Rebecca (1940): Hitchcock’s First American Film and Only Oscar Winner, Starring Olivier and Joan Fontaine

In the entire Oscar history, only three suspense-thrillers, Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” (1940), Jonathan Demme’s horror-thriller “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), and Joel and Ethan Coen’s Western thriller “No Country for Old Men” (2007), have won the Best Picture Award.

Moreover, some critics consider the Coens’ film to be more of a contemporary Western than a thriller per se, an argument that, if accepted, would reduce the number of winning thrillers.

In 1940, “Rebecca” competed against another Hitchcock film, “Foreign Correspondent,” a feature that deals with espionage in tense-ridden Europe. The film was interpreted by many 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 (see below).

“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.

 

Rebecca_7Based 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 a Best Actress Oscar nomination. Fontaine would win Best Actress the following year, for another Hitchcock film, “Suspicion.” (She is the only woman in Hitchcock’s rich output about women to achieve that)

Rebecca_5As 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 the Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Mrs. Danvers, the malevolent housekeeper. Hitchcock used a trick in framing Mrs. Danvers. She is never seen walking and she is rarely in motion, yet  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 being “too straight” and “lacking any 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.

Rebecca_3Though 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 of the novel lent it a broader viewpoint.

Motifs:

The movie established some ideas that would become recurrent Hitchcock motifs in his later work. First, identification with the woman’s position–the whole situation is projected from Fontaine’s POV. Second, 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.

Elements:

Heroine: young naive, nameless girl

Villains: Lesbian housekeeper; first wife

Hitchcock Cameo

Hitchcock’s cameo appearance, a signature feature, takes place near the end, seen walking with his back to the audience outside a phone booth, just after Jack Favell completes a call.

 

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Oscar Context:

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.

Commercial Success:

Made on a budget of $1.3 million (Hithcock’s biggest budget to date), the movie was a huge commercial hit, earning $6 million in the U.S. box-office alone.

Cast

Rebecca_8Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. de Winter

Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter, owner of Manderley

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, crass employer of the second Mrs. de Winter

Edward Fielding as Frith, 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

Credits

Produced by David O. Selznick
Screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison, with contributions by
Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan, based on Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Music by Franz Waxman
Cinematography: George Barnes
Edited by W. Donn Hayes
Release date: March 21, 1940 (Miami premiere); April 12, 1940 (USA)
Running time: 130 minutes