Rebecca is the only picture directed by Alfred Hitchcock to be awarded the Oscar for best picture, though they failed to also honor the director, an oversight the Academy would never correct despite his direction of some of the best films of the 1940s and 1950s (Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest). Perhaps, though, they were right to snub Hitchcock this time. Rebecca was as much producer David O. Selznick’s picture as it was Hitchcock’s; they both battled to assert their own visions and Selznick shaped much of the look, style, and narrative of the film with his usual rigorous oversight.
Rebecca turned out to be a fine movie, though I don’t agree that it’s the best picture of the year. Based on a book by Daphne Du Marier, Rebecca is something of a twentieth century gothic mishmash of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. A meek, unnamed woman (Joan Fontaine) who is traveling in the south of France acting as a companion for a domineering snob. She is whisked off her feet in a whirlwind romance by Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a mysterious and moody widower. In a flash they are married and he takes her to his ancestral home Manderley (castle more like it). Once in England, the new Mrs. De Winter confronts the figurative ghost of Max’ dead wife Rebecca.
Her oppressive presence is felt everywhere, kept alive by Manderley’s unbalanced housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). Danvers resents the new Mrs. De Winter, not because she isn’t fine or sophisticated (which she isn’t really), but because her frustrated love for her former mistress bursts out in jealous rages at the thought of this little mouse trying to replace the grand Rebecca de Winter. Danvers isn’t outright hostile. It is a subtle, passive aggressive hostility that bubbles just below the each question or comment made to the new Mrs. De Winter. A critique is always implied with a pursed lip or a raised eyebrow, never voiced.
Mrs. De Winter is tested further when evidence is uncovered that suggests Rebecca may have been murdered. Could her beloved Max have killed his first wife? Hitchcock had to change the end of the book to conform to Hayes Office standards and just about any objective observation will deem the change silly. It may weaken the end of the film, but it doesn’t destroy the impact of the entire picture. I think that is a testament of the genius of Hitchcock; he handles everything expertly, so much so that we (mostly) accept a logically tortured twist in the plot.
Rebecca is a fine work of suspense, though certainly not Hitchcock’s best. We can sometimes feel the conflicting visions of Hitchcock and Selznick at work. The movie is more fluid, less regimented than most of Hitchcock’s other films. This clash of styles could have been disastrous, but they managed to craft a moody psychological thriller out of the best of both.