Wow. That was almost hard to watch. It's undoubtedly a great film and I'm sure it'll be easier on a rewatch when I know how it all turns out, but... oh, that poor girl!
Crucially, Hitchcock gets the tone right. This kind of gothic material could have easily seemed oppressive or silly, but Hitchcock keeps everything gliding along smoothly in a delicate, witty fashion even as you feel the pain of our unnamed protagonist. She goes through tortures, but they're all psychological. Get this story wrong and you'd leave your audience saying, "Big house, army of servants... what's her problem?" Here however you couldn't even imagine saying that. Our protagonist has been walking on eggshells and trying desperately hard to do the right thing in a cruel situation, the tension getting wound so tight that eventually it's almost a relief when another character openly does something horrible to her. Until then we'd never known where the next danger might be coming from. At least you know where you stand with an enemy.
It's based on a Daphne du Maurier novel that's been adapted several times since. To be honest, I've never really got on with du Maurier. Like J.G. Ballard, she gives me the impression of a scientist putting her characters on a microscope slide. There's no warmth there, no sense that she actually likes her creations. However this film seems to have done well by being remarkably faithful to her novel, the most significant change being a plot tweak to comply with the Hollywood Production Code's guidelines regarding murder. Hitchcock had wanted to adapt this novel some years earlier, in fact, but hadn't been able to afford the rights. Jamaica Inn and The Birds
are other du Maurier adapations of his, while Rebecca was his first Hollywood film and won him his only Best Picture Oscar. It also won Best Cinematography (Black-and-White), and was nominated for Best Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress, Art Direction (Black-and-White), Special Effects, Film Editing, Original Score and Screenplay. The studio thought so well of it that they deliberately held back its release from the year before to stop it from competing with another runaway Oscar success of theirs, Gone With The Wind.
There are quite a few stories about its production. Olivier treated Fontaine terribly because he'd wanted to play opposite his girlfriend Vivien Leigh, which shook up Fontaine so much that Hitchcock took advantage of this and told her that everyone on the set hated her. The idea was to make her insecure and unhappy, which would hopefully be visible in her performance. Meanwhile Hitchcock was also clashing with the studio's domineering producer, David O. Selznick, and barring him from the set.
The acting is splendid across the board, with this sterling assemblage of British thespians. Would it sound fatuous to say that Laurence Olivier is terrific? Oh. Well, he is. He takes this moody, possibly suicidal, old-fashioned aristocrat and makes him charming, someone a girl could fall in love with. It fits completely that his delivery is a little mannered. He's crisp and distant to the point of coldness, but always suggesting darker undercurrents. Believe it or not, in the Monte Carlo scenes, I could almost see him as James Bond. He looks a bit like Timothy Dalton. He can be very funny when he wants to be and he's in wonderful control of his physicality, although obviously this isn't an action role. As for the other actors, they're all similarly great to watch. Mrs Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates) is a wonderful over-the-top performance that's nonetheless completely believable and never lets the character become a monster. I could go on. Oh, those were the days. It helps tremendously that almost everyone bar the two leads is either middle-aged or elderly, which means we're getting actual acting instead of Pretty Young Things.
The big exception is Joan Fontaine (aged 23) in the lead role, but in an odd way her performance doesn't matter so much. We know her character has poor self-esteem and is in a situation to daunt even the most brass-necked. As the audience we're so busy quailing at the thought of ourselves in her position that it would have overloaded things to give us too many reactions. Instead Fontaine's character just puts on a stiff upper lip and goes about trying to make the best of it, which is exactly right for both the film and the character. She's sweet. You're on her side. That's what the film needed. Job done.
As an aside, I've heard this film described as a ghost story in which the ghost never appears. At one point I was convinced we were going down that route, since the eponymous Rebecca becomes an inescapable, suffocating presence despite the minor handicap of being dead. She'll drive you nuts, that Rebecca. Du Maurier's stories often included elements of suspense or outright horror and it wouldn't have taken much to steer this film down darker, stranger paths. Oddly I'd recommend this film to anyone wanting to write a ghost story, since what's happening to its characters in the present is so heavily overshadowed by the past and in particular someone who's passed away.
There's also a line of dialogue which hasn't aged well. "I should be making violent love to you behind a palm tree."
This is one of those films in which absolutely everything is great. You can even tell why it won that Oscar for its cinematography, with Hitchcock's loving (and deliberately chosen) black-and-white playing its part in building the atmosphere. It really got to me at times, but that's what all the best films should do.