REBECCA—Alfred Hitchcock’s first American-made movie scored big with audiences and critics and won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1940. Producer David O. Selznick’s golden touch continued, rewarding his $1,288,000 gamble on another young woman caught up in the memories of a home. Instead of a brash, willful Scarlett O’Hara and a boisterous crowd trying to aid her at torrid Tara, author Daphne du Maurier’s heroine of the moody Manderley estate is unsure, timid and pushed around by everyone. No Yankees in sight, but enemies lurk, the living and the dead.
Highly atmospheric Gothic psychological-torment mystery builds tension steadily, and shows how severe elegance, calculated disdain and emotional isolation can wreak as much havoc as crude and obvious villains you can see clearly enough to battle. It doesn’t help that the aloof husband (Laurence Olivier, cutting to the quick) is on your case, or that a venomous cad turns up (George Sanders at his most sneering). Instead of a fiercely loyal and protective ‘Mammy’, running the house is death-icy ‘Mrs. Danvers'(Judith Anderson), about as reassuring and upbeat as a cobra. You’re alone.
23-year old Joan Fontaine had been vainly trying since 1935, the year her sister Olivia de Havilland scored gold with Captain Blood. A dozen unimpressive pictures finally dialed up secondary roles in two big hits of 1939, as one of The Women and as the only woman in Gunga Din, enough of a nudge to get Selznick, chatting with her at a party, to consider her for the lead here. Her superlative performance catapulted her to parity with her rival sibling, and she was Oscar nominated for Best Actress. Along with a soft and fragile beauty, part of her touchingly conveyed vulnerability and utterly convincing aura of awkward hurt displayed here came from actual trembling and misery, as the sadistic side of Hitchcock had him tell the nervous actress that none of the rest of the cast or crew liked her, and Olivier made it clear he wasn’t happy with her, either (he wanted his wife, Vivien Leigh, for the part). Whether it was Fontaine’s natural gifts or the twisted director’s creative sadism, she’s perfect in the role.
I’m not big on the young (he was 33) Olivier’s much-touted heartthrob appeal, finding it stagy and faintly venal, too chilly. I liked him better when he put on some years. Judith Anderson lucks out with a classic witch in Danvers.
Along with Fontaine, the Academy had Hitchcock up for Director, Olivier for Actor, Anderson for Supporting Actress, as well as dibs for Screenplay, Film Editing, Music Score (a fine job from Franz Waxman), Art Direction and Special Effects. It did win Best Cinematography for George Barnes clean deep focus work.
130 minutes, with Reginald Denny, Gladys Cooper, C. Aubrey Smith, Nigel Bruce, Florence Bates, Melville Cooper and Leo G. Carroll.
It’s quite good, in a year boasting a sterling array of quality films. I think The Grapes Of Wrath is better (John Ford’s direction taking the award against Hitch), but there was no lack of craft to choose from: The Letter, The Long Voyage Home, Foreign Correspondent, The Philadelphia Story, The Great Dictator, The Sea Hawk, Northwest Passage, Boom Town, Fantasia, Pinocchio, Our Town, The Mark Of Zorro. The box-office take of $8,570,000 has some sites placing it #1 that year, others #2, still others further down the list. At any rate it was a hit. Daphne du Maurier’s book has sold at least 2,830,000 copies.