Reviewed on 2013 February 11
Here’s Alfred Hitchcock’s take on Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, about a soft-spoken young woman marrying a wealthy widower and then dealing with the spectre of his first wife. I admit it’s dated and soap opera-ish, especially in an era when most women would just tell off Mrs. Danvers with two words. If you can get past that, then psychologically it’s still like sticking your arm into a wasp’s nest.
A pretty but painfully shy young woman (Joan Fontaine) is on a work holiday, taking care of a rich society matron, when she meets a man in the thralls of grief. Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) is so consumed over the death of his first wife, Rebecca, that at first he barely notices the timid but kind young woman. They marry. The woman gets a chance at love, the man gets a chance at a new lease on life, and these two broken people should have a lovely time together, right?
The second wife (no, we never learn her first name) moves into Maxim’s gloomy mansion and is hectored at every turn by Rebecca’s friends and former staff. “Helpful” people chatter on and on about how she should change her hair, her clothes and so forth, but the worst is the dour Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who holds Rebecca over the new bride’s head as though she’s some sort of icon. Enough of this nonsense and the second Mrs. de Winter is on the fast track to a nervous breakdown.
When he wasn’t trying to frighten his audience, Hitchcock seemed happy to push people’s buttons. He was good at both. This is a film for anybody, but especially a woman, marrying into a family where the memory of the favored former spouse still hangs in the air like sour smoke. It’s bad enough to simply fear that your spouse is the only one in the clan who likes you; when everyone else won’t shut up about your predecessor it must be almost intolerable. The acting is a bit thick, but it still works: I felt awful for Joan Fontaine.
Three chocolate morsels.