Rebecca – Best Pictures of 1940 (#4)

Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in "Rebecca"

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. Danvers (Judith Anderson) makes life hell for Mrs. de Winter

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.



Filed under 1940, Yearly Best Pictures

10 responses to “Rebecca – Best Pictures of 1940 (#4)

  1. This never felt like a true Hitchock picture to me and you certainly hit on why here. I remembered being underwhelmed by this, though it was a handsomely made film.

    • I can understand being underwhelmed. I think I had the same response the first time I saw it, but it has grown on me over the years as I’ve seen it several more times. For me, part of the initial tepid reaction had to do with the high expectations I have for Hitchcock films and this doesn’t quite meet them. Still, once I got past that I have grown to appreciate it as a solid movie.

  2. Jon

    Hitch would hit his stride later, but this is a very solid film that can be very atmospheric. The Mrs. de Winter is very memorable and some of those scenes in the bedroom with the blowing curtains are done really well. I also always remember the scene in the fisherman’s shack. It’s a great set piece. I really like this film and have seen it a few times, however, it’s not on my short list of favorites by Hitch. It’s kind of 2nd tier Hitchcock.

    • I agree. This isn’t on my short list of my Hitchcock favorites either, but it’s still a good movie. You point out some of the great atmospheric touches. I would add the disastrous costume party as another effective moment. Yes, it’s second tier Hitchcock, but that is still head and shoulders above most other directors.

  3. *** Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. ***

    “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.”

    This is a very good point here methinks, as this sumptuous affair is in many ways more Selznick and less Hitchcock; certainly REBECCA is so much unlike almost all of Hitchcock, though I guess maybe SUSPICION would come closest. Yet the collaboration here has yielded a towering work, one of my favorite films by Hitch, and one that represents the top tier of craftsmanship in every department. One can talk of Joan Fontaine and Olivier and Judith Anderson, but two stars of equal stature in this brooding melodrama are camerman George Barnes and composer Frantz Waxman. What a chore that year to pick between Barnes and Greg Toland as cinematographer. Ha! I’d split my vote! REBECCA doesn’t have to be the #1 film of 1940; you’ve made a strong enough statement by placing it at #4, and supporting it with a most telling assessment. I agree the book is a craft mix between WUTHERING HEIGHTS and JANE EYRE. Absolutely.

    I would also have this among the top 3 or 4 of the year.

    • You are right to highlight to music of Franz Waxman and the photography of George Barnes. Both did beautiful jobs. There are several shots that we simply stunning (though I still would give Toland the edge for “Citizen Kane).

  4. Catching up with your countdown. As a fan of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, I’ve always really liked this movie – there was a TV mini-series adaptation with Charles Dance and Emilia Fox, but it came nowhere near the romantic power of the Hitchcock/Selznick film. Although the change of ending from the novel was ludicrous, and I can see why it infuriated Hitchcock to be forced by the Hays office to do it, it does make Maxim more sympathetic – and, as you say, Jason, it is a testament to his genius that he carried the plot change off so well. Amazing that he never won the Oscar for best director.

    Olivier, Fontaine and Anderson are all great in this, and, as Sam said, the cinematography and music are so compelling. I especially like the whole opening of the film, and also the scene where Maxim is showing his home movies always sticks in my mind. Another great choice here.

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