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5.0 out of 5 stars a gothic gem, 28 Feb 2014
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This review is from: Rebecca [1940] [DVD] (DVD)
This is one of Hitchcock's best films, his first for Hollywood. While it has his traditional themes of the murder mystery, there is an additional level of psychological realism that is missing in most of his later films, all in a splendidly atmospheric gothic romance, complete with a dark and ruined aristocratic mansion and the stuffy cruelty of the British upper classes and their servants. I will describe the setup of the plot, but not reveal any spoilers.

Fontaine is a young lady down on her luck, working as a companion - a kind of servant and sycophant - for an aging matron on vacation in the Riviera. The old lady is oppressive in her demands and expectation that Fontaine will submit to her whims without question, a cipher to intimidate and humiliate. But Fontaine's youthful radiant beauty gains the attention of a mysterious widower, Maxim, played by Olivier (he too is young, but always looks old). They begin a furtive romance, but there is something extremely dark and almost dead about him, a pull from another life or presence.

Once married - and warned with the cruelest condescension by her former employer that she will never be able to handle her new responsibilities - they move into a massive mansion in England. The servants, in particular the head woman, declare a kind of war on the young lady, who accepts her role yet is intimidated by their apparent sophistication and expectations.

The terrible presence in the house is the departed Rebecca, whom everyone seems to idolize and love. Fontaine must fight this, feeling her husband compares her unfavorably. With all these pressures, she becomes depressed and ever more fearful, lost amidst characters whose motivations are impossible to understand. What happened to her? Is there any chance she can find peace, if not happiness, with Maxim? These questions plague the girl as she explores the forbidden wing of the mansion.

Her life seems to be going nowhere, as stagnant as her marriage begins to feel. Then suddenly, an incident opens Maxim to her, and he confides in her finally. Things are not what they seemed and a difficult imbroglio follows that involves violence and accusations, climaxing in destruction. While romantic, the buildup is both frightening and depressing, an odd combination but completely believable.

Though it now appears as a kind of relic, this is a great viewing experience for film buffs and Hitchcock fans, but it should be entertaining for casual viewers as well. Warmly recommended. It is a masterpiece and the acting is first rate.
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