Adapted from the Daphne Du Maurier novel, Rebecca won the 1940 Oscar for best picture and preserves the novel's famous first line: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again". Hitchcock lifts the story out of du Maurier's dark, obsessive claustrophobia and presents a riveting satire about the toxicity of the gentility. Fontaine's character has married widower Maxim de Winter and moved to his ancestral home. She stumbles around Manderley like a temp on her first day at an investment bank, mortified, confused, intimidated by the legacy of her predecessor, Maxim's first wife, Rebecca, who's said to have died in a boating accident.
There are vivid female characters such as shrewd society woman Edythe van Hopper (Florence Bates) and Maxim's bossy sister Beatrice (Gladys Cooper), but best is housekeeper Mrs Danvers, played by Judith Anderson, a gliding serpent of scorn with a Viking crown of braided black hair, an archetype ripe for parody, imitation and comic inversion. In a superbly creepy and funny scene, she picks up Rebecca's negligee and says, "Have you ever seen anything so delicate? Look. You can see my hand through the lace."
The horror of Rebecca slides imperceptibly from beneath the comic weirdness. Maxim de Winter bullies, manipulates and insults Fontaine's character, but she's too naive to notice. In a scene of pseudo-revelation which Olivier cannily acts with overt staginess, de Winter declaims his ex as a lying, cheating, malicious flibbertigibbet who taunted him that she was pregnant with another man's baby. He mumbles insincerely: "I suppose I went mad for a moment – I suppose I must have struck her." She tripped, hit her head and died. A doctor then claims Rebecca was dying of cancer and unable to have children. So … it was OK to kill her accidentally because she was going to die anyway? In the novel it's even more nasty. Hitchcock shoots this sordid tale with light, slick cynicism.
As de Winter's cronies collude to absolve him, a beautiful fire ravages Manderley, representing Rebecca's rage at being so slandered. The house's charred remains are the perfect image of a great woman destroyed by smears, stories and sabotage.