As much a character as any populating the pages of Daphne du Maurier's novel, Rebecca, the lovely seaside estate of Manderley epitomizes English grandeur. Under the skilled hand of its former chatelaine and story namesake, until her death before the story opens, the vast manor was the setting of the most coveted soirees of 1930s society. As the tale unfolds we follow the shy, inexperienced second mistress as she navigates the trappings of her new life with wealthy, handsome widower, Maxim de Winter, all the while reminded in countless ways of how short she seems to fall of his first wife's success.
The setting of the film had to meet the expectations set by the novel and those of director Alfred Hitchcock who was familiar with the kind of homes Manderley was based upon. The decoration demanded both opulence and restraint, and could not be a Hollywood fantasy of the era. The architecture needed to convince audiences of the house's age and most importantly from a story-telling perspective, it needed to dwarf the young female protagonist. The smooth and slow roving camera of photographer George Barnes earned the film an Oscar and lovingly shows the fine work that set decorator Howard Bristol brought to the production.
A secluded morning room, boasting deep window seats and diamond mullioned windows, is dominated by a hearth vast enough to gobble up the timid young woman. Yet due to the intimate scale of the room and the heft of its appointments, we understand that while she may not craft lofty correspondences here, as did her predecessor, she still feels more at home in this space than in the grander ones beyond. Across the house in a wing overlooking the sea, the suite where Rebecca slept helps to fill in blanks about the first wife. Here the ceilings are higher, the architecture more contemporary and the textiles as supple and transparent as a fine peignoir. That the fabrics suggest a seductive garment is no accident, for the story that unfolds reveals that Rebecca was as sure-footed a paramour as she was a doyenne of the haute ton.
The modernity here separates the first Mrs. de Winter from the moorings of the past, indicating her freedom from passe expectations. Furthermore, the design shows that Rebecca felt enough ownership of Manderley to transpose her personality unabashedly over the antique tastes of her husband's ancestors.
Watching this 1940 film is a pleasure on many levels, as the story adaptation, production values and performances are all stellar. Yet in creating a character out of a house, Howard Bristol certainly deserves his own portion of the praise.