been allowed to depict a man killing his wife and getting away with it, so the story was changed so that it was an accident.
One thing that the book and film have in common is that the main character, “the second Mrs De Winter” is never given name.
Main Cast and Crew:
Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter
Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. de Winter
George Sanders as Jack Favell
Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Previously unheard dialogue from the film:
(18 min 5 seconds in – although we only actually hear Joan Fontaine’s half of the dialogue, the full conversation is transcribed here for the first time)
“Mr De Winter please.”
“I’m sorry, he’s gone out riding.”
“Oh, he’s gone out riding.”
“Er…yes. He won’t be back till noon.”
“He won’t be back till noon?”
“Are you having difficulty hearing me madam? We have been having some problems with the telephones.”
“Shall I send someone up to have a look at it for you madam?”
“Give me the porter please”
“Well, he is not really trained in that field madam. Might I suggest a telecom engineer?”