#375) Rebecca (1940)

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#375) Rebecca (1940)

OR “de Winter of Our Discontent”

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Written by Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison. Adaptation by Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan. Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier.

Class of 2018

NOTE: Anyone who has seen the film “Rebecca” (or read the novel) is aware that the central character is unnamed. Rather than call her “She” or “Mrs. de Winter” throughout this post, I’m opting instead for…Mulva?

The Plot: Young Mulva (Joan Fontaine) meets aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) while traveling in Monte Carlo. Maxim and Mulva have a whirlwind romance, marry, and return to Maxim’s estate Manderley in Cornwall. Manderley housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) is not particularly kind to Mulva, constantly comparing her to Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife who died in a boating accident. The more answers Mulva discovers about Rebecca, the more questions she has for Maxim. And if your movie is about a beautiful, psychologically manipulated woman, Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick are the domineering men for the job.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “stylish, suspenseful and a classic”, and declares Hitchcock the “perfect cinematic interpreter” for the novel.

But Does It Really?: On the Hitchcock scale, “Rebecca” may not crack the top five, but B+ Hitchcock is still more suspenseful than most director’s A+. The whole movie is a step up from your standard studio film, with top-notch performances and production values, plus the haunting aura that pervades the entire film. Its only major flaws are the Code-mandated changes from page to screen that bog down the third act. We’ve got plenty of Hitchcock on this list, but there’s still room for “Rebecca”.

Seriously, Oscars?: Facing such stiff competition as “The Philadelphia Story”, “Pinocchio”, and “The Grapes of Wrath”,  “Rebecca” only took home two Oscars, but the powerhouse that was David O. Selznick made sure one of those wins was Best Picture (the other was for George Barnes’ cinematography). “Rebecca” is the most recent Best Picture winner to not receive any awards for directing, writing, or acting. After losing to Ginger Rogers for “Kitty Foyle”, Joan Fontaine would take home Best Actress the next year for another Hitchcock film: “Suspicion”. “Rebecca” was Hitchcock’s first of five unsuccessful Best Director nominations.

Other notes

  • David O. Selznick lured Alfred Hitchcock to America based on the success of Hitch’s “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes” in his native England. The two clashed immediately: Hitchcock detested Selznick’s constant interference and barred him from the set, while Selznick was irritated by Hitch cutting his films in-camera, giving Selznick minimum control over the editing process. Less pleased was author Daphne du Maurier, who was disappointed with Hitchcock’s previous adaptation of her novel “Jamaica Inn” and considered revoking the film rights to “Rebecca”.
  • Unsatisfied with the mansions scouted on location, Selznick opted to create Manderley using a large, detailed model. It’s noticeable in the shots where a (toy) car approaches the manor, but it does allow Hitch et al to shoot an impressive opening shot.
  • I completely understand the creative decision to keep Mulva unnamed, but it seems like everyone goes out of their way not to say her name.
  • I was not expecting the first part of this movie to be so romantic. It helps that Olivier and Fontaine are undeniably charming.
  • Speaking of, I’m not as familiar with Joan Fontaine’s work as I am with her sister’s: Olivia de Havilland. Fontaine does a lovely job conveying Mulva’s natural grace, yet severe discomfort. Coincidentally, de Havilland was also considered for Mulva.
  • Everyone’s great, but the MVP is Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers. It’s the flashiest part, and Anderson nails it with her crisp line deliveries and economy of movement. Anderson/Danvers’ standing as one of the great performances/screen villains is justified.
  • Here’s a shocker for you: Hitchcock’s really good at suspense. I spent most of this movie taken in by its gothic vibe, to the point where certain scenes involving Rebecca gave me chills.
  • Gladys Cooper is so young in this she’s playing the main character’s patronizing socialite sister.
  • “You ought to have married a boy, someone of your own age”. Wait, I thought they were the same age. I don’t care how good an actor Olivier is, he’s not 20 years older than Joan Fontaine.
  • I’m used to George Sanders’ later work, so it’s refreshing seeing him play a youthful cad. Jack’s the only character who seems to actually be having any fun.
  • And then we get to the costume party subplot and the creepiness really ramps up. Judith Anderson is playing up the more obsessive/possessive side of Mrs. Danvers, and you can definitely read the lesbian subtext in the Danvers-Rebecca relationship.
  • This movie would pass the Bechdel test if it met the criteria of both characters having names. You screwed the pooch, du Maurier.
  • [Spoilers] In the original novel, Maxim did in fact kill Rebecca. The Hays Code decreed that if the film version kept this plot point, Maxim would have to be punished for his crime. The film changes it so that Rebecca dies accidentally, but a panic-stricken Maxim covers up any evidence that suggests he murdered her. It’s a clever workaround, but it does rob the story of its power.
  • Once we get to the inquiry, the film shifts gears a bit. Everyone’s very good, and the suspense is still there; it just never hits the same heights as the second act. There’s also a large portion of the third act where Mulva is sidelined, or disappears completely.
  • Hitchcock’s cameo is near the end, and is very easy to miss. He walks behind Jack with his back to the camera.
  • Mulva’s absence also prevents the finale from being as powerful as it could have been. There’s still some unforgettable imagery, but it feels tacked on.

Legacy

  • “Rebecca” was Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film, and is one of eight of his movies to make the NFR (so far).
  • The novel of “Rebecca” has never gone out of print since its first publication 80 years ago. There have been a few approved sequel novels, but you don’t see any classic movies being made about them.
  • Subsequent adaptations of the novel include an Orson Welles radio drama, two British film adaptations, and several stage versions, including the ill-fated Broadway musical.
  • Now I guess Netflix is doing a remake? But hey, what isn’t Netflix green-lighting these days?
  • Daphne du Maurier wrote another story that would be adapted into a Hitchcock movie: “The Birds”.
  • “Rebecca” has proven itself as comic fodder for two sketch comedy series: “The Carol Burnett Show” [Footage Not Available], and “That Mitchell and Webb Look”.

375 films isn’t a noteworthy milestone at first glance, but at the current NFR standing of 750 films, this is the halfway point. Well, actually it’s halfway point. The NFR will keep adding movies every December, so I better keep going.

Happy Viewing,

Tony

6 thoughts on “#375) Rebecca (1940)”

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