There are, specifically, two things I want to write about in regard to this film. The first one is the acting of Joan Fontaine. It was no surprise to me that she was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, as this was an extremely difficult part to play. She’s a nameless protagonist (seriously, she is never addressed by name in the film), a shrinking violet weighted down by the shadow cast by the film’s absent-due-to-death main character, Rebecca. The pressures on her character are manifold, and all that she is not is reflected in what others tell her Rebecca was. Fontaine does an amazing job molding her posture, facial reactions and behavior to emphasize this dramatic tension. At heart though, her character is happy and eager to please, and each blow to her self-esteem so obviously wears down this basic goodness that the film becomes emotionally torturous in the style of the gothic novel. She walks to the very precipice of madness.
Secondly, I want to talk about the ways that Hitchcock thwarts the Hays Code; something he was apparently very fond of doing. The Hays Code (or Production Code) were basically a set of censorship rules about things you were allowed or not allowed to depict when making a movie. If you do show something like a murder, the murderers must be punished by the end of the film. Hitchcock manages to use the narrative structure of the mystery to hint at things that he can’t actually show. It’s an amazing use of psychology; viewers will try to figure out how the pieces fit together and reach conclusions based on the cues Hitchcock provides that are both incorrect and in violation of the Hays Code. If you read between the lines, there are implications of marital infidelity, suicide, homicide, homosexuality and incest. They mostly all evaporate by the denouement.
This, the first of Hitchcock’s American-made films, is a very good movie, It’s no surprise that it was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and picked up two of ’em, including Best Picture. Like most Hitchcock films, there are a lot of balls in the air, but he’s a masterful juggler and ensure that each ball comes down at the right time, and in the right order.