The film, like the book, begins intriguingly with one of the best-known opening lines in English fiction: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” The words are spoken by Joan Fontaine, the narrator, whom we first meet as the mousy little companion of a frightful snob of a woman in the South of France.
There, too, we meet the wealthy, darkly brooding and recently widowed Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier), who rapidly woos Fontaine – she has no name in the film – with the hardly romantic proposal: “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool!”
After which, now wed, de Winter takes her back to Manderley, his enormous mansion in Cornwall, which is haunted by the spirit of his late wife, the unseen but ever-present Rebecca. So we plunge into Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film, one that succeeds splendidly despite, rather than thanks to, the producer David O Selznick.
Selznick irritated his directors with his determined hands-on approach and habit of messing about with stuff. But Hitchcock had already been around the block often enough to counteract that by filming only what he wanted to film, thus leaving his boss with little chance to change things. Consequently the film is imbued with all Hitch’s masterly touches – menace, mystery, knuckle-whitening tension and that manipulation of the audience that is his trademark.
In Daphne du Maurier’s gothic psychological drama Manderley is not exactly a house of horrors, but for Fontaine it is a house of many little fears that build up into big fears. With no experience or understanding of such a task, the shy, clumsy girl is expected to follow Rebecca as the chatelaine of this oppressive pile perched above the sea.
Unfortunately she has a nemesis in the malevolent housekeeper, Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson), whose devotion to her late mistress borders on the maniacal. She hates Fontaine, wants her out of the place and in devious ways almost drives her to suicide. Meanwhile, behind all these dark goingson lurk the questions: who was Rebecca and what exactly happened to her?
These things, along with the fate of Manderley itself, we only discover at the end after the intervention of a sinister George Sanders as Rebecca’s so-called cousin, who attempts to blackmail de Winter. And by the way, thanks to the stringent censorship of the time, the denouement, the explanation of Rebecca’s death, is significantly changed from that in the book.
Not that it really matters. With Hitchcock’s touch and outstanding performances, notably by Olivier, Anderson and Sanders, the film still works a treat. Trivia note: Rebecca is unique in being the only film to win Oscars for best picture and cinematography but none for the director or any of the cast.
Rebecca can be seen today, 10:45pm, Sky Classics.