Alfred Hitchcock’s first American project was his only film to win an Academy Award, and since it was for Best Picture, it was producer David O Selznick, not Hitchcock, who took home the statuette. In 1968 Hitchcock received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, but he never got an Oscar.
Joan Fontaine plays a lonely young woman without a family who’s employed as a paid companion for an overbearing older woman (Florence Bates, who’s very entertaining in the part). In Monte Carlo they encounter Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a wealthy and handsome widower depressed over his wife’s death some months before. He takes a liking to the quiet and timid Fontaine, and when she unhappily informs him that her employer is taking her to New York, he responds with a proposal of marriage.
She accepts, and after a happy honeymoon they return to his immense Cornish estate called Manderley. There Fontaine finds herself living in the shadow of the first Mrs. de Winter, the Rebecca of the title. (Perhaps to underscore Rebecca’s overwhelming presence even in death, we never learn the name of Fontaine’s character, either in the movie or in Daphne du Maurier’s novel, which is narrated in the first person by her character.)
Some people befriend Fontaine, but the stern head of the household staff, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), makes it clear that she considers Fontaine an unwelcome interloper and far inferior to the adored Rebecca in beauty, sophistication, and everything else. She engineers ways for Fontaine, who is trying to save her increasingly troubled marriage, to do things that upset her husband. She tries to convince Fontaine that her husband doesn’t love her and urges her to leave, dead or alive. Then a sudden new development puts Mr. de Winter himself in serious jeopardy.
Though perhaps a bit overdramatic, it’s quite a good film. Joan Fontaine, a relative unknown at the time, is excellent.