The film is a gothic tale shot in black-and-white. Maxim de Winter's first wife Rebecca, who died before the story starts, is never seen. Her reputation and others' recollections about her, however, are a constant presence in the lives of Maxim, his new young second wife, and the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers.
An unnamed naïve young woman (Joan Fontaine) is in Monte Carlo working as a paid companion to Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates) when she meets the aristocratic widower Maximilian "Maxim" de Winter (Laurence Olivier). They fall in love, and within two weeks they are married. The young woman is now the second "Mrs. de Winter."
Maxim takes his new bride back to Manderley, his large country house in Cornwall. The housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) is domineering and cold, and is obsessed with the beauty, intelligence and sophistication of Maxim's dead wife Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter, preserving her former bedroom, the master suite, as a shrine. Although dead, Rebecca's presence is pervasive: Several things throughout the house - stationery, handkerchiefs, bed linens, even the master bedroom door - bear her ornate "R" or "R de W" monogram. As her closest confidant, Mrs. Danvers regularly comments on Rebecca's exceptional grace and style. When asked what Rebecca was like, Frank Crawley (Reginald Denny), Maxim's best friend and manager of the estate, absent-mindedly tells the new Mrs. de Winter that Rebecca was an exceptional beauty.
The new Mrs. de Winter is intimidated by her responsibilities and begins to doubt her relationship with her husband. The continuous reminders of Rebecca overwhelm her; she believes that Maxim is still deeply in love with his first wife. She also discovers that her husband sometimes becomes very angry at her for apparently insignificant actions. She also meets Rebecca's so-called "favorite cousin", Jack Favell (George Sanders), who visits the house while Maxim is away.
Trying to be the perfect wife, the young Mrs. de Winter convinces Maxim to hold a costume party, as he had done with Rebecca. She wants to plan her own costume, but Mrs. Danvers suggests she copy the beautiful outfit in the portrait of Lady Caroline de Winter, an ancestor of Maxim. At the party, when the costume is revealed, Maxim is appalled; Rebecca wore the same outfit at the ball a year ago, shortly before her death.
Mrs. de Winter confronts Danvers, who tells her she can never take Rebecca's place, and almost manages to convince her to jump to her death. An airborne flare reveals that a ship has hit the rocks. Mrs. de Winter rushes outside, where she hears that, during the rescue, a sunken boat has been found with Rebecca's body in it.
Maxim admits to his new wife that he had earlier misidentified another body as Rebecca in order to conceal the truth. His first marriage, until now viewed by the world as ideal, was in fact a sham. At the very beginning of their marriage, Rebecca had told Maxim she intended to continue the scandalous life she had previously lived. He hated her for this, but they agreed to an arrangement: In public, she would pretend to be the perfect wife and hostess, and he would ignore Rebecca's private, wanton lifestyle. However, Rebecca grew careless, including an ongoing affair with Jack Favell. One night, Rebecca told Maxim she was pregnant with a child that was not his. Laughing at Maxim's dismay, Rebecca proclaimed that the child, presumed to be a boy and legally Maxim's son, would thus inherit his beloved estate Manderley. During the ensuing heated argument she fell, hit her head and died. Maxim took the body out in her boat, which he then scuttled.
Now assured of her husband's love for her and not his first wife, the second Mrs. de Winter sheds the remnants of her girlish innocence. She begins to coach her husband how to conceal the mode of Rebecca's death from the authorities. In the police investigation, deliberate damage to the boat points to suicide. However, Favell shows Maxim a note from Rebecca, which appears to prove that she was not suicidal; Favell tries to blackmail Maxim. Maxim tells the police, and then falls under suspicion of murder. The investigation reveals Rebecca's secret visit to a London doctor (Leo G. Carroll), which Favell assumes was due to her illicit pregnancy. But the police interview with the doctor establishes that Rebecca was not actually pregnant; the doctor had told Rebecca that she was suffering from a late-stage cancer instead.
The coroner renders a finding of suicide. Only Frank Crawley, Maxim, and his wife know the full story: that Rebecca told Maxim she was pregnant with another man's child in order to try to goad him into killing her, an indirect means of suicide that also would have ensured her husband's ruination and possible execution.
As Maxim returns home from London to Manderley, he sees that the manor is on fire, set ablaze by the deranged Mrs. Danvers. The second Mrs. de Winter and the staff escape the blaze, but Danvers is killed when a ceiling collapses on her. Finally, a silk nightdress case on Rebecca's bed, with a beautifully embroidered "R" - Rebecca's proud emblem of ownership - is consumed by flames.
At Selznick's insistence, the film faithfully adapts the plot of du Maurier's novel Rebecca. However, at least one plot detail was altered to comply with the Hollywood Production Code, which said that the murder of a spouse had to be punished. In the novel, Maxim shoots Rebecca, while in the film, he only thinks of killing her as she taunted him into believing that she was pregnant with another man's child, and her subsequent death is accidental. However, Rebecca was not pregnant but had incurable cancer and had a motive to commit suicide, that of punishing Maxim from beyond the grave. Therefore, her death is declared a suicide, not murder.
According to the book It's Only a Movie, Selznick wanted the smoke from the burning Manderley to spell out a huge "R". Hitchcock thought the touch lacked subtlety. While Selznick was preoccupied by Gone with the Wind (1939), Hitchcock was able to replace the smoky "R" with the burning of a monogrammed négligée case lying atop a bed pillow. According to Leonard J. Leff's book Hitchcock and Selznick, Selznick took control of the film once Hitchcock had completed filming, reshooting many sequences and re-recording many performances. Some sources say this experience led Hitchcock to edit future pictures in camera (shooting only what he wanted to see in the final film) a method of filmmaking that restricts a producer's power to re-edit the picture.
Although Selznick insisted that the film be faithful to the novel, Hitchcock did make some other changes, especially with the character of Mrs. Danvers, though not as many as he had made in a previously rejected screenplay, in which he altered virtually the entire story. In the novel, Mrs. Danvers is something of a jealous mother figure, and her past is mentioned in the book. But in the film, Mrs. Danvers is a much younger character (Judith Anderson would have been about 42 at the time of shooting), and her past is not revealed at all. The only thing we know about her is that she came to Manderley when Rebecca was a bride.
The Breen Office, Hollywood's censorship board, specifically prohibited any outright hint of a lesbian infatuation or relationship between Mrs. Danvers and the unseen Rebecca, though the film clearly does dwell on Danvers' obsessive memories of her former mistress. The scenes are clearly echoed in the 1944 film The Uninvited, in which an unseen and ghostly mistress of the house has possibly had such an illicit relationship with her psychologist best friend.
The Hollywood Reporter reported in 1944 that Edwina Levin MacDonald sued Selznick, Daphne du Maurier, United Artists and Doubleday for plagiarism. MacDonald claimed that the film Rebecca was stolen from her novel Blind Windows, and sought an undisclosed amount of accounting and damages. The complaint was dismissed on January 14, 1948 and the judgment can be read online.Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. de Winter
Laurence Olivier as George Fortescue Maximilian "Maxim" de Winter, owner of Manderley
Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers, housekeeper of Manderley
George Sanders as Jack Favell, Rebecca's first cousin and lover
Reginald Denny as Frank Crawley, Maxim's estate manager of Manderley and friend
Gladys Cooper as Beatrice Lacy, Maxim's sister
C. Aubrey Smith as Colonel Julyan
Nigel Bruce as Major Giles Lacy, Beatrice's husband
Florence Bates as Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper, employer of the second Mrs. de Winter
Edward Fielding as Frith, oldest butler of Manderley
Melville Cooper as Coroner at trial
Leo G. Carroll as Dr. Baker, Rebecca's doctor
Leonard Carey as Ben, the beach hermit at Manderley
Lumsden Hare as Mr. Tabbs, boat builder
Forrester Harvey as Chalcroft the innkeeper
Philip Winter as Robert, a servant at Manderley
Hitchcock's cameo appearance, a signature feature of his films, takes place near the end; he is seen walking, back turned to the audience, outside a phone box just after Jack Favell completes a call.
Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times called it "an altogether brilliant film, haunting, suspenseful, handsome and handsomely played." Variety called it "an artistic success" but warned it was "too tragic and deeply psychological to hit the fancy of wide audience appeal." Film Daily wrote: "Here is a picture that has the mark of quality in every department - production, direction, acting, writing and photography - and should have special appeal to femme fans. It creates a new star in Joan Fontaine, who does fine work in a difficult role, while Laurence Olivier is splendid." Harrison's Reports declared: "A powerful psychological drama for adults. David O. Selznick has given it a superb production, and Alfred Hitchcock has again displayed his directorial skill in building up situations that thrill and hold the spectator in tense suspense." John Mosher of The New Yorker wrote that Hitchcock "labored hard to capture every tragic or ominous nuance, and presents a romance which is, I think, even more stirring than the novel."
Rebecca won the Film Daily year-end poll of 546 critics nationwide naming the best films of 1940.
The film earned $2 million in the US and $1 million in Britain on its initial release. It was re-released in Britain in 1945 and made $460,000.
Awards and honors
Rebecca won two Academy Awards and was nominated for nine more: It is the only film since 1936 (when awards for actors in supporting roles were first introduced) that, despite winning Best Picture, received no Academy Award for acting, directing or writing.
Rebecca was twice honored by the AFI in their AFI 100 Years... seriesAFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills – #80
AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains – Mrs. Danvers, #31 Villain
The Hollywood screen version of Rebecca was adapted for radio on numerous occasions. The Screen Guild Theater presented half-hour adaptions with Joan Fontaine, her husband at the time, Brian Aherne, and Agnes Moorehead (May 31, 1943), and with Loretta Young, John Lund and Agnes Moorehead (November 18, 1948). Joan Fontaine and Joseph Cotten performed a half-hour adaptation October 1, 1946, on The Cresta Blanca Hollywood Players. The Lux Radio Theatre presented hour-long adaptations with Ronald Colman, Ida Lupino and Judith Anderson (February 3, 1941), and with Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Betty Blythe (November 6, 1950).
A Broadway stage adaptation starring Diana Barrymore, Bramwell Fletcher and Florence Reed ran January 18–February 3, 1945, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
On television, Rebecca was adapted for The Philco Television Playhouse (October 10, 1948), with Mary Anderson and Bramwell Fletcher; Robert Montgomery Presents (May 22, 1950), with Barbara Bel Geddes and Peter Cookson; and Broadway Television Theatre (September 1, 1952), with Patricia Breslin and Scott Forbes. Theatre '62 presented an NBC-TV adaptation starring James Mason as Maxim, Joan Hackett as the second Mrs. de Winter, and Nina Foch as Mrs. Danvers.
The movie was an inspiration for the Kollywood movie Puthiya Paravai starring the great stalwart actor Sivaji Ganesan. The film has been remade by Bollywood twice — as Kohra (1964), starring Waheeda Rehman and Biswajit Chatterjee; and as Anamika (2008), starring Dino Morea, Minissha Lamba and Koena Mitra.The film Rebecca was parodied on The Carol Burnett Show in a 1972 skit called "Rebecky".
The film was used as the basis of a sketch on the BBC comedy sketch show That Mitchell and Webb Look. In the skit, the plot is changed, at the insistence of the producer, to a prequel, set while the first Mrs. de Winter is still alive and has just begun living with Maxim. The humour is derived from references to the then-unknown second Mrs. de Winter scattered throughout the mansion, such as a dress "reserved for the second Mrs. de Winter" and a painting of a woman with her face covered and the letters "TBA" written.