The Master of Suspense Blogathon- “Rebecca” (1940)

“Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

Joan Fontaine as “Mrs. DeWinter” in Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca, based on Daphne Du Maurier’s novel of the same title, is the devastating gothic thriller that served as Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film. At the beginning of the film, a young woman (Joan Fontaine) whose first name is never learned, stops the wealthy Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) from jumping off a cliff. de Winter is a widower whose wife Rebecca perished some time earlier. Later, the young woman and Maxim meet again in the lobby of a hotel. It turns out that the young woman is a companion to an acquaintance of Maxim’s, Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates). While Mrs. Van Hopper chastises the young woman for not being more grateful of her surroundings, she and Maxim steal glances at one another. Eventually the young woman and Maxim enter a courtship and marry. Maxim brings his new bride, the new Mrs. de Winter, to his estate titled, Manderley.

Shots like this epitomize the creepy, dreamlike quality of the film.

Throughout the film, the new Mrs. de Winter never seems to be able to live up to the standard set by her predecessor. Rebecca de Winter was a prominent member of society, always the perfect hostess, giving the perfect party in her immaculate, ornate home. Despite having just married and presumably still in the throes of newlywed bliss, Maxim is cold to his new wife. He is condescending, such as when he tells her to “eat up, like a good girl” at dinner (ick) and makes a point of telling her what they’re doing, versus asking her if she’d like to do whatever. Mrs. de Winter always seems like a wide-eyed fish out of water in this story, never seeming confident as to what her place is in the household.

Joan Fontaine as “Mrs. de Winter” and Judith Anderson as “Mrs. Danvers.”

Another person in the Manderley estate who makes things difficult for Mrs. de Winter is Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), the housekeeper who took care of the home when Rebecca lived there. Mrs. Danvers almost has a fanatical obsession with Rebecca. It makes you wonder if she was actually in love with Rebecca, versus highly devoted. Mrs. Danvers is terrifying in this film. During filming, Alfred Hitchcock instructed Judith Anderson to refrain from blinking during her scenes. Her continual eye contact, combined with her black Victorian high-necked gown makes Mrs. Danvers an intimidating and frightening villain in the film.

Mrs. de Winter is portrayed as mousy and somewhat plain–a far cry from the glamorous and elegant Rebecca de Winter. Mrs. Danvers makes a point of telling her new boss about Rebecca and how she could not possibly compare. Rebecca de Winter was beautiful, accomplished in everything, popular, intelligent, basically everything that anyone could want in a person. Mrs. Danvers doesn’t hide the fact that she doesn’t think much of the new Mrs. de Winter. At one point in the film, she convinces Mrs. de Winter to dress in a replica of the last dress Rebecca wore at the last costume party she attended before her untimely death. Maxim is absolutely horrified. Oof.

Eventually, we learn the truth about Rebecca and Maxim’s relationship and it makes it even more confusing as to why Maxim is so devoted to this woman. I have to assume that part of his devotion is a response to trauma and sheer heartbreak. That’s the only explanation.

Laurence Olivier as “Maxim de Winter” and Joan Fontaine as “Mrs. de Winter.”

The set decoration of Manderley is fantastic. The set is a massive, cavernous, empty house. As Mrs. de Winter ambles about inside, she looks small and lost. The large set lends to her feelings of isolation and loneliness as she moves room to room and sees no one. The fireplace is larger than she is. The breakfast table looks like it’ll seat 50 people and Mrs. de Winter sits there alone. Many of the exterior shots were just models and many of the unused, but seen portions of the home are matte paintings. The cinematography and use of the matte paintings gives Manderley an eerie, yet ethereal quality. As if Mrs. de Winter is forever in a dream state.

Rebecca was Joan Fontaine’s first starring role and she is excellent. When I first saw her for the first time in The Women, I wasn’t impressed. I thought she was just this namby pampy simpering woman. Then I saw her in Rebecca where her meekness and mousy quality worked to their advantage. Mrs. de Winter is terrified of her new life. She used to be a commoner, working as an assistant to the rich, and suddenly she’s thrust into high society, expected to fill the shoes of a woman who was beloved by her society peers and who seemed to do everything perfectly. Mrs. De Winter is constantly seen with a wide-eyed look of terror, sitting with hunched shoulders, as she tries to absorb her surroundings and her new life. Her feelings of self-consciousness and anxiety leap off the screen. I feel uncomfortable on Mrs. de Winter’s behalf when she has to deal with Maxim and Mrs. Danvers. After seeing Fontaine in Rebecca, she’s now one of my favorites, especially when she plays against type in films like Ivy (1947) and Born to be Bad (1950).

Joan Fontaine as “Mrs. de Winter.”

During the making of Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock wanted his heroine, Mrs. de Winter, to exhibit those same uneasy qualities described above. Prior to filming, Laurence Olivier campaigned hard for his wife, Vivien Leigh, to receive the co-starring role. However, David O. Selznick didn’t think that Leigh was right for the part and refused to give her the role, instead offering it to Joan Fontaine. Olivier, apparently not above throwing a passive aggressive hissy fit, making it very clear to Fontaine that he preferred his wife for the role. Fontaine was very nervous throughout filming, partially because of Olivier’s cold treatment of her throughout filming. Hitchcock, always one to sense an opportunity, opted to use Olivier’s treatment to make Fontaine even more insecure. Hitchcock made sure to remind her of her inexperience, how much less she was being paid than the other actors, and told her that nobody liked her. Despite this treatment (or maybe because of this treatment), Fontaine ended up turning in an Oscar-nominated performance.

Rebecca has an eeriness about it. The entire film feels like a bad, yet beautiful dream. The set is exquisite as are the performances. I’ve always enjoyed the Gothic thrillers. There is something about the ornate, yet ghostly setting of Manderley, the creepy Mrs. Danvers, and the omnipresent spirit of Rebecca that gives the film a spooky, yet beautiful quality. The black and white cinematography is gorgeous and lends to the creepiness of the film.

The beautiful Manderley estate is its own character in the film.

10 thoughts on “The Master of Suspense Blogathon- “Rebecca” (1940)

  1. Pingback: The Master Of Suspense Blogathon Arrives! – Classic Film And TV Corner

  2. Wonderful piece, Kayla. Joan is terrific isn’t she? She perfectly captures the fragility, innocence and awkwardness of the character. I love that her performance here changed your opinion of her as an actress.

    I think Vivien Leigh would have been perfect as Rebecca if the character had ever been shown.

    This and the 1979 miniseries are my favourite screen adaptations of the novel.

    Thank you so much for joining. Maddy

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I loved reading your take on Rebecca, Kayla. I was especially interested in your discussion of the set design — like a film’s music, that’s something that I’ve often overlooked in my movie viewing, and I’ve been trying to work on that. Now I want to rewatch Rebecca to pay closer attention. I’m glad Fontaine got the role in this film instead of Vivien Leigh — she was perfect.

    — Karen

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  4. It saddens me that Fontaine was treated so poorly by Olivier (who did this every time Leigh wasn’t cast opposite him, it seems– see Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights) and Hitchcock. At least she was vindicated with her fine performance– I always feel so keenly for her in this movie.

    The whole movie is great though. It’s such a fantastic gothic mystery– the black and white visuals and the creepy Mrs. Danvers really sell that eerie atmosphere.

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    1. Yes! I felt bad for Joan as well. Am I in the minority of thinking that Olivier is not that great? He always seems to be acting in THE THEATAH. Sometimes Orson Welles can seem like that too; but for whatever reason, it works for me where Welles is concerned. Maybe it’s because he also appeared in The Muppet Movie and handed out the “standard rich and famous contract.”

      Would it be blasphemous to say that I preferred Neil Diamond’s performance in the remake of “The Jazz Singer” over Olivier’s ?

      Vivien Leigh is good, I thought she was excellent in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” but she’s never an actress I gravitate toward.

      I love Mrs. Danvers. Judith Anderson is such a great actress. I’ve seen her in so many different types of roles from “Rebecca,” to “Laura,” to “Pursued.”


      1. Olivier tends to be at his best in hammier parts– I adore him in Richard III, where he’s the ultimate bad guy– but I thought he was great in Carrie with Jennifer Jones. He was more subtle there and tender. But generally, I can get the aversion to him. He can be a bit much.

        Leigh in Streetcar is phenomenal. Hot take: I like her more than Brando in that. And Judith Anderson is wonderful! But every time I see her, my mind goes back to Mrs. Danvers. She was just so powerful in the part.

        Liked by 1 person

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