While plenty of Alfred Hitchcock‘s films deal directly with death and murder, Rebecca is far subtler, exposing the auteur’s affinity for meticulously composed tension and manifest paranoia. Joan Fontaine plays the film’s endearingly naive protagonist, an orphan working as a companion to a haughty socialite (Florence Bates). When she meets the tall, dark, and handsome Maximilian de Winter (Laurence Olivier), the two fall into a whirlwind romance and an impromptu wedding, before journeying to Maxim’s sepulchral Manderley estate in the south of England. Here, happiness is impossible, as the new Mrs. de Winter can’t enter a room or open a drawer without uncovering evidence of Maxim’s late wife, Rebecca. Fontaine’s Mrs. de Winter is a meek innocent, trapped by love and a hostile housekeeper—played with thrilling eccentricity by Judith Anderson— craving nothing but the affection of her mysteriously distant husband.
Rebecca is a laborious tale that unfolds like a film noir, while releasing a steady drip of anxiety that maintains the essence of a thriller. It profits from a strong script and a bevy of grand performances, but is, first and foremost, a Hitchcock film; languishing in the sort of visceral angst that thrives in our everyday fears.