US (1940) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Having made his name in his native Britain Alfred Hitchcock set sail across the pond to the glitzy centre of filmmaking in the west, Hollywood. His first film made on US soil was an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca, and was produced by none other than the legendary David O. Selznick. It was an interesting and profitable learning curve for both men, with the experience shaping the way they did business in future.
This gothic drama tells the tale of the affluent Maximilian “Maxim” DeWinter (Laurence Olivier) who meets and falls in love with a meek young woman (Joan Fontaine) while in Monte Carlo. This whirlwind romance results in a hasty marriage, freeing the woman from her work as a paid companion to the haughty socialite Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates) and instead giving her the chance to live as the lady of the manor at the DeWinter country home of Manderley.
Upon arrival at the vast mansion the new Mrs. DeWinter is overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of her new home and having an army of servants to attend to her every need. However one in particular, the dark and brooding Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), seems to take a dislike to her new mistress, harbouring a long held devotion to the former Mrs. DeWinter, the late eponymous Rebecca. While the new bride is forced to contend with the spectre of her predecessor, Rebecca’s mysterious death looms ominously over everyone at Manderley.
Despite being a production fraught with conflict between director and producer, Rebecca proved to be a good start to Hitchcock’s time in Hollywood, being the only film in his immense catalogue to win the Best Film Oscar, whilst picking up a second one for Best Cinematography and earning nominations in nine other categories. One of these was Best Actress for Joan Fontaine who would have to wait until the following year to make a victory speech for her second Hitchcock film Suspicion.
The plot is largely faithful to du Maurier’s original novel as per O. Selznick’s insistence although some of it needed tweaking to accommodate the stifling Hayes Code which was in full operation at this point. However Hitchcock was able to add his own unique flavour to the story, aside from his trademark cameo appearance, which admittedly in this case would seem rather incongruous under the circumstances.
It may have been an American production but Hitch hadn’t quite shaken off his Britishness which shows in the first act, bolstered somewhat by the presence of a British lead and the Cornwall setting. The feel and the mood of the film is very melodramatic but it gradually darkens as the master adds his own touch to it. When the new Mrs. DeWinter (she is never given a name) enters the morning room for the first time, the family dog Jasper leaps up and walks off, a nice subtle reflection of the pervasive feeling towards the new lady of the house.
Later as maxim shows his bride some old holiday reels, the pair argue, with the angry Maxim’s face hidden in the shadow’s while the sole light of the room illuminates the saintly visage of his wife. It is not a spoiler to mention that Rebecca isn’t once seen in the film, not even in a photograph or a flashback, but she doesn’t need to be as her presence is felt through the constant deification of the deceased by Mrs. Danvers.
Mrs. DeWinter mark two decides to fight back to win her husband over, hampered at every step by the Machiavellian Mrs. Danvers which pushes Maxim to breaking point, forcing him to drop a huge bombshell to his new wife about Rebecca’s death. The tone of the film then shifts to a mystery as a chance discovery reopens the case, putting Maxim in the hot seat while the flames of these accusations are being stoked by Rebecca’s suspicious “cousin” Jack Favell (George Sanders).
This clash of styles may seem jarring but Hitchcock seamlessly brings the three together inside 125 minutes with a rare competency during a period in which most films of this nature were largely one note affairs. The twists and turns are compelling and we are kept guessing up until the last moment, which in this case features a superb final shot which nearly didn’t happen. O. Selznick had wanted a tacky and improbable visual denouement which Hitchcock said wasn’t subtle enough and took advantage of O. Selznick’s time away on Gone With the Wind to have his own way. Hitchcock, of course, was right.
The final scene also demonstrates why George Barnes was rewarded for his cinematography, which is top notch throughout, but it is the climax which seals the deal. Together he and Hitchcock create a unique narrative in one scene where Maxim is delivering his revelation and the camera moves about the room, as if to re-enact the movements of the moment without the need of a flashback, leaving the audience to use our imagination.
As mentioned before this film had a great cast with the three leads all being nominated for their roles. In retrospect Olivier seems too big for this film but he is on fine form here. Judith Anderson is the prototype for every creepy housemaid that came in her wake while the perpetually suave George Sanders shows he can be a louse when necessary. I honestly believe Joan Fontaine was much better here than in Suspicion but the academy preferred Ginger Rogers over her. Either way this was a career defining performance for Fontaine.
Even with O. Selznick’s interference Rebecca remains an important entry into Hitchcock’s canon, as both his US debut and a stunning portent of things to come from the Master of Suspense. A little dated in style for some modern tastes, the influence of this film becomes clearer as it progresses and still delivers a hefty punch as a dark mystery thriller.