Rebecca (1940)

2008 #10
Alfred Hitchcock | 125 mins | download | PG

This review could be seen to contain some spoilers.

RebeccaI must confess that I don’t think I’ve come to Rebecca under the best circumstances for judging it as a film in its own right. As with last week’s Great Expectations, Rebecca is on my current University module, which means I arrive at it having just read both Daphne du Maurier’s original novel and, the afternoon before viewing, a detailed and very interesting account of the film’s genesis and production from Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood (nothing like a snappy title, eh?) by Leonard J. Leff. Such reading conspires to lead me into direct comparisons with the novel (which, as with most adaptations, are ultimately unfavourable due to things having to be cut), as well as a preoccupation with what was going on during production.

But, trying to put such distracting things aside, Rebecca has a great many good points. The cast, for one thing, are perfect. There were serious doubts about Joan Fontaine as the lead, but she is spot-on as the shy, almost childish, Mrs de Winter. Laurence Olivier is equally effective as Maxim, and Judith Anderson’s Mrs Danvers is suitably scary, if significantly younger than I imagined. The production’s technical aspects are also highly admirable: while the early Monte Carlo scenes may be nothing especially exciting, the plot whizzes past and we soon find ourselves at the infamous Manderley, all large halls, fog-filled grounds, dramatic lighting and big camera moves. Especially of note is Maxim’s confession — a long chunk of dialogue in the novel, it would have been all too easy to just use a flashback, but Hitchcock instead employs a camera move across the empty room to suggest the narrated action.

Further comparisons with the novel are inevitable, of course. The film skips nothing of importance, condensing events effectively so that the plot moves at a decent pace. Some events, such as the fancy dress ball and following ship wreck, are even made more dramatic by combining them. Some choices are thoroughly bizarre though: the novel is well known for its first person narrative, something the film attempts to retain by featuring Mrs de Winter in every scene… until the end when, in a deviation from the novel, she remains at Manderley while we follow Maxim and co. to London for some final twists. This does lead to a dramatic reunion upon Maxim’s return to Manderley, but I’m not convinced such a brief moment was worth the modifications.

As expected, viewing in such close proximity to the novel also forces comparisons that aren’t especially warranted — for example, the film loses much of the characterisation of Mrs de Winter by unsurprisingly finding no way to adapt her frequent flights of fancy and imagination. But then, one can always read the novel for those things (and I’d recommend it — get past the famous but dull opening and it often rattles along), and so, judged purely on its own merits, there is a considerable amount to recommend in Rebecca.

5 out of 5

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