REBECCA directed by Alfred Hitchcock (USA, 1940) 11rebecca_poster

This was Hitchcock’s first American film but he was savvy enough to realise that the level of haughty condescension and understated cruelty of the key characters are best expressed by English actors Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter and George Sanders as his slimy rival, Jack Favell.

In this context, one could also adopt Joan Fontaine as a token Englishwoman on the basis that her parents were British.

The key American member of the cast is Judith Anderson as the scary housekeeper Mrs Danvers who is always dressed in black as though permanently mourning the death of Rebecca de Winter; Maxim’s first wife.

The official story is that Rebecca drowned in a tragic boating accident leaving her devoted husband bereft. Before the end a darker version of events emerges but not before the new Mrs de Winter (Fontaine) is driven to the brink of suicide by living in the shadow of her predecessor.

Based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier, the drama here is substantially psychological – unlike the novel, there isn’t even a single murder. This is perhaps why the movie is sometimes overlooked as one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces but the way he creates a slow building tension shows his genius.

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The sinister Mrs Danvers torments the new Mrs de Winter.

Lawrence Olivier is distant and debonaire but so patronising towards his new bride that you wish she had the courage to give him a kick in the balls to show him who’s boss. I always find to hard to be convinced by Olivier as a movie idol, his stagey performances show how theatrical charisma doesn’t automatically translate to the big screen.

It is the melodramatic cat and mouse game between Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson which makes this film so riveting.

Hitchcock makes  the setting of the Manderley mansion appear imposing and elegant yet it is also claustrophobic and threatening.

A true classic.

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