Stars: Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine
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The biggest change in Alfred Hitchcock's life came bookended between his screen adaptations of two novels by Daphne du Maurier: Jamaica Inn and Rebecca. He directed in England for fifteen years, including such notable pictures as Sabotage, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. Then, after Jamaica Inn, he hopped the pond to make Rebecca in Hollywood. It's easy to understand the move. With Rebecca, Hitch had a big studio to provide a serious budget for his film, a major international star to promote and the biggest producer in the business. David O Selznick had picked up an Oscar only a year before for his epic Gone with the Wind and he'd win another one for Rebecca too, partly because he cannily delayed its release to avoid competing with his magnum opus. Hitch didn't win of course, because he never did, at least in competition. No film since Rebecca has won for Best Picture without also winning for one of the other major awards.
We look back at Hitchcock's legacy with words like 'legend' or 'master' in our thoughts, but in 1940 the American public didn't have a clue who he was. Thus it was Selznick's recognisable and marketable name that was plastered all over the film from the start with Hitch listed almost as an afterthought. Renowned as one of the most exacting of directors who famously said 'actors are cattle', Hitchcock often knew precisely how his film would end up, frame by frame, before he even started shooting, so it's not surprising that Selznick's interference led to continual fireworks between them. He even edited some of the film in camera so as to remove the possibility of later tweaking by Selznick, who deplored what he called his 'goddamn jigsaw cutting'. Though he has said that 'I was the only director he'd trust with a film,' Hitchcock still cast Raymond Burr in the murderer's role in Rear Window purely because he looked so much like Selznick.
Even in 1940, making films less remembered today than the classics that he kept on releasing through the decade from Strangers on a Train in 1951 to Psycho in 1960, Hitchcock was still a master of the cinematic arts. His English films are fascinating, because they feel like indies compared to the more mainstream fare he released later, Psycho being the obvious nod back to that era. Even with less important pictures such as Number Seventeen, it's obvious that Hitch already had a keen eye and was fine tuning his craft through experimentation, even when the budget and equipment couldn't match it. He worked his way up to the director's chair, turning out ten films as an art director, the old title for cinematographer; five as an assistant director; and another dozen as a title designer. Here it's easy to see the master's eye at work, ably assisted by cinematographer George Barnes, who received the only other Oscar the film won.
They set the mood from the very beginning, with beautifully shrouding mist drifting through trees unlike anything you might expect from a fog machine. The camera moves in through the estate to find the ruined house, reminding of Sam Raimi's innovative camerawork in The Evil Dead, all shadows, mist and unnatural motion, merely a little further from the ground and forty years earlier. Then comes the famous opening line: 'Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.' If the setting didn't drop enough of a hint, Rebecca is an old style gothic romance, of the sort they don't make any more. Manderley belongs to wealthy Englishman Maxim de Winter, but it's no longer the happy family home it once was because it's where his wife drowned. We first see him apparently about to jump off a cliff in the south of France, stopped in time by a passer by and it's important to realise that the film and everything in it is seen from her perspective.
So he appears to be in control for a while, as befits a character played by Laurence Olivier, but of course it's just a front and underneath the controlled exterior he's a broken man, unable to deal with the death of his wife. He finds potential salvation in this passer by, the paid companion of an irascible and domineering elderly lady called Edythe van Hopper. In the lovely form of Joan Fontaine, she gets told what to do and how to do it. 'You're a capable child in many ways,' her mistress tells her with all the pejoration that that might suggest, the implication being that she's inherently inferior merely because of her status in society. She takes it of course, and is more than a little browbeaten, but there's strength underneath it all and de Winter sees this, as well as a kindred longing. He falls in love and quickly marries her, even though she's prone to unfortunate faux pas like talking about drowning, not knowing that his wife had died that way.
The women dominate the cast, the most obvious role going to Joan Fontaine who won it over Olivier's girlfriend at the time, Vivien Leigh. Consequently Olivier treated her terribly on set and Hitchcock played that up no end by telling her that everyone working on the picture hated her. This made her feel thoroughly inadequate, precisely what Hitch wanted from her performance, of course. The fish out of water role was tough because she had to grow as a person throughout the film, acting less opposite Olivier and more opposite less tangible entities like Manderley itself and the memory of Rebecca. She gets lost in the vast mansion and is constantly confronted by her predecessor's monograms on everything, but she performs subtly and magnificently. It's entirely possible that her Oscar for a similar role in Suspicion, a lesser Hitchcock film made the following year, was really a belated award for Rebecca. The Academy did that sort of thing a lot.
While it was Olivier and Hitchcock who persecuted Fontaine on set, it was the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, who persecuted her in the story. Judith Anderson gives a powerfully disturbing show as a woman completely dedicated to her former mistress, with clever lesbian undertones that never become overt. She keeps Manderley as a temple for Rebecca's memory because she cannot stop worshipping her even after her death. When the second Mrs de Winter finally visits the rooms of her predecessor, Mrs Danvers appears to show her the shrine, touching her face with Rebecca's coats, exhibiting Rebecca's hand made underwear, telling fetishistic stories of hair brushing, a transparent nightgown and the soothing sea. It's a freaky performance, innocent in every regard except through implication, which is deeply and thoroughly disturbing. 'Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?' she asks as if she's willing it to be so.
The relationship between these two characters is massively important here, but it's cleverly set up through perception. Hitchcock ensures that we only ever see Mrs Danvers from the point of view of the second Mrs de Winter, whether that's accurate or not. Of course we get the impression that it is pretty accurate but Hitchcock ensures that we have no references points to be sure. So Mrs Danvers is calmly dismissive and silently judgmental and she glides in and out of scenes like an evil presence whenever least expected. As time goes by she gets more deliberate, setting her new mistress up for fall after fall, pressuring her even to jump out of a window. 'Go on,' she coaxes, 'don't be afraid,' as she tries to almost hypnotise her into committing suicide. Similarly Jasper, the family dog, either ignores her or walks out of the room whenever she walks in. Our first view of him is lying down in front of her mistress's old rooms, as if on guard.
Beyond Mrs Danvers and the two Mrs de Winters, the other women in the film get opportunity to shine too. Florence Bates is delightfully undelightful as Mrs Van Hopper, who simply knows that the world revolves around her. She catches a cold in Monte Carlo so stays in her rooms, hurling missives at Mr de Winter to save him from boredom and is utterly lost as to why he doesn't respond. She's someone who we love to watch but would hate to be around, a battleaxe without the endearing character of, say, a Margaret Rutherford. Far more endearing is Beatrice Lacy, Maxim's sister. Gladys Cooper plays her as a well intentioned but utterly direct soul, conjuring up lines like, 'I can see by the way you dress you don't care a hoot how you look.' It takes her mere moments to dispose of her husband so she can explain Mrs Danvers to her new sister-in-law: 'She's bound to be insanely jealous at first and she must resent you bitterly.'
There are only two with any real substance. The lesser is a peach of a role, if an unsurprising one, for George Sanders. He's Jack Favell, the sort of snakily seductive charmer that your parents used to warn you about when you were young. He's apparently Rebecca's 'favourite cousin', though Maxim doesn't want him around, and as we soon discover, he's as blissfully free of scruples as the best of his characters over the decades. He always shone brightest when he was leading the way, even if it happened to be over a cliff, and some of his calculating scenes here remind less of the Saint and more of Shere Khan in The Jungle Book. He doesn't get much to do until late in the story but when his screen time comes along he certainly makes the most of it. He's always utterly jovial and outgoing, even when accused of blackmail in front of the chief constable of the county. 'Am I boring you with all this?' he asks at one point. The answer is no.
And that leaves Maxim himself, the only male character with any real depth, though he's as dry a romantic hero as I've seen, utterly unlike the jovial and outgoing Jack Favell. Trying to avoid formality, he asks his new wife to stop calling him Mr de Winter. 'I have a very impressive array of first names,' he tells her. 'My family call me Maxim,' so she does too. That's a good example of his sense of humour, cultured and correct but not particularly dynamic. Given how much this film revolves around the ladies, it would be easy to gloss over what Laurence Olivier does here, but there's a lot of subtlety to his performance that warrants close attention. I don't know his work as well as many of his peers, but this role reminds me of his portrayal of Heathcliff in William Wyler's Wuthering Heights a year earlier, which like his performance here I appreciated rather than enjoyed. Obviously a huge talent, here he's the grounding for the women to dance around.
In fact the most obvious male talent involved in this film isn't Laurence Olivier, it's Alfred Hitchcock. The Daily Telegraph suggested that, 'His flair was for narrative, cruelly withholding crucial information (from his characters and from us) and engaging the emotions of the audience like no one else.' He does plenty of that here, setting the stage for one of the most powerful bodies of work in the business, one which left him arguably the most famous film director of all time. It certainly got him off on the right foot, his first two American films fighting it out that year for the Best Picture Oscar, Rebecca beating Foreign Correspondent for the honours. These two films racked up no less than seventeen nominations between them, including his first nomination for Best Director, though he'd never win. He did earn a further four nominations in later years but five nominations and no wins for the master is something of a cruel joke.
My biggest surprise here technically has nothing to do with the film at all. I'd always looked back at Daphne du Maurier as a writer of classic literature, perhaps because of connections to the Brontës and other Victorian gothic writers, but now I find that she was a contemporary of Hitchcock who filmed her books when they were still fresh in the mind of the public. Jamaica Inn was published in 1936 and filmed in 1938; Rebecca was published in 1938 and filmed in 1940, and is still regarded today as her greatest achievement. Hitchcock would return to du Maurier's work once more later in his career, though for something very different to a gothic romance. The Birds was a short story published in The Apple Tree in 1952, though this time Hitch waited a decade to adapt it, perhaps influenced more by a real life incident in Capitola than by the short story itself. As iconic as The Birds is though, this is far superior as story and as cinematic art.