Rebecca (1940 film)


theatrical release poster
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by David O. Selznick
Written by Adaptation:
Philip MacDonald
Michael Hogan
Screenplay by Joan Harrison
Robert E. Sherwood
Based on Rebecca by
Daphne du Maurier
Starring Laurence Olivier
Joan Fontaine
Narrated by Joan Fontaine
Music by Franz Waxman
Cinematography George Barnes
Edited by W. Donn Hayes
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • April 12, 1940 (1940-04-12) (US)
Running time
130 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1,288,000[1]
Box office $6 million[1]

Rebecca is a 1940 American psychological thriller-mystery film. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, it was his first American project, and his first film produced under contract with David O. Selznick. The film's screenplay was a version by Joan Harrison and Robert E. Sherwood based on Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan's adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel Rebecca. The film was produced by Selznick[2] and stars Laurence Olivier as the brooding aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter and Joan Fontaine as the young woman who becomes his second wife, with Judith Anderson and George Sanders.

The film is shot in black and white, and is a gothic tale. We never see Maxim de Winter's first wife, Rebecca, who died before the story starts, but her reputation, and recollections about her, are a constant presence to Maxim, his new young second wife, and the housekeeper Danvers.

The film won two Academy Awards, Outstanding Production and Cinematography, out of a total 11 nominations. Olivier, Fontaine and Anderson were all Oscar nominated for their respective roles. However, since 1936 (when awards for actors in supporting roles were first introduced), Rebecca is the only film that, despite winning Best Picture, received no Academy Award for acting, directing or writing.

Rebecca was the opening film at the 1st Berlin International Film Festival in 1951.[3]


A naïve young woman (Joan Fontaine) is in Monte Carlo working as a paid companion to Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates) when she meets the aristocratic but brooding widower Maximilian "Maxim" de Winter (Laurence Olivier). They fall in love, and within two weeks they are married. The young woman is now the second "Mrs. de Winter."

Maxim takes his new bride back to Manderley, his rather large country house in Cornwall. The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), is domineering and cold, and is obsessed with the beauty, intelligence and sophistication of Maxim's dead wife Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter, preserving her former bedroom, the master suite, as a shrine. Although dead, Rebecca's presence is nonetheless pervasive - several things throughout the house - stationery, handkerchiefs, bed linens, even the master bedroom door - bear her ornate "R" or "R de W" monogram. As her closest confidant, Mrs. Danvers regularly comments on Rebecca's exceptional grace and style. When asked what Rebecca was like, Frank Crawley (Reginald Denny), Maxim's best friend and manager of the estate, absent-mindedly tells the new Mrs. de Winter that Rebecca was an exceptional beauty.

The new Mrs. de Winter is intimidated by her responsibilities and begins to doubt her relationship with her husband. The continuous reminders of Rebecca overwhelm her; she believes that Maxim is still deeply in love with his first wife. She also discovers that her husband sometimes becomes very angry at her for apparently insignificant actions. She also meets Rebecca's so-called "favorite cousin," Jack Favell (George Sanders), who visits the house while Maxim is away.

Mrs. Danvers attempts to persuade Mrs. de Winter to leap to her death.

Trying to be the perfect wife, the young Mrs. de Winter convinces Maxim to hold a costume party, as he had done with Rebecca. She wants to plan her own costume, but Mrs. Danvers suggests she copy the beautiful outfit in the portrait of Lady Caroline de Winter, an ancestor of Maxim's. At the party, when the costume is revealed, Maxim is appalled; Rebecca wore the same outfit at the ball a year ago, shortly before her death.

Mrs. de Winter confronts Danvers, who tells her she can never take Rebecca's place, and almost manages to convince her to jump to her death. An airborne flare reveals that a ship has hit the rocks. Mrs. de Winter rushes outside, where she hears that during the rescue a sunken boat has been found with Rebecca's body in it.

Maxim admits to his new wife that he had earlier misidentified another body as Rebecca's, in order to conceal the truth. His first marriage, until now viewed by the world as ideal, was in fact a sham. At the very beginning of their marriage Rebecca had told Maxim she intended to continue the scandalous life she had previously lived. He hated her for this, but they agreed to an arrangement: in public she would pretend to be the perfect wife and hostess, and he would ignore Rebecca's private wanton lifestyle. However, Rebecca grew careless, including an ongoing affair with Jack Favell. One night, Rebecca told Maxim she was pregnant with a child that was not his. Laughing at Maxim's dismay, Rebecca proclaimed that the child, presumed to be a boy and legally Maxim's son, would thus inherit his beloved estate Manderley. During the ensuing heated argument she fell, hit her head and died. Maxim took the body out in her boat, which he then scuttled.

Now assured of her husband's love for her and not his first wife, the new Mrs. de Winter sheds the remnants of her girlish innocence. She begins to coach her husband how to conceal the mode of Rebecca's death from the authorities. In the police investigation, deliberate damage to the boat points to suicide. However Favell shows Maxim a note from Rebecca which appears to prove she was not suicidal; Favell tries to blackmail Maxim. Maxim tells the police, and then falls under suspicion of murder. The investigation reveals Rebecca's secret visit to a London doctor (Leo G. Carroll), which Favell assumes was due to her illicit pregnancy. However, the police interview with the doctor establishes that Rebecca was not actually pregnant; the doctor had told her she was suffering from a late-stage cancer instead.

The coroner renders a finding of suicide. Only Frank Crawley, Maxim, and his wife know the full story: that Rebecca told Maxim she was pregnant with another man's child in order to try to goad him into killing her, an indirect means of suicide that would also have ensured her husband's ruination and possible execution.

As Maxim returns home from London to Manderley, he sees that the manor is on fire, set ablaze by the deranged Mrs. Danvers. The second Mrs. de Winter and the staff escape the blaze, but Danvers is killed when a ceiling collapses on her. Finally, a silk nightdress case on Rebecca's bed, with a beautifully embroidered "R" - Rebecca's proud emblem of ownership - is consumed by flames.


At Selznick's insistence, the film adapts the plot of du Maurier's novel Rebecca faithfully.[4] However, at least one plot detail was altered to comply with the Hollywood Production Code, which said that the murder of a spouse had to be punished.[4] In the novel, Maxim shoots Rebecca, while in the film, he only thinks of killing her as she taunted him into believing that she was pregnant with another man's child, and her subsequent death is accidental. However, Rebecca was not pregnant but had incurable cancer and had a motive to commit suicide, that of punishing Maxim from beyond the grave. Therefore, her death is declared a suicide, not murder.

According to the book It's Only a Movie, Selznick wanted the smoke from the burning Manderley to spell out a huge "R". Hitchcock thought the touch lacked subtlety. While Selznick was preoccupied by Gone with the Wind (1939), Hitchcock was able to replace the smoky "R" with the burning of a monogrammed négligée case lying atop a bed pillow. According to Leonard J. Leff's book Hitchcock and Selznick, Selznick took control of the film once Hitchcock had completed filming, reshooting many sequences and re-recording many performances.[5] Some sources say this experience led Hitchcock to edit future pictures in camera—shooting only what he wanted to see in the final film—a method of filmmaking that restricts a producer's power to re-edit the picture.

Although Selznick insisted that the film be faithful to the novel, Hitchcock did make some other changes, especially with the character of Mrs. Danvers, though not as many as he had made in a previous rejected screenplay, in which he altered virtually the entire story. In the novel, Mrs. Danvers is something of a jealous mother figure, and her past is mentioned in the book. But in the film, Mrs. Danvers is a much younger character (Judith Anderson would have been about 42 at the time of shooting) and her past is not revealed at all. The only thing we know about her is that she came to Manderley when Rebecca was a bride.

The Breen Office, Hollywood's censorship board, specifically prohibited any outright hint of a lesbian infatuation or relationship between Mrs. Danvers and the unseen Rebecca, though the film clearly does dwell on Danvers' obsessive memories of her former mistress. The scenes are clearly echoed in the 1944 film The Uninvited, in which an unseen and ghostly mistress of the house has possibly had such an illicit relationship with her psychologist best friend.

The Hollywood Reporter reported in 1944 that Edwina Levin MacDonald sued Selznick, Daphne du Maurier, United Artists and Doubleday for plagiarism. MacDonald claimed that the film Rebecca was stolen from her novel Blind Windows, and sought an undisclosed amount of accounting and damages.[6] The complaint was dismissed on January 14, 1948[7] and the judgment can be read online.[8]


Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, stars of the film.

Hitchcock's cameo appearance, a signature feature of his films, takes place near the end; he is seen walking, back turned to the audience, outside a phone box just after Jack Favell completes a call.


Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times called it "an altogether brilliant film, haunting, suspenseful, handsome and handsomely played."[9] Variety called it "an artistic success" but warned it was "too tragic and deeply psychological to hit the fancy of wide audience appeal."[10] Film Daily wrote: "Here is a picture that has the mark of quality in every department - production, direction, acting, writing and photography - and should have special appeal to femme fans. It creates a new star in Joan Fontaine, who does fine work in a difficult role, while Laurence Olivier is splendid."[11] Harrison's Reports declared: "A powerful psychological drama for adults. David O. Selznick has given it a superb production, and Alfred Hitchcock has again displayed his directorial skill in building up situations that thrill and hold the spectator in tense suspense."[12] John Mosher of The New Yorker wrote that Hitchcock "labored hard to capture every tragic or ominous nuance, and presents a romance which is, I think, even more stirring than the novel."[13]

Rebecca won the Film Daily year-end poll of 546 critics nationwide naming the best films of 1940.[14]

Box office

The film earned $2 million in the US and $1 million in Britain on its initial release. It was re-released in Britain in 1945 and made $460,000.[15]

Awards and honors

Rebecca won two Academy Awards and was nominated for nine more:[16]

Award Category Subject Result
Academy Awards Best Picture Selznick International Pictures and David O. Selznick Won
Best Cinematography, Black and White George Barnes[17] Won
Best Director Alfred Hitchcock Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison Nominated
Best Actor Laurence Olivier Nominated
Best Actress Joan Fontaine Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Judith Anderson Nominated
Best Film Editing Hal C. Kern Nominated
Best Music, Original Score Franz Waxman Nominated
Best Production Design Lyle R. Wheeler Nominated
Best Visual Effects Jack Cosgrove and Arthur Johns Nominated

Rebecca was twice honored by the AFI in their AFI 100 Years... series


The Hollywood screen version of Rebecca was adapted for radio on numerous occasions. The Screen Guild Theater presented half-hour adaptions with Joan Fontaine, her husband at the time, Brian Aherne, and Agnes Moorehead (May 31, 1943), and with Loretta Young, John Lund and Agnes Moorehead (November 18, 1948).[18][19] Joan Fontaine and Joseph Cotten performed a half-hour adaptation October 1, 1946, on The Cresta Blanca Hollywood Players.[20] The Lux Radio Theatre presented hour-long adaptations with Ronald Colman, Ida Lupino and Judith Anderson (February 3, 1941), and with Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Betty Blythe (November 6, 1950).[21][22]

A Broadway stage adaptation starring Diana Barrymore, Bramwell Fletcher and Florence Reed ran January 18–February 3, 1945, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.[23]

On television, Rebecca was adapted for The Philco Television Playhouse (October 10, 1948), with Mary Anderson and Bramwell Fletcher;[24] Robert Montgomery Presents (May 22, 1950), with Barbara Bel Geddes and Peter Cookson;[25] and Broadway Television Theatre (September 1, 1952), with Patricia Breslin and Scott Forbes.[26] Theatre '62 presented an NBC-TV adaptation starring James Mason as Maxim, Joan Hackett as the second Mrs. de Winter, and Nina Foch as Mrs. Danvers.[27]

The film has been remade by Bollywood twice — as Kohra (1964), starring Waheeda Rehman and Biswajit Chatterjee; and as Anamika (2008), starring Dino Morea, Minissha Lamba and Koena Mitra.

In popular culture

The film Rebecca was parodied on The Carol Burnett Show in a 1972 skit called "Rebecky".[28] The film was used as the basis of a sketch on the BBC comedy sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look. In the skit, the plot is changed, at the insistence of the producer, to a prequel, set while the first Mrs. de Winter is still alive and has just begun living with Maxim. The humour is derived from references to the then-unknown second Mrs. de Winter scattered throughout the mansion, such as a dress "reserved for the second Mrs. de Winter" and a painting of a woman with her face covered and the letters "TBA" written.[29]

See also


  1. 1 2 Box Office Information for Rebecca. The Numbers. Retrieved January 30, 2013.
  2. Rebecca at the Internet Movie Database
  3. "1st Berlin International Film Festival". Berlin International Film Festival.
  4. 1 2 Spoto, Donald (1999). The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. Da Capo Press. pp. 213–214. ISBN 978-0-306-80932-3.
  5. Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood, Leonard J. Leff, University of California Press 1999 – see e.g. here
  6. The Hollywood Reporter, January 13, 1944
  7. The Fresno Bee Republican, January 17, 1948 – see e.g. here
  8. "MacDONALD v. DU MAURIER". Retrieved April 19, 2016.
  9. Nugent, Frank (March 29, 1940). "Movie Review - Rebecca". The New York Times. Retrieved November 28, 2015.
  10. "Rebecca". Variety. New York: Variety, Inc. March 27, 1940. p. 17.
  11. "Reviews". Film Daily. New York: Wid's Films and Film Folk, Inc.: 6 March 26, 1940.
  12. "'Rebecca' with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine". Harrison's Reports: 54. April 6, 1940.
  13. Mosher, John (March 29, 1940). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. New York: F-R Publishing Corp. p. 71.
  14. "'Rebecca' Wins Critics' Poll". Film Daily. New York: Wid's Films and Film Folk, Inc.: 1 January 14, 1941.
  15. BY WAY OF REPORT: Presented by the Royal Air Force By A.H. WEILER. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 03 Mar 1946: X3.
  16. "The 13th Academy Awards (1941) Nominees and Winners". Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Retrieved June 19, 2013.
  17. "Critic's Pick: Rebecca". The New York Times. Retrieved December 13, 2008.
  18. "Screen Guild Theater". Internet Archive. Retrieved 2015-10-14.
  19. "The Screen Guild Radio Programs". Digital Deli Too. Retrieved 2015-06-30.
  20. "Cresta Blanca Hollywood Players". RadioGOLDINdex. Retrieved 2015-11-07.
  21. "The Lux Radio Theatre". RadioGOLDINdex. Retrieved 2015-10-14.
  22. "Lux Radio Theatre 1950". Internet Archive. Retrieved 2015-10-14.
  23. "Rebecca". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 2015-10-14.
  24. "Philco Television Playhouse". Classic Television Archive. Retrieved 2015-10-14.
  25. "Robert Montgomery Presents". Classic Television Archive. Retrieved 2015-10-14.
  26. "Broadway Television Theatre". Classic Television Archive. Retrieved 2015-10-14.
  27. Rebecca (1962) (TV), Internet Movie Database. Retrieved October 8, 2013.
  28. The Carol Burnett Show: Episode No. 6.3 (27 September 1972), Internet Movie Database. Retrieved October 8, 2013.
  29. Video on YouTube

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