The title character in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, his American debut after a string of British thrillers, is a woman who is never seen onscreen, not even in a photo. She died before the story even opens, and yet her presence infuses every frame of the film. This invisible ghost hovers over the seemingly doomed love of a naïve young woman (Joan Fontaine) who, in contrast to the title character, is seen but never named. This woman, so unprepossessing that she barely has an identity, is quiet, unworldly, slightly clumsy, and painfully, awkwardly shy. She serves as a "paid companion" to an oafish and demanding society matron (Florence Bates) who fancies herself a sophisticate and loves ordering her young charge around. Despite her shrinking nature, this girl falls in love with the handsome, debonair, but deeply troubled widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), whose wife Rebecca died in a boating accident not so long ago. The couple soon get married and de Winter takes his young bride back to his palatial home by the sea, where the spirit of the departed Rebecca still hangs over everything, smothering the second Mrs. de Winter (the only name she is ever called) with the impossible task of filling the shoes of this glamorous, beautiful, universally popular society lady.
Names are incredibly important in this film, and the script goes to great lengths to avoid giving the heroine herself a name and also to point out her lack of a name and, consequently, lack of a clearly defined identity. In some scenes, she seems to be barely there, not introduced, not speaking, as invisible as Rebecca. When she first meets her future husband, he's introduced to her, but if he ever learns her name, Hitchcock is careful not to show that scene. Instead, he refers to her only as "my darling" and other pet names, and after their marriage, she's introduced to anyone else only as Mrs. de Winter, a name she shares, not incidentally, with the deceased Rebecca. She has no name of her own, only a name she's inherited from another woman, and she has no identity separate from her husband. When given the opportunity to introduce herself instead of being introduced, she says only that she is "Maxim's wife," self-identifying with a possessive noun that refers back to her husband rather than directly to herself. Maxim himself has an abundance of names his full moniker is the ostentatious George Fortescue Maximilian de Winter and Rebecca's ubiquitous name appears as frequently as though she were still alive. Her initials are still on bedsheets, handkerchiefs, note paper, address books, and all manner of other decorations around the house, and the new Mrs. de Winter continually finds herself inheriting these leftovers emblazoned with that bold, stylized "R."
Only the heroine is lacking in names, a fact that resonates on multiple levels: it intensifies her fear that she is stepping in for another woman who Maxim is obviously still preoccupied with; it betrays her lower-class insecurity about inhabiting the role of a society hostess surrounded by servants in this spacious home; and subtextually, it indicates a proto-feminist concern for the loss of female identity attendant to marriage as a general institution. Here, the loss of individual autonomy that often accompanies marriage especially for the woman who sacrifices her name to take on her husband's instead is exaggerated by the suspicion that this woman barely possessed her own identity to begin with. Fontaine plays her with a shrinking, hunched quality, always nervous, seemingly never sure quite how she should hold her arms, and in moments of especially great fear practically contorting herself into a pretzel. She looks as though, if she could implode into herself on the spot, she would. Hitch apparently helped wrest this performance from his star by encouraging the off-camera perception that everyone on the set hated her, and the result is a completely unglamorous star turn, shorn of the usual actorly confidence. The effect is heightened by the contrast with Olivier, as grand and stately as ever, towering over his new wife in stature and in self-assurance alike. She is so insecure that she seems to be looking for someone to think and act for her, which is why she puts up with her domineering boss, why she throws herself at a man who mostly seems distant and disinterested, and why when she becomes his wife she allows his servants to manipulate and control her.
This is especially true of the household's chief servant, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who was fiercely devoted to the first Mrs. de Winter and resents the intrusion of a second. Anderson gives a wonderfully fiendish performance as the gaunt, sinister housekeeper, always lurking around and padding quietly through the mansion to surprise the lady of the house at inopportune moments. In one of the film's eeriest sequences, Danvers shows the new bride around her predecessor's huge, airy room, which has been sealed off ever since Rebecca's death and maintained in exactly the same condition as the former Mrs. de Winter liked it. The room is beautiful, and Hitchcock films it with light streaming through the tall, overpowering windows, capturing its austere beauty: it looks like a mausoleum, and Danvers' guided tour is like rifling through the bones of the dead. She leads the heroine through Rebecca's nightly routine, describing how she would undress herself while telling stories of glamorous parties, then take a bath, sit by the dressing table to comb her hair, and go to bed. She opens Rebecca's closets full of expensive clothes, inviting the younger girl to feel the plushness of a fur coat, and she even displays the dead woman's underwear, recalling, in a moment of deadpan humor, how it was specially made for her by nuns. The whole scene has a creepy necrophiliac undertone, like digging through a crypt: an intimate, personal violation. The room stands in for Rebecca herself, and Danvers' tour is a way of being with her beloved employer, touching and fondling Rebecca's possessions as though they were an extension of her departed flesh. The unsettling sexuality of it all comes to the fore when Danvers picks up Rebecca's lacy negligee, holding it out and admiring its delicacy and transparency. She places her hand inside it and says with lusty joy, "Look, you can see my hand through it." It's an obvious invitation to imagine Rebecca wearing the gown, to imagine a woman who displays her body so sensuously with such a flimsy barrier simultaneously covering and revealing her nakedness; the hand pressing against the inside of the negligee stands in for Rebecca's naked body.
This perverse but subtly masked sexuality is, of course, a perfect topic for Hitchcock, whose thrillers so often trafficked in dense psycho-sexual layering. The plot of the film is, in many ways, pure melodrama, and could've easily lent itself to overcooked hysterics in other hands, but Hitch truly makes the material his own. This is true not only of the second half, in which the plot unexpectedly morphs into a kind of typical Hitchcockian "wrong man" thriller and not an especially interesting one either but even more so of the sedate, subtle first half, in which the dread and suffocation of the heroine steadily increase. Here, Hitch's characteristic suspense is diffuse, building atmosphere not through any particular events but through a generalized aura of fear surrounding the characters. The film evokes the overbearing presence of Rebecca primarily with sheer technical skill: especially by photographing the unnamed new wife in spacious deep-focus compositions that isolate her within the house, which seems to stretch off into the distance for miles. The surroundings loom over the excessively modest new Mrs. de Winter, who is small and insignificant in her new home, her stooped posture and shy manner contributing to her diminishment. Even inanimate objects have more personality than her, as Rebecca's leftover clothes and decorations are given a totemic power that dwarfs the woman who now possesses them. The film itself, though, is as potent and haunting as its ghostly title character.