Oscar: Best Picture–Rebecca (1940)–Hitchcock Thriller, Starring Olivier, Joan Fontaine

In the entire Oscar 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.

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.

“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 uncomfortable performances, suitable for the part he was playing.

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.

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.

Even so, American influence on the film came from producer David O. Selznick and screenwriter Robert Sherwood, whose adaptation gave the original book a broader viewpoint, and a richer subtext.

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 had been nominated five times for the Best Director Oscar, for “Rebecca,” “Lifeboat” (1944), “Spellbound” (1945), “Rear Window” (1954), and “Psycho” (1960).

And four of Hitchcock films were nominated for the Best Picture, the aforementioned “Rebecca” and “Foreign Correspondent,” “Suspicion” (1941) and “Spellbound.” However, Hitchcock had never won a legit Oscar, though the Academy later compensated him with an Honorary Award.

Detailed Synopsis

A shy inexperienced young (nameless) woman (Joan Fontaine) meets aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), and soon becomes the second Mrs. de Winter.

Maxim takes his new bride back to Manderley, his grand mansion, dominated by its housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who had been a close confidante of the first Mrs. De Winter – Rebecca – with whom she is clearly still obsessed. She has preserved Rebecca’s bedroom suite unchanged, and continues to display various items that carry her monogram.

The constant reminders of Rebecca’s glamour and sophistication convince the new Mrs. de Winter that Maxim is still in love with his first wife, and that this could explain his irrational outbursts of anger. She tries to please her husband by holding a costume party, as he and Rebecca used to. Danvers advises her to copy the dress that one of Maxim’s ancestors is seen wearing in a portrait. But when she appears in the costume, Maxim is appalled; Rebecca had worn an identical dress at her last ball, just before her death.

Mrs. de Winter confronts Danvers about this, but Danvers tells her she can never take Rebecca’s place, and almost persuades her to jump to her death. At that moment, the alarm is raised because a sunken boat has been found with Rebecca’s body in it.

Maxim now confesses that his first marriage had been a sham, when Rebecca had declared that she had no intention of keeping to her vows, but would pretend to be the perfect wife and hostess for the sake of appearances.  Claiming she was pregnant by another man, she taunted him that the estate might not pass to him. During a heated argument, she fell, struck her head and died. To conceal the truth, Maxim took the body out in a boat, which he then scuttled, and identified another body as Rebecca’s.

The second Mrs. de Winter begins to change, as they plan how to prove Maxim’s innocence. When the police say it looks like suicide Jack Favell, Rebecca’s lover, threatens to reveal that she had never been suicidal, unless Maxim pays blackmail.

Maxim goes to the police, and they suspect him of murder but investigation shows she was not pregnant but close to death from cancer, so the suicide verdict stands. Rebecca had been trying to goad Maxim into killing her – indirect suicide – so that Maxim would have been ruined.

Maxim returns home to see Manderley on fire, set ablaze by the deranged Mrs. Danvers. All escape except Danvers, when the ceiling collapses on her.

The film’s last image: An R-monogrammed nightdress-case consumed by flames.

Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. de Winter
Laurence Olivier as George Fortescue Maximilian “Maxim” de Winter
Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers, housekeeper of Manderley
George Sanders as Jack Favell, Rebecca’s first cousin and lover
Reginald Denny as Frank Crawley, Maxim’s estate manager of Manderley and friend
Gladys Cooper as Beatrice Lacy, Maxim’s sister
C. Aubrey Smith as Colonel Julyan
Nigel Bruce as Major Giles Lacy, Beatrice’s husband
Florence Bates as Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper, employer of the second Mrs. de Winter
Edward Fielding as Frith, oldest butler of Manderley
Melville Cooper as Coroner at trial
Leo G. Carroll as Dr. Baker, Rebecca’s doctor
Leonard Carey as Ben, the beach hermit at Manderley
Lumsden Hare as Mr. Tabbs, boat builder
Forrester Harvey as Chalcroft the innkeeper
Philip Winter as Robert, a servant at Manderley


Hitchcock’s cameo

Hitchcock’s cameo appearance, a signature feature, occurs near the end; he is seen walking, back turned to the audience, outside a phone box just after Jack Favell completes a call.