“But then, of course, you know the whole story.”
Rebecca is the only Alfred Hitchcock film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. Of course, that coveted golden statue didn’t go to Hitchcock; it went to the film’s equally legendary producer, David O. Selznick. Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director, but for the first of five times, he came up short.
This 1941 Oscar evening was a fitting culmination to what had become a steadily strained producer/director partnership, one that was almost immediately fraught with contention. Riding high on the crest of his exceptional British work, Hitchcock was lured to Hollywood where he and Selznick originally planned to make a film about the Titanic. That ultimately went by the wayside, making the adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, “Rebecca,” the first Hitchcock picture under contract with Selznick. Though the producer’s epic-in-the-making Gone with the Wind (1939) took up a considerable share of his concentration, it did not prevent him from paying expectantly painstaking attention to this new production. Clashes predictably ensued, concerning everything from the adaptation process (Hitchcock was keen to use the novel as a source springboard, Selznick wanted a nearly identical filmic facsimile) to the prospective daily footage (Hitchcock storyboarded meticulously and shot only what was required, leaving Selznick little room for his notorious editorial tinkering). Despite the disagreements, though, and the resulting designation of what makes it a Hitchcock film and what makes it a Selznick film, Rebecca is an excellent movie, one that should not be disparaged on either side.
Following credits that proclaim this 1940 feature as Selznick International’s “picturization” of du Maurier’s text, the film opens with an effusive mournful remembrance centering around the oft-repeated Manderley, a large estate first seen as an obscured, dilapidated residence, a shadowy, forest-encased site from long ago and far away. The prominence of this central location, as the foremost setting of the film and a symbolic supernatural structure, produces an illusory ambiance that lingers throughout the picture. Among its many connotations, Manderley represents the past, a past, as far as the film is concerned, that begins in Monte Carlo. That’s where the unnamed main character, played by Joan Fontaine, is on the job as a paid companion to Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates), a voracious old woman and classic Hitchcockian old bitty. The young woman happens upon Maximilian “Maxim” de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a well-known aristocrat still shaken by the recent death of his widely-adored wife, Rebecca. Temperamentally unsuited to this superficial world of affluence and influence, Fontaine’s character is hopelessly timid and a little awestruck around the caustic yet charming Maximilian. She is as pleasantly fumbling as he is effortlessly suave, setting up an opposites-attract dynamic that will baffle so many to come. Though his charisma shines through in surprising flashes of humor, his general reticence suggests he has something to hide. She, on the other hand, is instantly likable and instantly unaffected. To augment this apparent contrast, Hitchcock wisely films most of their initial exchanges in medium two-shot, keeping clear their fickle courtship, their mutual actions and reactions (“Your expression keeps changing all the time,” she says), and effectively engaging the viewer in this burgeoning romance.
It’s a swift, whirlwind affair, with a tinge of cruelty (his proposal is essentially, “I’m asking you to marry me you little fool”). Eventually, it brings them to Manderley, where they arrive in the midst of a sudden downpour and the foreboding house is glimpsed through the blemished windshield. Generating this daunting impression, the ominous entry is maybe a little too on-the-nose, but it’s nothing compared to the sinister introduction of housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), a menacing, spectral personification of intimidation. Adding to the anxiety inherent at Manderley, Mrs. Danvers is among the most disturbing Hitchcock villains. Anderson’s severe mannerisms seem to suck the life out of any room she enters, and it is she who establishes the by-gone thematic emphasis of Rebecca, soullessly voicing expectations of how things used to be done and how they should remain. Her obsession with Rebecca, already extreme, was even further bolstered by hints of lesbianism that Hollywood’s Production Code was quick to curtail.
The new Mrs. de Winter is going to have a hard time making this house a home. Beautiful and outwardly meek, Fontaine survives on pins and needles, her timid, easily spooked character twisted and tormented by portentous secrets and thinly veiled insults. Our sympathies are securely with this hapless new bride; she, like us, comes into this strange, new world uninformed and uncertain. Manderley is a house of literal and figurative closed doors, concealed rooms, and puzzling features that all, in one way or another, lead back to the never-seen but frequently inferred Rebecca, her looming shadow cast upon the entire film. While everyone else is adamantly resigned to the past, our heroine endeavors to move on and establish a place of her own: “I am Mrs. de Winter now,” she boldly proclaims at one point. Nevertheless, judgments are acerbic, and though she has a few allies, others, like Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca’s snide cousin (George Sanders), an annoyingly conniving man (who, fittingly enough, is a car salesman), become increasingly malicious, blatantly out to sabotage the marriage. In his own way, Olivier’s Maximilian also elicits an unusual sort of empathy, with internal difficulties unstated but subtly insinuated by his erratic demeanor. When the film reaches its climactic revelation (creatively shot by Hitchcock, if a little too expository), the result is a surprisingly endearing authentication of the genuine love and devotion between the new Mr. and Mrs. de Winter.
Rebecca is an enigmatic film, with seamlessly shifting tones and an abundance of analytic potential. On the new Criterion Collection release of the film (a stellar two-disc issue with a wide range of supplements including interviews, documentaries, a commentary track, behind the scenes material, and more), a conversation between critic Molly Haskell and scholar Patricia White alludes to its feminist-Freudian themes, and topics such as psychosexual abuse and sadistic coercion. In formal terms, the two reference Rebecca’s expressionistic traits, and especially with this 4K restoration, one can see just what a stunning film it really is. This is arguably Hitchcock’s most classically striking black and white feature, coming perhaps second only to Vertigo (1958) when color is part of the equation. Operating within an ornate set that is large and varied enough to continually provide fresh pictorial possibility, cinematographer George Barnes employs illuminating deep focus, rich, haunting shadows, and an interplay of lighting intensity (penetrating on Anderson, soft of Fontaine). In addition to Best Picture, Barnes’ cinematography earned Rebecca its second Academy Award; the film received 11 nominations total, including honors for Anderson, Olivier, Fontaine, who would win her only Oscar the next year for Hitchcock’s Suspicion, and Franz Waxman’s impassioned score.
Rebecca was the second of three Daphne du Maurier stories adapted by Hitchcock, following Jamaica Inn in 1939 and followed by The Birds in 1963, and even if some unfairly dismiss the picture as a less typical work from its venerable director, there is enough about the film to rank it among his more polished productions (as opposed to something like 1947’s The Paradine Case, Hitch’s last under Selznick, where there is a sense of palpable disinterest and disengagement). As David Thomson notes in his essay for Criterion, “You can tell the story of Rebecca to someone before they see the film, but they’ll still be astonished when they feel the guilt and apprehension Hitchcock has delivered.” Or, as François Truffaut argues in his famous dialogue with Hitchcock, who regarded Rebecca as “not a Hitchcock picture,” the film remains “very modern, very solid.” “Yes,” Hitchcock partially conceded, “it has stood up quite well over the years. I don’t know why.” Maybe he didn’t, but watching the film again, the reasons seem so obvious.