Rebecca: Hitchcock’s Only Winner

Several weeks ago, I wrote, in consecutive weeks about Gone with the Wind from 1939 and then How Green Was My Valley from 1941. Both films are notable for what they did to make the film jump off the screen (Gone with the Wind) or for showcasing the politics of the Academy giving the wrong film Best Picture (as was the case with How Green Was My Valley).

 

But what’s interesting is that, for the second week in a row, I’m faced with reviewing a film that was sandwiched between two other notable films. Gone with the Wind made my eyeballs melt and run down my face with it’s amazing color and cinematography. How Green Was My Valley beat out Orson Welles’s masterpiece Citizen Kane. Last week, I was disappointed in The Sting being between The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. But, this week’s film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, is not like The Sting. In fact, it’s near the top of the best films I’ve seen thus far.

 

Rebecca is vintage Hitchcock, but it’s also Hitchcock before he was really Hitchcock. Only 41 years old when Rebecca was released, Hitchcock, an English director, partnered with David O. Selznick in his first ever American film, and the first with Selznick.

 

Starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine, Rebecca is an early psychological thriller that is a marvel of dramatic storytelling and a force of narrative. Olivier is rich and mysterious Maxim de Winter, while Fontaine is an innocent and somewhat naive woman who ends up being his second wife. It’s a film that is not designed to be scary, but thanks to Hitchcock, is spooky in its own special way.

 

Now, for the rest of the movie.

 

Plot/Writing

So much in our lives is determined by a first impression, or how we perceive the world. If a man is on a date with a woman but she has a funny laugh, it may not go as well, even if the woman is the perfect match for him. Or, we may respond in other negative ways to an impression. In the film Crash, Sandra Bullock’s character, Jean, hugs the arm of her husband a little tighter when they come across two African American men. She surely doesn’t mean to, it’s just a way that she perceived the world.

 

Another example of a first impression is the story of Rebecca, which closely follows the novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. The screenplay was written by Robert Sherwood and Joan Harrison and it was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 13th Academy Awards.

 

The film starts with a young woman, who turns out to be Joan Fontaine, stumbling upon a Maxim de Winter, played by Laurence Olivier and it appears that he’s about to commit suicide in the cliffs of Monte Carlo. Fontaine’s character (who is only known at Mrs. de Winter later in the film) and de Winter are immediately taken with each other.

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Shortly after their wedding, Maxim takes Mrs. de Winter to Manderley, his gargantuan estate on the English coast. From the beginning, Mrs. de Winter is out of place, a fish out of water, coming from a humble background of her own. She slowly learns about Maxim’s first wife, the film’s namesake, Rebecca. Memories of her abound throughout the cavernous home, which reminds one of Xanadu from Citizen Kane.

 

Slowly and somewhat methodically, Mrs. de Winter is broken down and subtly tortured by the memory of Rebecca and Rebecca’s faithful maid, Mrs. Danvers, played by Judith Anderson. Trying to be the perfect wife, Mr. de Winter is constantly reminded of Rebecca’s influence on the house, the staff, and most of all, her husband. The second de Winter marriage is crumbling before Mrs. de Winter’s very eyes. The movie ends with all of our first impressions of Maxim, Rebecca, and Mrs. de Winter going up in literal and metaphorical flames.

 

The plot for Rebecca starts slow, yet oddly fast. Laurence Olivier speaks at a breakneck pace and at times it’s hard to understand what he says. Even with a slow start, none of the film has fluff: it’s edited down to perfection. Hitchcock’s story scared the pants off me and my girlfriend Laci, and there was little reason to look away from the screen. We were drawn into the world of this film in a most masterful kind of way. 1. 1.

 

Sound

Franz Waxman received an Oscar nomination for Best Music, Original Score for Rebecca.

 

When I watched Gone with the Wind back in May of this year, one of the more interesting things I noticed was the use of the score. There’s music under every scene and every shot. While this is not uncommon today, compared with the other film’s I’d watched from earlier in the 1930s, the films had very little music. Gone with the Wind changed that.

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Rebecca took a page from the lessons of the film that won before it, with constant score under every scene. The score itself, though, is light and stringy, mixed with many darker elements. And, unlike The Sting, the tone was perfectly set with the music playing in the background. 1.

 

Set Design

Taking place in Europe (France and England) the shooting of Rebecca took place in and around Los Angeles, and on soundstages on the Selznick lot. Like most films of the time, the set pieces and the backgrounds are painted. These were done beautifully, and the film received two nominations in this department: Best Art Direction, Black and White and Best Special Effects.

I don’t talk too much about costuming for this blog, but Rebecca’s was a showcase in how to dress characters. Mrs. Danvers, for example, is a maid with a black heart, so she wears black in all scenes. But Rebecca covers everything from sportswear to very formal party attire. 1.

 

Cinematography

Breaking from Gone with the Wind’s terrific wide-screen color cinematography, Rebecca director of photography George Barnes returned the Best Picture winner to a 1.37:1 aspect ratio and in beautiful black and white. The effort won him an Academy Award, one of only two wins for Rebecca. The film also received a nomination for Best Editing.

 

I love black and white cinematography, I really do. As I wrote in The Artist just a few weeks ago, black and white film is all about style and it isn’t very distracting to the viewer. Light and shadow are the only two elements to be concerned with when making a black and white movie.

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I do love the cinematography in this film. It’s nothing special, nothing too flashy, and no crazily artistic shots. Yet, I was still drawn to it. When thinking about the lighting in particular, the movie seems to get physically darker when the story starts to get darker. The scenes shift from day to night. Shadows cover more of faces as a character’s soul is laid bare and the truth about Rebecca and Maxim is uncovered.

 

On the other side of the coin, the film features many, many close and in-your-face kinds of shots. This is a very emotional movie and so it makes complete sense that the emotions a character exhibits should be seen on their face. This is particularly true to Fontaine and her torture at the hands of Rebecca’s memory and the shrewd Mrs. Danvers plays out on-screen. 1.

 

Acting

There are really only two performances that should be studied in Rebecca, Laurence Olivier as Maxim and Joan Fontaine as Mrs. de Winter. Olivier received a Best Actor nomination and Fontaine earned Best Actress.

 

Maxim de Winter is a young and smart English aristocrat who, when we meet him, appears to be stinging from the death of his wife, Rebecca. From the outset, de Winter is a little bit of a mysterious man, and a jerk. He doesn’t open up about himself at first, and this makes him a little prickly to most of the audience, but not to the future Mrs. de Winter.

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As the film wears on, Maxim is a broken man, pessimistic about going back to his home, Manderley. But time shows us that Maxim is devoted, kind, and very loyal to those who love him and whom he loves.

 

Starring opposite Olivier is Fontaine (the sister of Olivia de Havilland) and just because she doesn’t actually have a first name in the film, that doesn’t mean that she’s an afterthought. In fact, Mrs. de Winter probably has the most significant character arc in the story.

 

At the beginning of the film, she’s a paid companion of Edythe Van Hopper, an older and wealthy American woman, who’s played by Florence Bates. She’s everything a 1930s and 1940s female lead is portrayed by Hollywood: charming, funny, good looking, and a little naive. She’s not a singular character, though and her seeming airheadedness is the product of her youth and not some character flaw.

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When she’s a newly-wed, she tries everything necessary to be a good wife. She exhibits patience at living with a new person and tries to adapt to being wealthy with people waiting on her. It’s not a smooth transition at times, but she slowly gets it.

 

But, everytime she makes headway, she’s filled again with self doubt at the hands of the cruel Mrs. Danvers. The film becomes a chess match of sorts between Mrs. de Winter and Mrs. Danvers, but Mrs. de Winter slowly becomes confident in her own abilities as a wife and a person, and she stands up gloriously to Mrs. Danvers and all the other Rebecca lovers in the end. 1.

 

Directing

Rebecca was Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film and it’s the film that helped Hitchcock enter into the halls of Hollywood legend. The film earned Hitchcock one of his five Best Director nominations, but he ultimately lost this award to John Ford and The Grapes of Wrath.

 

Contrary to some other films that I’ve talked about in the past, Rebecca isn’t some showy anti-fascism piece, or one to reflect the times within which these characters live. Rather it’s just a story, a very good, well-told story, but just a tale nonetheless.

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It’s the kind of morally ambiguous story that the Academy loves. I love them, too, if I’m being completely honest. There are no wrong answers to the questions that are asked of the characters in their lives. This is representative of life itself, too. Right and wrong is not always clear-cut. You might be the villain in someone else’s story.

 

Hitchcock is so good at creating drama and suspense that my girlfriend and I spent the whole film at the edge of our couch, waiting for what would happen next. This film was marked a turning point from the disguisedly happy films from the 1930s to the dark and cynical ones throughout the war to come. He provides us with a film that is enormously entertaining and also deeply troubling. It scared the pants off me. Mrs. Danvers and other staff members of Manderley bring Rebecca to life and she is another major character even though we never actually see her. Rebecca is not a scary movie, or at least it’s not designed to be, but the tension tightens the screws on our thumbs just enough to scare us. In short, Rebecca is a ghost story with no ghosts. 1.

 

Bonus Points

I’ll give extra points to the plot, directing, and acting. I have to give special recognition to Judith Anderson, who played Mrs. Danvers. She is the HAL 9000 personified: cold, calculating, and downright creepy.

 

Final Score: 10/10

 

Oscar Facts

Rebecca won the 13th Academy Award for Best Picture on February 27, 1941 at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. It beat out All This, and Heaven Too, Foreign Correspondent (which was also directed by Hitchcock), The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator, Kitty Foyle, The Letter, The Long Voyage Home, Our Town, and The Philadelphia Story for Best Picture. The award was accepted by David O. Selznick (who won the previous year for Gone with the Wind), producer for Selznick International and United Artists. In total, Rebecca was nominated for 11 awards, and won only two. It’s the last time that a Best Picture winner did not win for either directing, acting, or writing.

 

Other notable winners that night included John Ford winning Best Director for The Grapes of Wrath, James Stewart taking Best Actor for The Philadelphia Story, Ginger Rogers winning Best Actress for Kitty Foyle, Walter Brennan winning Best Supporting Actor for The Westerner, and Jane Darwell winning Best Supporting Actress for The Grapes of Wrath. For the first time, the names of the winners remained a secret until the moment that the awards were received, a practice that continues to this day. Also, president Franklin Roosevelt gave a six-minute address to the attendees from the White House, making this ceremony the first time a president participated in the ceremony. The awards were hosted by Bob Hope.

 

Final Notes

Earlier this week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released a statement indicating that several changes were being made to the structure of future ceremonies. These include moving the ceremony up two weeks for the 2020 show, announcing some winners during commercial breaks to help get the ceremony down to three hours. All of this is to help curb a sharp decline in ratings over the last several years.

 

But perhaps the most contentious was the addition of another category: Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. The Academy provided scant details as to what a “popular film” might be, but it’s only reasonable to assume that includes a number of high-grossing superhero films that we’ve seen of late.

 

Hollywood and the Academy are in an interesting pickle here. In recent years, Best Picture has gone to films that originated in the arthouse, many that millions of Americans haven’t even heard of or can’t even go see. It’s easy to say that the Academy should just take it on the chin and accept critically-acclaimed and popular films like Black Panther into the fold. However, it’s not that easy. You can either continue to honor artsy films (which are also very good) and ignore good popular and widely-seen movies at the expense of lagging television ratings. Or, you can try to change and adapt. While I applaud the Academy for trying to take control of bad ratings with changes and at least trying to adapt, I’m skeptical that it’ll actually work.

 

Next week, I take a look at 2010’s The King’s Speech. After that, it’s A Beautiful Mind, Chariots of Fire, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and Moonlight.

 

2 Comments

  1. So after reading your review Keltin, I really want to see this movie even though I had never heard of it before! Very interesting review…!

    Like

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