Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock (nominated)
Written by: Robert E Sherwood and Joan Harrison (nominated)
Starring: Laurence Olivier (nominated), Joan Fontaine (nominated), George Sanders, Judith Anderson (nominated)
IMDb rating: 8.2/10
My rating: 7/10
All This, and Heaven Too
The Grapes of Wrath
The Great Dictator
The Long Voyage Home
The Philadelphia Story
Synopsis: After a whirlwind romance in Monte Carlo, a woman (Fontaine) marries the heir (Olivier) of a massive English mansion, Manderley. After moving in, she is haunted by the memory of his deceased wife, Rebecca.
As this series of posts about best picture winners progresses, the movies are coming with a lot more baggage. It’s not just me writing about old movies no one has seen anymore – I’m actually giving opinions on beloved classics.
Rebecca, the only Hitchcock film to win best picture, is not as massively famous as, say, Psycho or The Birds, but the association with the legendary director means far more people these days would have seen Rebecca than something like Cimarron.
But I’ll do my best to give my opinion nonetheless, since the movies will just be getting more well known from here.
My initial impression is that, while it’s clearly a well-made and atmospheric film, it’s definitely not Hitch’s best. I don’t know if that’s because he was still finding his groove, or if he was constrained in some way Hollywood (this was his first American film).
That being said, I did like it and there were some suspenseful moments. Even in the happier times, like the initial romance, there’s a creepy undercurrent, perhaps because of the permanent tense music, or the unsettling opening sequence of a wooded path and sinister mansion.
Despite the ever-present creep factor, the three acts each have a distinct tone. The first is the lightest, following a whirlwind romance in glamorous Monte Carlo.
The second act, after the pair are married and move to Manderley, is the best. It’s as creepy and atmospheric as expected. After the second-act turning point, the film becomes more of a drama, losing the suspense.
My favourite aspects of this film (other than the Hitchcockian Gothic mood) were Laurence Olivier’s performance and Joan Fontaine’s character.
This probably sounds ridiculous because Olivier is a legendary actor, but I was surprised at just how good he was. Perhaps because he’s known to be a dramatic actor, I didn’t expect him to be so… natural. He does the charming brooding very well, but it was little touches, like the way he licks his fingers after spreading jam on toast, that make him totally embody the character. He seems like he really belongs wherever he is put.
As for Joan Fontaine, I really enjoyed her role as well. While her performance didn’t stand out, the character was so well executed that it had to have been a perfect combination of acting, writing and directing. I didn’t notice it until the first twenty minutes or so, but her character doesn’t even have a name. This, in a movie named after her husband’s late wife, says it all.
She’s an orphan, dressed plainly, who doesn’t stand out because she’s mousy and self-conscious, but that’s exactly what the role demands. She’s so desperate for a place to belong, but her own insecurities and paranoia cause most of the problems in her marriage.
Mr De Winter’s sister and the house’s staff (barring the one-woman Rebecca fan club, Mrs Danvers, played by Anderson) are all perfectly pleasant and accommodating, but the second Mrs De Winter just can’t seem to relax, and, thus, neither can the viewer.
Fun fact: Both Rebecca (1940) and Gone With the Wind (1939) were produced by Selznick International Pictures. Interestingly, Gone With the Wind starred Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland, while Rebecca starred Leigh’s husband, Laurence Olivier, and De Havilland’s sister, Joan Fontaine. They were all nominated for acting Oscars, although only Leigh won.
Bottom line: Not the best Hitchcock, but a worthwhile watch nonetheless, even if just for Laurence Olivier’s performance.
For the rest of the posts in this series, go here.