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On Sunday, December 15, 2013 Academy Award winning actress Joan Fontaine was pronounced dead at age 96 at her Carmel, California home. Fontaine had a successful career that spanned from the 1930’s to her final role in a made for tv movie in 1994. While a versatile actress, she is best remembered for playing a pair of wives driven to the brink of insanity by the secrets surrounding their marriages in the Hitchcock films Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941). Though the two roles were strikingly similar, it is still debated as to in which film she truly produced an Oscar worthy performance, as many contend that her win for Suspicion was given in compensation for her failing to win for Rebecca the previous year. While the question regarding the Oscar remains a matter of opinion, there is no doubt that the film featured in this review, Rebecca, features Fontaine at the height of her star power and acting range. Under Hitchcock’s direction, Fontaine evolves from insecure waif to strong woman amidst the twists and turns of her life as the second Mrs. De Winter.
The film begins as Fontaine’s character, known only as “the second Mrs. De Winter”, is working as a secretary and companion to an elderly English woman (Florence Bates) traveling in Monte Carlo. Although her employer is obviously difficult and condescending, Fontaine mousily follows the woman about without resistance, hanging on her every request. During the course of the trip, she meets and begins a whirlwind romance with brooding widower Maxim De Winter (Laurence Olivier). Although it is obvious to viewers early on that Maxim sees her as his salvation after the loss of his wife, Fontaine remains too in awe of the wealthy sophisticate to believe that he might share her feelings. Just before she is scheduled to leave with her employer, however, Maxim confesses his love and proposes to her. The happy couple relocates to his mansion in the English countryside, Manderlay, bringing the carefree days of their courtship and honeymoon to an abrupt end. Upon her arrival, Fontaine realizes just how deeply both Maxim and the staff remain influenced by memories of the first Mrs. De Winter, the deceased Rebecca. The manor’s imposing housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), possesses a particularly unsettling devotion to Rebecca that quickly reveals itself to be far more sinister than a mere maternal fondness. As the film goes on, Fontaine’s character is faced with a series of disturbing revelations that force her to reexamine her positions as both mistress of Manderlay and as Maxim’s wife.
Playing an ‘everyman’ character is never an easy task for any actor. These parts often force actors to remain likable and unexceptional in contrast to the challenging and colorful characters that put the story’s plot into motion. As a result, while audiences are meant to relate to and root for ‘everyman’ heroes, it is often difficult for such characters to be truly memorable or original. This dilemma was made even more difficult for Fontaine as her character was not only relegated to a ‘type’ but was also denied a back story, or even a name, with which to enrich the role. The fact that the story was told from the unnamed heroine’s point of view ensured that, for better or worse, the film would hinge upon Fontaine’s performance. Fortunately for the cast and crew, Fontaine was more than up to the task and portrayed the mysterious heroine with a nuance and depth that proved crucial to the film’s success. Although already twenty three at the time of filming, Fontaine imbued her heroine with a childlike naivete and innocence that add a level of wonder and awe to her romance with Maxim and change of fortune early in the film. As the manipulations of Mrs. Danvers and stifling atmosphere at Manderly begin to take their toll, however, she acquires a weariness and skepticism that prove she is far from the “funny, young, lost” girl that Maxim once described her as. Later, when she is faced with the possibility of losing Maxim after the truth of Rebecca’s death is revealed, she is shown to be a capable and intelligent woman as she quickly adapts to the situation and immediately plans a course of action. In each of the film’s three acts, the heroine is at very different stages of her emotional development, which Fontaine not only portrays, but does so in a way that demonstrates the haunting effects of her life at Manderlay. Thus, Fontaine’s understated performance not only brings the heroine to life, but also elevates her beyond the ‘blank slate’ status that the script nearly restricted her to.
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Like all Alfred Hitchcock films, one of the chief assets of Rebecca is its atmosphere. Although the film’s beginning in a glamorous resort initially seems to be a break from the director’s trademark chills, the setting is expertly used to cue viewers in to the characters’ idyllic emotional state. Upon reaching Manderlay, however, the film takes a turn for the ominous as the viewer is introduced to the suffocating world of Rebecca. Like the novel upon which it is based, the film relies upon the implication and possibility of danger, rather than shocking images, to create suspense. This technique allows viewers to step into the heroine’s place as we try to navigate between real threats and paranoid fears while the plot unfolds. This distinctly threatening atmosphere also raises the stakes of a largely action free plot, keeping viewers engaged in the characters’ struggles until the shocking twists set in. Unfortunately, the film’s third act reverts to a courtroom drama, eliminating all of the suspense and menace that was so effective at Manderlay. As a result, the film’s pace begins to drag at the point in which it should be at its most riveting.
While the film rests primarily upon Fontaine’s Mrs. De Winter, the supporting cast is equally excellent. Laurence Olivier portrays Maxim with the ideal mix of brooding, tenderness, and internal torment that brings credibility to each facet of his mysterious character. Similarly, George Sanders is perfectly cast as Rebecca’s smarmy cousin/lover Jack Favell and plays the scoundrel with equal parts sleaze, sophistication, and humor. By far the most memorable character in the film is the wicked Mrs. Danvers, who is able to manipulate those around her with calculated efficiency. In Judith Anderson’s hands, the character develops beyond stock villain into an omniscient, malignant, presence that stands in for the decaying influence of Rebecca upon the De Winters’ lives.
Rebecca is a genuine classic that is often considered the “first true Hitchcock film”, and the unforgettable villain and atmosphere leave little reason to wonder why. The film marked a major turning point in the careers of both director Hitchcock and leading lady Fontaine, which provided both with an essential stepping stone to future successes. The film excellently mixes genres in its unique take on the modern ghost story and offers a warning against the dangers of failing to assert oneself and pleasing others at one's own expense. I highly recommend this film for those interested in the careers of Hitchcock and Fontaine, and those who appreciate a bit of psychological suspense; but be warned, the memories of Rebecca have been known to remain long after the ashes of Manderlay fade to black.
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