“To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script and the script” – Alfred Hitchcock
Such a quote couldn’t ring more true than in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940s pre-war classic Rebecca, a film based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name and a project that is closely reliant on its script at hand.
“Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” utters a shy Mrs. de Winter in one of the most beloved opening lines in cinema and literature history, poignantly setting the scene for Hitchcock’s psychological thriller, which is, more precisely, a haunting study into guilt, anxiety, and the power of obsession. Manderley itself is a grand mansion in England’s south-west, an iron-gated hideaway estate hidden down a winding path and layers of entwining gothic trees. “Secretive and silent, time could not mar the perfect symmetry of those walls”, de Winter continues, her obsession with the building romanticised through rose-tinted glasses.
Brought to the grandiose manor by Maxim de Winter, a suave, aristocratic widower played with a domineering assertion from the great Laurence Olivier, whom she meets in Monte Carlo, they both become instantly infatuated with one another, and together hurry back to south-west England. From the exterior, the house retains a gothic beauty and warm presence, though, on the inside, it is stuffy with the memory of Maxim’s deceased wife, Rebecca, thanks to the overruling housekeeper Mrs Danvers who remains devoted to retaining her memory. Mrs de Winter is undermined, unwelcome, and suffocated by the closing walls of an empty house, accentuated by Rebecca’s enduring influence from beyond the grave.
Steadily heightening the temperature of Manderley, this is a film led by its characters and the relationships established between each of them, most of which are abusive and exploitative. Mrs de Winter, so overshadowed by the memory of Rebecca that she herself is never explicitly named, is a quiet, shy, dowdy woman and a particular rock of sympathy to cling to, especially among such acidic characters. Played with all the inner-angst and turmoil that her character demands by Joan Fontaine, she sees Maxim as her only source of love and respect, making her own crippling tragedy throughout the story that much more heartbreaking.
“If you don’t think we are happy, it would be much better if you didn’t pretend,” Mrs de Winter croakingly whispers to Maxim in heartbreaking vulnerability, he fails to reply. “I’ll go away. Why won’t you answer me?” she continues, her words, even written down, resonate with sorrowfully hopeless, so desperately human. Her central character and the powerful relationship she has with Maxim charges the drama forward, particularly in contrast with the opposing force of Mrs Danvers relationship with the long-deceased Rebecca.
The weight of guilt is heavy on Maxim’s shoulders, as is the sizeable spectral presence of Rebecca that still mark the walls of Manderley. Such finely threaded character arcs and relationships almost make the thrilling final climax of the film feel redundant, though it’s only once the manor is destroyed and the memory of Rebecca has dwindled that such a weight can be relieved. A haunting gothic thriller, in Rebecca Hitchcock flexes his cinematic muscles, capturing career-best performances from Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier to deliver a tale laden with haunting anxiety, and laced with agonising desire.