“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” That’s one of the most famous opening lines of any book. I’ve never been quite sure why—it doesn’t do anything for me—but there it is. The movie opens that way, too.
The story is that Laurence Olivier wanted Vivien Leigh, his current squeeze, to star as the first-nameless protagonist. (All through the movie I kept trying to recall the first name of the new Mrs. De Winter. Surely they said it at some point. I felt sorta dumb when I read that she had no first name that we ever learn.) When Hitchcock cast Joan Fontaine instead, he made life difficult for her in many ways. Hitch picked up on this, and since it seemed to be enhancing her performance as the poor lost little mouse, he picked on her, too. True? I dunno, but it’s a good story. Maybe somebody could ask her. Not only is she alive at almost 95, so is her sister, Olivia de Havilland, who is 96. Incredible, isn’t it, that the last two surviving big Hollywood movie stars from that era are sisters? And that they haven’t spoken to each other since 1975?
This has never been a favorite of mine. The semi-Gothic nature of the story does not appeal to me, and Maxim de Winter is not a character I like very much. What makes it watchable is the lovely production design and cinematography, and the great acting by Olivier and Fontaine. But most of all, the supporting role of Mrs. Danvers, one of the all-time great villains and all-time great performances by Judith Anderson. She makes your skin crawl from her very first appearance on the screen. In a match-up between the shy and self-effacing new Mrs. de Winter, it’s clear who is going to win. And she does, in her own way. I wondered if she won an Oscar that year. I thought she clearly should have … until I looked it up and found out that Jane Darwell won for The Grapes of Wrath. Okay, you got me, Darwell was better. Too bad for Anderson.
Also worth noting is George Sanders. There was no one better at playing the detached, snotty, entitled sort of Brit you just want to slap silly from the first time he opens his mouth.