It takes a while for this Alfred Hitchcock Best Picture winner to move beyond mere melodrama and reach a proper place of weirdness, but when it finally does, boy do things get bizarre.
Joan Fontaine plays a naïve young woman toiling as a paid personal assistant to society maven Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates). On a trip to Monte Carlo, she happens to meet Maximilian de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a distraught widower grieving the death of his beloved wife, Rebecca. Nevertheless, he falls for the much younger woman (given his comments, it’s largely because she’s much younger), suddenly proposes and soon whisks her away to Manderlay, his sprawling estate on the English coast.
Manderlay is haunted by the late Mrs. De Winter in insidious ways. Her initials are on nearly every piece of linen and stationary. The west wing, her favorite part of the estate, is kept off limits, as if she were still living there (shades of Jane Eyre). The servants – especially the ghoulish Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) – are constantly referencing Rebecca and expecting the new Mrs. Danvers to continue her habits and routines. It’s as if Rebecca is haunting from within and without.
Olivier is working on an earthier level of creepiness. After Fontaine accepts his proposal in Monte Carlo, he rewards her by allowing her to pour his coffee. Remarking on her youth later, he calls her Alice in Wonderland. When it’s revealed that he may not be the distraught widower everyone paints him as, we’re not surprised. And if it is surprising that Fontaine’s sweet bride stays by his side, the explanation likely lies with Hitchcock’s perennial desire to make his audience complicit in a crime.