The Best Picture Project – Rebecca (1940)

Rebecca (1940)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Written by Joan Harrison and Robert E. Sherwood, from Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan’s adaptation

Based upon the novel by Daphne DuMaurier

Starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson and George Sanders

 I must say that I purposefully saved watching on Rebecca until I’d completed a good portion of this little project of mine for a good reason:  as I seen it before and really liked it I wanted to have it out there as a gift to myself, a good movie out there waiting for me after a whole lot of tedium.  I didn’t know how long I’d go before I’d give in and watch it and after putting in time watching Cavalcade, Broadway Melody, Rocky, Around the World in 80 Days and Ben-Hur, I guess I earned the respite, so I watched it.  And oh, what a breath of fresh air it was.  Quite simply, Rebecca might be the greatest Best Picture winner of them all, the big daddy to trump all big daddy’s, a heady statement to be sure, in a category that  includes Gone With The Wind and The Godfather and Bridge on the River Kwai, but one I’m confident to stand behind.

Rebecca is the first film Hitchcock made in the America, after a successful stint in British films, and given the later career he would have, it’s clear that moving to America is really the turning-point for his career.  Everything that would come to dominate his later films – obsession, atmosphere, suspense – were all fully present in their most complete form in Rebecca.  While he might have madde one great movie before – The 39 Steps – the fact is that his great movies all came from his long stay in America.  And the first of the great is Rebecca.

First edition coverAdapted from the Daphne Du Maurier novel of the same name there is hardly a false step at all in Rebecca.  The camera work is first rate and more than a little influenced by German expressionism.  The special effects, such as they were, didn’t look nearly as fake as most special effects from the rear-projection era did, even though to modern viewers they were still overly obvious.  The pacing was spot on and at just about two hours, the movie was what could be called tidy – normally I can imagine ways to cut 15% of any film and to do so here would be near impossible.

Judith Anderson, left, as Mrs. Danvers, Joan Fontaine, right, as Mrs. De Winter

As techinically sound as the film was, though, the real achievment were the performances, which were simply magnificent.  Joan Fontaine is wonderful as the second Mrs. DeWinter, George Sanders is charmingly smarmy as Rebecca’s car-salesman cousin Jack Favell, and Judith Anderson was beyond magnificent as Mrs. Danvers.  Her creepiness and influence dominated the movie in ways even the first Mrs. De Winter couldn’t – she might be the wackiest villain ever – and left me wondering where Mr. Danvers was and what was hiss ultimate fate.  Anderson is so good it’s a shame she had to lose the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Jane Darwell, who was herself magnificent in The Grapes of Wrath.  The only weak acting certainly comes from Laurence Olivier, who never transcends merely being good, but still, being good in this film is clearly good enough.

George Sanders as Jack Favell

Everything about Rebecca reflects the work of a master craftsman.  After all, how else to explain that by the end the audience is left to root for Max DeWinter, a man at least marginally responsible in the death of his wife and who subsequently hides her body in a scuttled boat – he should rightfully be the villain – over Jack Favell, who’s greatest injustice is merely making a cuckold of dear old Max.  It takes a master to pull off that trick and Hitchcock proves up to the task.

When thinking about Rebecca and the 1940 Oscars its clear that the two films jockeying for the award were Rebecca and John Ford’s adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, one of his great social films.  So formidable an opponent was The Grapes of Wrath that Ford won an Oscar for his directing on that film, leaving Hitchcock as an also-ran for the first time in his career – though hardly the last.  What’s curious is that if the roles had been reversed, and The Grapes of Wrath was the big winner and Hitchcock won in the directing categoy, my opinion of the Best Picture of 1940 would hardly have changed.  It would still be, quite possibly, the greatest Best Picture ever and, if it had happened to swap places, at least I could be content to know Hitchcock managed to snag one Oscar in his career.


Rebecca was produced by David O. Selznick, producer of Gone With The Wind.  Here, as with that film, he took the Best Picture award, the first and only producer to go back-to-back with Best Pictures.

 David O. Selznick isn’t the only tie between Rebecca and Gone With the Wind.  The star of the former (Olivier) was married to the star of the former (Vivien Leigh) and Olivia DeHavilland (Melanie Hamilton of GWTW) happens to be the sister of Joan Fontaine (the second Mrs. DeWinter in Rebecca).

 Given that Rebecca won Best Picture, one would have to believe this was the closest Alfred Hitchcock ever came to winning an Oscar as Best Director – after all, no other film he directed managed to snag the top trophy.  Hitchcock is in very elite company, nominated five times for Best Director without winning.  The other members of the club: Clarence Brown, King Vidor and Robert Altman.

For the other winners and films left to see, click here.

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