The Good: Good direction, Good sense of mood, Acting
The Bad: Light on character, Slow plot, Lack of DVD bonus features
The Basics: Alfred Hitchcock's Best Picture winner Rebecca is very much a classic 18th Century English Gothic tale modernized and brought to screen with more attention to mood than plot.
Sometimes, I manage to forget how much I know or how much I've experienced until I experience it again. For example, I forget about the classic 18th Century English Gothic novel tradition until I encounter something that utilizes that format. I mention this at the outset of my review of Rebecca, which was based upon a novel, because it is remarkably similar in plot and form to Jane Eyre (click here for my review of that novel!). It is very much an archetypal gothic story of love and mystery. Rebecca, ultimately, offered no real surprises for me as a fan of that type novel because it was very much carrying on in the tradition of that style work.
Still, Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca is by no means unenjoyable and it begins as an engaging work that captivated me. The problem with the film is that the longer it goes on, the more it belabors the mood and the more it slows down focusing on creating an air as opposed to actually developing the characters or progressing any sense of the plot. And it is possible to create something that is an effective mystery with weird undertones that is engaging, even today (I look to Veronica Mars as a prime example), but Hitchcock and screenwriters Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison fail to do that with Rebecca. Hitchcock effectively creates a creepy mood, but the novelty of that wears off as the viewer waits for something, anything, to happen.
While in Monte Carlo, a young woman (never named) who is working as a paid companion for the gossipy Edythe when they encounter Maxim de Winter, the owner of a huge estate, Manderley, in England. Maxim is a widower and while he appears to pine for his dead wife, Rebecca, he is enchanted by the young woman. Maxim encourages her to abandon Edythe and return to England with him, as his wife and they immediately marry and soon thereafter return to Manderley.
At Manderley, the new Mrs. de Winter finds herself surrounded by all things that remind her of Rebecca and make her feel like she is living in the shadow of the dead wife. She is treated harshly by the head of housekeeping, Mrs. Danvers and a whole wing of the house is forbidden to the new Mrs. de Winter, as it acts as a shrine to the late Rebecca. Trying to be a good wife, the new Mrs. de Winter tries to get Maxim past his obsession with Rebecca and when they throw a costume ball, Mrs. Danvers sets Mrs. de Winter up for a fall. When the boat Rebecca was sailing with is recovered, though, it unearths secrets that threaten the marriage and shake Manderley!
The problem with discussing the plot of Rebecca is that the film is just over two hours long and the plot does not actually begin until the last half hour of the film. The Monte Carlo scenes take fifteen minutes and then there is over an hour and fifteen minutes of static presentation of Mrs. de Winter exploring Manderley while being intimidated by Mrs. Danvers before anything actually happens again. Characters are introduced, like the very sociable Crawleys and the mysterious cousin Jack, but the relationship between Mrs. de Winter and Maxim does not grow or develop or even change. In fact, the two do very little until the costume party and then we learn what most viewers will already suspect, that the hateful Mrs. Danvers is plotting against Mrs. de Winter.
But it is only after the costume party scene that things happen, as Mrs. Danvers's attempt to get Mrs. de Winter to kill herself is interrupted by a plot convenient shipwreck off the coast. That sets into motion a chain of events which rocks the last half hour of the movie. The further problem, though, is that that entire last half hour is less the mystery it is intended to be and instead long strings of exposition. The viewer is told about Rebecca through the first two thirds of the film, then all of the truths come out in the final third and they are long scenes of one character - Maxim, Jack, and a doctor in London - telling their interpretation of past events surrounding Rebecca with little else in the way of development.
In fact, in the final act, there is little other than plot revelations. There are no character changes; Mrs. de Winter is loyal, Maxim displays the same temper he has from the outset, and Mrs. Danvers is monolithically creepy and bent upon the ruin of Mrs. de Winter. Mrs. de Winter is thrown curveballs by the plot revelations, but she never varies from her love for Maxim and her desire to protect him. Similarly, Mrs. Danvers is bent on her desire to see Mrs. de Winter ruined all for some misguided loyalty and love for Rebecca.
Unfortunately, in addition to the slow sense of movement in the film, followed by long exposition, the mood is made oppressive by Hitchcock. What starts as entertaining - the opening voice-over about not being able to return to Manderley is excellent, especially when paired with the intriguing visuals - soon becomes droll as Hitchcock holds on facial expressions that are hardly expressive and on rooms and set pieces that contain an air of mystery. The murky mood dissolves with each revelation and the mysterious becomes mundane. Still, Hitchcock tries to keep the viewer guessing or feeling tension through the music or long camera shots on people or objects that ultimately are static. The technique is admirable, but ultimately academic. Hitchcock might get a viewer for a single viewing, but the sense of intrigue does not hold up even over a second viewing because we know the movements are building to something far less dramatic or interesting.
Still, there is enough to recommend this classic film, most notably the acting. Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine star as Maxim and Mrs. de Winter and they have excellent on-screen chemistry. Fontaine is able to hold her own by making scenes where she acts opposite herself in empty rooms or with a dog engaging through her facial expressions and attention to body language. Olivier is able to pull off the withdrawn widower exceptionally well and he delivers some of the most potentially campy lines with an earnest quality that makes them ring true.
But the real stalwart is Judith Anderson. Anderson plays Mrs. Danvers and while the role is somewhat monolithic, Anderson makes the scenes work by presenting a character who is constant and mysterious. She is stone faced and when Hitchcock holds on her for a slight flutter of her lips, the viewer might not know the emotion she is attempting to convey, but we know she is up to no good! She is creepy throughout.
Largely, that is what Rebecca is, a classic creepy movie without a horror or even a strong sense of mystery. The elements of a mystery are put in place, but then it unravels after an hour of just unsettling the viewer. It's interesting for a viewing, but hardly a masterwork by any means.
[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, which is available by clicking here! Please check it out!]
For other mysteries, please check out my reviews of:
Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets
The Bounty Hunter
For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.