In Monte Carlo, a nameless woman (Joan Fontaine) is companion to Mrs van Hopper (Florence Bates) who’s so awful she has to pay people to spend time with her. When the recently widowed socialite Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier) arrives, even money can’t keep her there, opting to marry the condescending Max and take up residence at his Cornish pad. But there she struggles to move out from under the shadow of Max’s first wife, Rebecca, and earn the affections of the distant man.
Based on the Daphne du Maurier novel, it has the trappings of a romance film – an attractive couple, beautiful locations – but it’s exceedingly unromantic in nature, as everyone’s second favourite Mrs de Winter finds herself desperate to please a man who seems incapable of love, his own apparently idyllic first marriage nothing more than a mirage.
Olivier is typically excellent as the aloof Max, but it’s the women who steal the show. Fontaine is brilliant, appearing permanently crestfallen at her own supposed shortcomings, capturing the yearning for her husband’s affection, but also her loss of naivity by the end of the film. And Judith Anderson is the highlight of the film as austere housekeeper Mrs Danvers, turning gazing into middle distance into an art form as Rebecca’s hand from beyond the grave.
It’s one of Hitchcock’s finest and most enticing works. While the censor-imposed decision to turn Rebecca’s death from deliberate to accidental robs the film of some of the book’s subtext, it loses none of its teeth. But while she may not become an accessory to murder, it remains a film about a woman held back by her own sense of inferiority, imposed on her by society. In reality she’s a far preferable bride to Rebecca, yet continuously blames herself for the derision she faces.
The suspense here comes not from the threat of danger but from the excruciating situations Mrs de Winter 2 finds herself in, being constantly compared to a dead woman, taunted by her housekeeper and being unable to live up to the standards expected of a woman of status. This sense of being an imposter, of feeling out of your depth, is something I think most people can relate to and is a large part of what makes the film so compelling.
It’s brilliantly shot against the imposing country house – apparently a miniature which looks perfectly real – to eerie effect. The interior is all imposing rooms and high ceilings, and if there was an Academy Award for flower arranging Rebecca surely would have won it. And in spite of having atmosphere in bucketloads, it’s also funny, perhaps unintentionally so, with Max’s mastery of the back-handed compliment and Mrs Danvers’ absurdly creepy demeanour. What results is a dark thriller-cum-camp classic to rival Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?.