You can’t blame Hitchcock for the kinky sexual subtext in “Rebecca” because it was in the novel. Stuff like the sinister Mrs. Danvers showing the new Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) the old Mrs. de Winter’s underwear: “They were made specially for her in a convent in St. Clair.”
In case you had any doubts, your suspicion that Mrs. Danvers is unhinged is confirmed when she pulls out Rebecca’s nightgown, marveling over how sheer it is (“Look, you can see my hand through it!”) And then, just for good measure, she goes the extra mile, suggesting that Rebecca comes back to watch her former husband and his new wife together. You know what “together” means.
Fontaine’s performance makes the picture memorable. You watch her harden as the story develops, taking on the responsibilities of her role as mistress of Manderley, rallying behind her unstable husband (Laurence Olivier). She comes across as natural, spontaneous, whereas Olivier strikes me as more studied, as if he’s watching himself playing the character of de Winter.
Hitchcock’s sure touch with the pacing and camera work perfectly conveys the gothic feel of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel. The menace you feel from the moment you enter Manderley, the tension in every scene, which grows more unbearable as the film goes on — so much so that you’d like to stop watching because you fear the story cannot end well, but of course you can’t stop. You’re in too deep.
You won’t breathe until it’s over.