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I am a sucker for an overwrought romance, and Rebecca definitely fits the bill (the book is even more breathlessly affected, so if you’re looking for a mindless read, check it out).
The film marks Alfred Hitchcock’s first foray into Hollywood film-making, and it’s somewhat of an anomaly in his career. It’s the only film he ever made in America that can truly be considered a “romance” and, with 1942’s comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, is a departure from the typical “Hitch” picture with which most moviegoers are familiar. But some of the hallmarks of Hitchcock’s later works are evident here: the elements of suspense, the masterful camerawork, and hints of the macabre humor that made Hitchcock such an effective director. Though some of the facets of the novel were changed in order to adhere to the Hays code, and Hitchcock was forced to work with a somewhat overly structured script, the film remains one of his unlikely best.
Laurence Olivier leads the cast as the suave, tormented Maxim de Winter, and a young Joan Fontaine holds her own as the timid new mistress of the Manderley estate. But this film belongs to its villains: sly George Sanders and the shiveringly creepy Judith Anderson.
Anderson’s turn as Mrs. Danvers, the servant still loyal to her deceased former mistress, is truly frightening–one of the greatest “baddie” performances in the history of film. This movie was also the first of six Hitchcock films to feature the inimitable Leo G. Carroll, an actor who added immeasurable gravitas to each of those films.
This was the only film directed by Hitchcock to win the Best Picture Academy Award; the prize did not go to Hitch, but instead to the film’s producer, David O. Selznick. The acrimony between these two men was almost legendary. Selznick, a notorious micro-manager who would not hesitate to re-cut films if he was displeased, was irritated by Hitchcock’s tendency to film only enough footage to cut the film precisely to his own specifications (a neat trick). Hitchcock, on the other hand, resented Selznick’s overbearing presence on the set; when Selznick could not be on set, he sent numerous memos to the director, dictating his vision of this film (most of which Hitch would ignore). Selznick had his own concerns; the author of the novel, Daphne du Maurier, was so disappointed with Hitchcock’s final British production, the adaptation of her novel Jamaica Inn, that she was reluctant to allow the studio to film Rebecca, and remained concerned throughout filming that Hitchcock would, for lack of a better term, cock it all up again.
Any fears about Hitchcock’s ability to handle the demands of this film were ultimately moot. All issues aside, the movie was a great success, and still holds up as a wonderfully entertaining film. If you can’t catch it today, it’s available on a great DVD transfer (though, for once, TCM has it for slightly cheaper than Amazon!).
Wins: Best Cinematography, Best Picture
Nominations: Best Actor (Olivier), Best Actress (Fontaine), Best Supporting Actress (Anderson), Best Editing, Best Screenplay, Best Special Effects, Best Art Direction, Best Score, Best Director