Friday, July 23, 2010

1940 - Rebecca

Another week of My Fair Lady performances nearly over and since this project is moving at a more leisurely pace during this period, it means you have plenty more time to vote on the next year of review. We're heading to the 1990s next and the poll is over there to your right.

This week, I managed to find some time to watch the eventual winner of the 1940 Best Picture race...

Alfred Hitchcock
Philip MacDonald, Michael Hogan, Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison
Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, Judith Anderson
Academy Awards:
11 nominations
2 wins, including Best Picture

Yet another 1940 nominee dealing with class differences, Rebecca relates the tale of Max de Winter (Olivier), an upper class gentleman who begins a love affair with a delightful young woman who apparently has no given name (Fontaine). The whirlwind romance proceeds to marriage and Max brings his new bride to his country home, which does have a name - Manderley. However, all is not rosy, as the new Mrs De Winter must live in the shadow of Max's first wife Rebecca, whose presence can still be felt at Manderley. Not only do all the servants seem to have adored their prior mistress, especially the creepily stoic Mrs. Danvers (Anderson), but everywhere our young heroine looks, she finds another monogrammed item of her predecessor's.

There is no question why director Alfred Hitchcock was given the moniker The Master of Suspense. In Rebecca, he creates a mysterious mood seemingly out of nowhere. For the most part, the story itself does not necessitate such mystery, at least until the final act. The first half could easily have been interpreted as a straightforward drama about a young woman struggling to fit into her new surroundings. Yet, Hitchcock consistently makes his audience feel uneasy, aware that something is awry. The circumstances of the title character's demise are given without much detail and new seemingly unrelated clues are provided every so often to unsettle the audience further. It's like an episode of Lost (except for the fact that there is actually a resolution at the end).

This is all the more unsettling precisely because the events that are unfolding do not immediately seem to be out of the ordinary. It's just the story of a woman who married a widower. But, of course, that's what you get with Hitchcock at the helm. Even the most mundane activities are treated with disconcerting tension, making us painfully curious for answers. And when these answers arrive, in the form of an explanatory - and intensely captivating - monologue from Max, the tone shifts from mysterious tension to suspenseful tension. No longer does the audience ask, "What is going on?" Now they ask, "What will happen next?"

Only a year earlier, Laurence Olivier hammed it up in Wuthering Heights, but here he is exquisitely restrained, delivering a wonderfully natural performance. Joan Fontaine succeeds at creating a meek and almost invisible character. The intense glares from Judith Anderson as the deadpan Mrs. Danvers are truly disturbing. And George Sanders is fast becoming another favourite actor of mine thanks to another bitingly acerbic portrayal.


  1. Much has been written about the so-called clash between producer-auteur David O. Selznick and Director-auteur Alfred Hitchcock for Hitch's first Hollywood film. Although Hitchcock would eventually produce most of his films, he did work with Selznick twice more, the very successful Spellbound and the less acclaimed The Paradine Case. I think they complimented each other quite well. While Rebecca from a pure suspense point of view doesn't match Hitchcock's later great films, it does capture the Gothic romantic aspects of Daphne Du Maurier's novel. It gave Selznick his second consecutive Best Picture Award.

    The two leads were sensational. I saw a few of the screen tests of other actresses and I think Joan Fontaine was the right choice. It was hard watching her being bullied by Mrs. Danvers, but looking at the circumstances she found herself in, plus the force of Danvers' personality, it is easy to see why. Dame Judith Anderson had quite the role. It was almost too obvious and one wonders why she wasn't let go sooner. At times she reminded me of Bela Lugosi's Count Dracula with her stillness and hovering about. Leo G. Carroll makes the first of his record setting six appearances in Hitchcock films. And I agree with you Matt, George Sanders was outstanding as the blackguard. He came in late in the movie after a brief early appearance, but nearly stole the film.

    The production design and photography was just fantastic. It's easy to surmise that Orson Welles took a long hard look at Rebecca before planning out his sets for Citizen Kane. There's a lot of Manderley in Xanadu.

    This one will certainly contend for top honors for 1940

  2. Need to see the whole thing again. Anyway, great review!