Rebecca (1940): Hitchcock’s First American Film and only Oscar Winner

In the entire Oscar entire history, only three suspense-thrillers, Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” (1940), Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), and Joel and Ethan Coen’s “No Country for Old Men” (2007), have won the Best Picture Award, though each one of them was a hybrid, at once more or less than just a genre item.
In 1940, “Rebecca” competed against another Hitchcock film, “Foreign Correspondent,” that deals with espionage in tense-ridden Europe. The film was interpreted as an endorsement of the American involvement in the War, because its producer, Walter Wanger, was known for his anti-Fascist views. Both “Rebecca” and “Foreign Correspondent” were extremely popular at the box office. “Rebecca” was one of the big hits of the season, grossing in domestic rentals $1.5 million. The film’s success revived interest in reading Gothic novels and in their potential as sources for Hollywood movies.
Please read our review of Hitchcock’s Oscar nominated film, Foreign Correspondent
“Rebecca” has stood well the test of time–it’s a solid, well-acted, lavishly produced, extremely enjoyable film whose dissection of marriage (two marriages) still is poignant today.
Based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 popular novel, “Rebecca” was Hitchcock’s first American movie, in which he cast Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in the starring roles. A superbly directed Gothic woman’s picture, the film is distinguished by an exquisite black-and-white nourish cinematography (George Barnes won an Oscar), and great ensemble acting, particularly of the supporting cast, headed by Judith Anderson, as the malevolent housekeeper, in one of her most memorable portrayals.
A timid, nameless young girl (Joan Fontaine) marries Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a man she hardly knows, whom she subsequently suspects of still being in love with his (dead) first wife, Rebecca. The second Mrs. De Winter nearly goes mad in her effort to emulate her husband’s former wife, though at the end, it turns out that had murdered Rebecca out of anger at her promiscuity.
As the second wife, haunted by the image of Maxim’s glamorous former wife, Fontaine makes her character’s shyness charming, pulling the audience to her side from the very first scene. This was Fontaine’s first important screen appearance, for which she received an Oscar nomination. Fontaine would win Best Actress the following year, for another Hitchcock film, “Suspicion.”
As the rich, aristocratic husband, still dominated by memories of his mysteriously deceased wife, Olivier gave one of his rare mediocre performances; he seems uncomfortable in his part.
Judith Anderson was nominated for Supporting Actress as Mrs. Danvers, the malevolent housekeeper. Hitchcock used a trick in framing Mrs. Danvers, who is never seen walking and is rarely in motion; she always seems to be present when least wanted. Other good turns are given by George Sanders and Florence Bates. There was no suspense in book, which was more of a psychological study, but Hitchcock introduced elements of suspense around the conflict of the central personalities. The story is enjoyable but extremely old-fashioned. Hitchcock himself later criticized “Rebecca” for “lacking humor.” Though the location was never specified in geographical sense, the Gothic mansion, where most of the yarn is set, is one of the picture’s three key characters that, completely isolated, have no one to turn to for help.
Though it was Hitchcock’s first American project, “Rebecca” was still a British production in terms of the story, direction, and most of the actors. Nonetheless, the American influence on the film came from producer David O. Selznick and screenwriter Robert Sherwood, whose adaptation was faithful to the novel, but also gave it a broader viewpoint.
The movie established two ideas that will become Hitchcock motifs in his later work: Identification with the woman’s position–the whole situation is projected from Fontaine’s POV–and preoccupation with male anxiety in the face of actual/potential female sexuality. Stylistically, too, Hitchcock’s continuity relied more on mise-en-scene and camera movement than on his more familiar devices of montage and cutting.
With the exception of Jonathan Demme and Joel and Ethan Coen, no other filmmakers have won the Director Oscar for a thriller, including Hitchcock, the acknowledged master of this genre. Hitchcock was nominated five times, for “Rebecca,” “Lifeboat” (1944), “Spellbound” (1945), “Rear Window” (1954), and “Psycho” (1960). And four of Hitchcock films were nominated for Best Picture, the aforementioned “Rebecca” and “Foreign Correspondent,” “Suspicion” (1941) and “Spellbound.” However, Hitchcock never won a legit Oscar, though the Academy later compensated him with an Honorary Award.
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