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Rebecca (1940)

October 13th, 2007 · 4 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” narrates the second Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) as we arrive at the ruins of a once great manor. Moving back in time, our unnamed heroine is in the French Riviera, where she crosses paths with George Fortescu Maximillian de Winter (Laurence Olivier). He’s perched on a cliff and appears to contemplate diving off it. Maxim is in Monte Carlo grieving the death of his wife, Rebecca. Our heroine is a paid companion to her insufferable employer (Florence Bates).

After a whirlwind courtship, the wealthy widower asks our heroine to marry and return with him to his magnificent Cornwall estate, Manderley. The second Mrs. de Winter is genuine, but young and woefully unprepared to assume control of the mansion, with its social schedule and staff. The housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) intimidates her from the start. Like everyone else our heroine meets, she reveres Rebecca de Winter, whose memory lives in every shadow of the house.

Rebecca apparently drowned at sea, but when her boat and body are recovered off the coast of Manderley, it becomes apparent that foul play was involved. Maxim confides to his new wife that he loathed Rebecca, who was not the ray of light everyone thought she was. He killed her accidentally in rage and scuttled her ship at sea. Rebecca’s unscrupulous cousin (George Sanders) suspects as much and a police inquiry convenes. Our heroine, meanwhile, searches for the truth.

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Production history 
Producer David O. Selznick signed director Alfred Hitchcock to a contract that brought him to America in 1938. Selznick had two projects in mind for the English talent. One was based on the disaster aboard the Titanic. The other was a 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier. The director preferred to sink the Titanic, but in November 1938, Selznick announced that Rebecca would be Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film. Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville and screenwriter Joan Harrison began work on a screenplay.

Filming on Gone With The Wind was underway, and with the burning of Atlanta preoccupying Selznick, Hitchcock had free reign to craft Rebecca, at least initially. His proposed treatment shocked the producer, departing from the bestselling novel by adding comic elements that did not sit well with Selznick. He was adamant Hitchcock adhere to the book he’d bought the screen rights to.

In July 1939, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Robert Sherwood was hired to polish Harrison’s adaptation. For the male lead, Hitchcock approached Ronald Colman, but the star was apprehensive about playing a wife killer. Selznick proposed William Powell, until Laurence Olivier became the frontrunner. For the second Mrs. de Winter, a 21-year-old starlet named Joan Fontaine emerged as Selznick’s choice. Hitchcock was not won over by her, but was no fan of extensive casting searches either. Fontaine got the part.

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Selznick also hired director of photography George Barnes to lend the picture a misty look, contradicting how Hitchcock had lit his British films. Released March 1940, Rebecca was a hit with audiences and a sensation with critics, garnering 11 Academy Award nominations. John Ford won Best Director for The Grapes of Wrath, but Hitchcock’s first two films in Hollywood – Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent – were nominated for Best Picture in the same year.

At 130 minutes, this film is not only long, but long winded. The last half hour feels as if it’s devoted to debate about Rebecca’s mental state and whether she could have killed herself or not. This is not a Hitchcock “shocker”, but is hilariously over the top, as only a David O. Selznick production could be. But like some beautiful soap star throwing herself around a room in a fit of high drama, Rebecca is so over the top as to be lovable. I wanted to hug this movie and tell it everything would be okay.

From a technical standpoint, the art design by Lyle Wheeler and lighting by George Barnes make Rebecca one of the most gorgeous black and white films of Hollywood’s Golden Age, perhaps of all time. Franz Waxman’s musical score is also supremely evocative of gothic mystery. Little in the way of intrigue occurs, but Daphne du Maurier’s source material cleverly mines the insecurities of a woman trying in vain to overcome her predecessor.

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Lisa Skrzyniarz at Crazy For Cinema deems Rebecca, “storytelling at it’s best. That being said it does have its hokey moments, but hey, it’s over 60 years old so that’s to be somewhat expected.”

“Overall the movie lacks fire. It starts as a romance, gets a little darker about an hour later, and then things start to shape up by an hour and thirty, but you will probably fall asleep before then,” writes Tom Blain at Jackass Critics.

David Nusair at Reel Film Reviews writes, “Hitchcock – along with cinematographer George Barnes – has infused the film with an unmistakably gothic sensibility, ensuring that Rebecca remains endlessly fascinating in terms of its visceral qualities. The meandering storyline, however, ultimately prevents the film from living up to its reputation as one of Hitchcock’s best.”

“You wish anything, madam?” View Joan Fontaine being given a tour of her predecessor’s bedroom by Judith Anderson, under George Barnes’ beautiful gothic lighting.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on novel · Dreams and visions · Famous line · Golden Age of Hollywood · Interrogation · Paranoia · Woman in jeopardy

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Megan // Oct 17, 2007 at 10:28 am

    Joe I am starting to fall behind. Can’t you just miss a day, darn you?!?

    I read Rebecca when I was in the 8th grade, and first saw the movie not long after that. I know the argument about book vs. movie has been done to death, but let me say that in this case (and Gone With the Wind is the only other example I can think of at the moment) the cast of the film match EXACTLY to the way I pictured them when I read DuMaurier’s novel. Also, I think this film absolutely nails the ‘gothic’ atmosphere. Way better than Jamaica Inn (which was also Hitchcock, wasn’t it?).

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Oct 17, 2007 at 10:00 pm

    Megan: You’re correct, Jamaica Inn was Hitchcock’s last film before moving to Hollywood. Don’t worry, there’s no penalty for taking a couple of days to enter a comment here. I appreciate that someone was able to offer insight on du Maurier’s book. Thanks!

    Damian: Your comment about “Hitch’s usual theme” is interesting because I think people read so much into Hitchcock’s work. Sometimes they’re seeing things Hitchcock may never have intended.

    I never read Rebecca, but I understand that Hitchcock was under contract to film the book, and had little freedom to inject his own ideas into the film. Maybe Selznick was savvy enough to match his director with material that vaguely resembled the work he’d done in England.

  • 3 Damian // Oct 17, 2007 at 9:14 pm

    Like Megan, I first read DuMaurier’s book when I was 8th grade BEFORE I saw the movie (one of the few times I’ve ever done that) and like Megan I’m not going to weigh in on the whole book vs. movie debate (I’ve already said my piece on the subject in a post I made a while back). I will just say that I thought each was execllent in its own way.

    One major change that I do recall *SPOILERS FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T SEE THE MOVIE OR READ THE BOOK* was that in the original book Max actually murdered his first wife (he shot her as I recall) and hid her body, but for the movie Rebecca’s death was an accident for which Max wasn’t responsible. Nonetheless, fearing nobody would believe him he hid her body anyway. Thus, Hitch’s usual theme of an “innocent man being accused of a crime” appears once again.

  • 4 Jami // May 5, 2008 at 12:32 am

    Amazing movie. Rebecca is a masterpiece I will always treasure.

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