Rebecca does not refer to the name of either of our lead characters but rather to the deceased wife of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), who begins to fall in love with an unnamed woman (Joan Fontaine) who he eventually marries, thus making her the new Mrs. de Winter. His new wife is already nervous about living in a wealthy lifestyle that she's unaccustomed to, but her nervousness over this union becomes even greater once she realizes how much the shadow of Rebecca looms over her and the de Winter estate, with employees like Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) being especially unwilling to let the past go. How exactly will the new Mrs. de Winter be able to forge a future when the past is suffocating her like this?
Like many classic movies I've never seen before, I went into my initial viewing of Rebecca completely blind as to what the actual plot of the motion picture was, I only knew of Laurence Olivier's participation in the project and it's Academy Award victories. Somehow I'd even missed the various pop culture parodies of Rebecca (which include a widely well-liked MADtv sketch), so the barest amount of story details related to this whole production were a mystery to me until I actually sat down to watch it. That turns out to be something that works in the stories favor since Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison penned screenplay (adapted from a book by Daphne du Maurier) relies heavily on the viewer being just as uncertain of what's going on as Joan Fontaine's lead character.
The moment the new Mrs. de Winter arrives to her husband's estate, it's clear something is rotten in the state of Denmark, particularly in how Mrs. Danvers behaves towards her, but for the longest time we're kept in the dark as to where this the tension is coming from. At first, it seems to be coming from a relatable sense of unease from the new Mrs. de Winter trying to establish her own identity in the shadow of Rebecca, a personal phenomenon expressed cleverly in moments like Mrs. de Winter accidentally breaking a precious item and then concealing the shards of that item, as if she were a guest trying to cover up that she broke something of value to her host. Similarly conveying her internal struggles with coming to terms with her new role in the de Winter estate is all the little asides guests and employees offer up to her that make it clear she's got to work extra hard to establish herself beyond just being a replacement for her predecessor.
Through the way they constantly bring up the past to Mrs. de Winter's face, usually in the most subtle yet impactful of ways, Maxim de Winter, his estate and his employees have a quiet sense of ominousness about them that puts one on edge. In one of the scripts best touches, these elements work believably as both menacing and also thing that outside passerby's might just dismiss as run-of-the-mill rich people quirkiness. As the story goes on, the unpredictability of Rebecca becomes even more discernable and such unpredictability is extremely exciting to watch unfold, there's always some kind of unforeseen development, like the sudden importance of supporting character Jack Favell (George Sanders) in the final half-hour, lurking around the corner for our lead characters to have to endure.
Both the audience and Mrs. de Winter are always on the knife's edge of trying to figure out what exactly is going on in Rebecca and aside from an ending that wraps things up too abruptly, the script works quite well at maintaining a propulsive sense of unpredictability. Alfred Hitchcock's direction here is similarly successful, with the filmmaker showing real creativity in how he conveys foreboding visuals in a gothic horror setting. Meanwhile, Laurence Olivier certainly showed off to me why he's an acclaimed performer with his work here that does a commendable job working on different levels, certain dialogue deliveries, for instance, could work equally well as either reassuring or menacing, that ambiguity contributes heavily to the memorably creepy atmosphere of Rebecca.
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