- Production Company: Selznick International
- Year Released: 1940
- Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock
- Starring: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson
- Expect to Pay: $14-30
The Academy, as I am sure most people are aware of by now, seems to have a certain preferential bias when it comes to their Best Picture selections. Unless a film is a drama, a comedy or a musical, it will most likely never be chosen. This is best seen with its treatment of the horror genre. With the thousands of different horror movies that have been released over the decades, only one has won the award for Best Picture, Silence of the Lambs in 1991. However, that does not necessarily mean that the Academy hasn’t flirted with the macabre and the psychological thriller. One example of such a film is the subject of this review, 1940’s adaptation of the 1938 novel, Rebecca.
The story begins in Monte Carlo in the Principality of Monaco, of all places. An unnamed woman (Joan Fontaine) is the personal companion of the wealthy Mrs. Van Hopper. One day while the companion is out looking for a place to sketch, she meets the wealthy but melancholic Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). They fall in love over the course of several weeks and by the time Mrs. Van Hopper has to leave, the companion is now Mrs. de Winter. Maxim takes his new wife to live at Manderly, which is still under the shadow of Maxim’s first wife Rebecca, who died an apparently tragic death. At Manderly, Mrs. de Winter encounters the staff, including Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who are perhaps most still under Rebecca’s spell, having preserved her room exactly the way it was before she died. Now the new Mrs. de Winter has to adapt to this new, strange environment where she is an unwanted outsider and nothing is ever as it seems to be.
Going into this movie, I was expecting some kind of smarmy romance that is always popular with critics, but not so much with the likes of me. When I noticed that the film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock though, I had to toss out all of my preconceived notions of what this movie was going to be. Hitchcock is world renowned for being a master of suspense and all things spooky. This is not Hitchcock at his peak, as in my opinion, that wouldn’t come until the 50s and 60s. However, this is quite an excellent prelude of many amazing films to come.
Probably the best feature of the whole show is the atmosphere. Having the story set in a creepy old house where some truly nasty things happened a long time ago goes a long way into establishing the whole gothic romance theme. The sets are also immaculate.
This was the last film that David O. Selznick’s studio produced, and it is clear where the money went. Each one is detailed to a fault, and are a testament to what a studio can do with proper motivation and time.
On the acting front, there’s virtually nothing to complain about. Laurence Olivier in particular delivers a strong performance as Maxim. He has a great deal of bitterness and fear in him, and he comes off as the most natural choice in the world for a gothic romance hero. He’s unpleasant, but at the same time sympathetic. Joan Fontaine is great as a woman who wants to right in a new environment but is way over her head. But the one that steals the show the most is Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers.
This lady is damn creepy. She has a desperate (some might even imply homosexual) obsession with her old mistress, and Judith Anderson makes damn sure you know just how despicable she is as a person. Couple the acting with an excellent score courtesy of good old Max Steiner and you have a presentation that is as good as 40s films get.
Hitchcock’s cinematography also works well with the story. His use of lighting lends to the dreary, foreboding atmosphere. This film is shot in black and white, and due to its use of shadows, it would be a lesser production if they had went with color instead.
What this all boils down to is that this is the full package. If you want to see get into the mystique of Alfred Hitchcock, this is a good place to start. If you just like a good mystery, this is a good film to watch. If you like creepy atmosphere with endearing characters, you will enjoy this. It is a solid film, and I recommend it to one and all. The Academy was right in choosing it.
Next time we get to cry with the 1941 film, How Green Was my Valley. See you then.
Order Rebecca here.