The film is a gothic tale about the lingering memory of the title character, Maxim de Winter's dead first wife, which continues to haunt Maxim, his new bride, and Mrs. Danvers. The film won two Academy Awards, including Best Picture out of a total 11 nominations. Olivier, Fontaine and Anderson were all Oscar nominated for their respective roles. Since the introduction of awards for actors in supporting roles, this is the only film named Best Picture that won no other Academy Award for acting, directing or writing.
It was the opening film at the 1st Berlin International Film Festival.
PlotThe film begins with a voiceover of a woman speaking the first lines from the novel: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again", to the images of a ruined country manor. She continues that she can never return to Manderley — as it no longer exists, except as a ruin.
Joan Fontaine plays a young woman (who is never named), an orphan, who works as a paid companion to the wealthy Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates). In Monte Carlo, she meets the aristocratic widower Maximilian (Maxim) de Winter (Laurence Olivier) and they fall in love. Within weeks, they decide to get married.
Maxim takes his new bride to Manderley, his country house in Cornwall, England. The servants accept the new Mrs. de Winter as the new lady of the house. The exception is the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who is particularly unpleasant to the new bride. She is still obsessed with the beauty and sophistication of the first Mrs. de Winter -- the eponymous Rebecca -- and preserves her former bedroom as a shrine, even cherishing her handmade underwear and expensive négligée. Rebecca's "cousin" Jack (George Sanders) (who, as we only discover later, was in fact one of her lovers) appears at the house when Maxim is away, and evidently knows Mrs. Danvers well, calling her by the name "Danny", which was Rebecca's pet name for her.
The new Mrs. de Winter is intimidated by Mrs. Danvers and by the responsibilities of being the new mistress of Manderley. As a result, she begins to doubt her relationship with her husband. The continuous presence of Rebecca in the house starts to haunt her, and she convinces herself that Maxim is still in love with Rebecca. She discovers, too, that her husband has a fiery temper, and sometimes erupts at apparently innocent actions on her part.
suicide. But Mrs. de Winter snaps out of her trance when a sudden commotion starts outside — a ship has been spotted foundering off the coast.
Mrs. de Winter (after changing her outfit) rushes downstairs to the front lawn, where she hears news that, during the rescue, a sunken boat has been found off the coast - with Rebecca's body in it. She spots a distant glow from the cottage on the shore and enters to find Maxim. Maxim admits to his new wife that he had earlier misidentified another body as Rebecca's in order to prevent discovery of the truth. From almost the beginning of their marriage, when Rebecca broke the news to him of her own promiscuous nature, he and Rebecca had hated one another. They had agreed to a sordid deal: she would act the perfect wife and hostess in public, preserving his family honour and her position, while he ignored her discreetly-conducted affairs. Rebecca, however, began to get "careless" after a while, for example disappearing for days on end to London and then returning as though nothing was wrong. Maxim was also aware of Rebecca's ongoing affair with Jack. One night, expecting to find Rebecca and Jack together, Maxim came down to the cottage. Rebecca had been expecting Jack. She told Maxim that she was pregnant with Jack's child. During the ensuing argument, she fell, hit her head, and died. Maxim took the body out in a boat which he then scuttled.
Shedding her girlish innocence, Maxim's wife immediately starts coaching her husband on how best to conceal the facts of Rebecca's death from the authorities.
In the ensuing police investigation, officials question whether the evidently deliberate damage to the boat pointed to suicide. Privately, Jack shows Maxim a letter from Rebecca urging him excitedly to meet her, which seems to suggest she was not suicidal. He tries to blackmail Maxim with the letter, but Maxim tells the police about the attempt. Maxim nevertheless comes under suspicion of murder and the second Mrs. de Winter must face the prospect of losing her husband. The investigation focuses on Rebecca's secret visits to a London doctor (Leo G. Carroll), which Jack presumes was due to what believes to have been her illicit pregnancy. However, the coroner's interview with the doctor in the presence of Maxim and Jack reveals that Rebecca was mistaken in believing herself pregnant, and was in fact suffering from terminal cancer.
The doctor's evidence persuades the coroner to bring in a verdict of suicide. Only Maxim and his wife will be able to understand the full story: that Rebecca had lied to Maxim about being pregnant with another man's child so as to goad him, in full knowledge of his family pride and easily-roused temper, into killing her — as an indirect means of suicide.
As Maxim returns home from London to Manderley, he finds the manor on fire, set alight by the deranged Mrs. Danvers. The second Mrs. de Winter has escaped the blaze, but Danvers dies in the flames.
AdaptationAt Selznick's insistence, the film adapts the plot of du Maurier's novel Rebecca faithfully. However, one plot detail was altered to comply with the Hollywood Production Code, which said that the murder of a spouse had to be punished. In the novel, Maxim shoots Rebecca, while in the film, he only thinks of killing her after she taunts him, whereupon she suddenly falls back, hits her head on a heavy piece of ship's tackle, and dies from her head injuries, so that her death is an accident, not murder. According to the book It's only a Movie, David O. Selznick wanted the smoke from the burning Manderley to spell out a huge "R". Alfred 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. Hitchcock also edited the picture in camera - shooting only what he wanted to see in the final film - a method of filmmaking that did not allow Selznick to reedit the picture. Although Selznick insisted the film be faithful to the novel, Hitchcock made many changes, especially with the character of Mrs. Danvers. In the novel, Mrs. Danvers is something of a jealous mother figure. Her past is mentioned in the book. But in the film, Mrs. Danvers is a much younger character (the actress, 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. Hitchcock made her more like a ghostly figure, with possible lesbian undertones (as discussed in the documentary The Celluloid Closet).
The theatrical release of Rebecca was delayed in order to give it a shot at the 1940 Academy Awards - the 1939 Awards would (obviously) be dominated by Gone with the Wind, another Selznick production.