director Alfred Hitchcock
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, his first American film, his only film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards (though they failed to give him Best Director), was one of those big, famous films that I just plain had never seen.
“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
With characters like the enigmatic Rebecca, the tortured Maxim de Winter, or the obsessed housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca is one of the more iconic narratives and Gothic stories of the 20th century. Starring Laurence Olivier (as de Winter), Joan Fontaine (as the nameless girl and narrator), and Judith Anderson as the eerie Danvers, it’s so strange. If you’ve never seen it before, as I hadn’t, how imbued the whole thing is with cultural deja vu. I was left trying to track where exactly all of my foreknowledge had come from. The Celluloid Closet? The Carol Burnett Show parody?
Like Jane Eyre before it, it’s the story of a young woman out of her element, brought to a lush estate, haunted by the former mistress of the place. In this case, the unnamed girl is brought by de Winter as his new bride, though he’s given to fits of mania when aroused of the thoughts of the former Mrs. de Winter, the lovely Rebecca. Mrs. Danvers is equally obsessed, but the mystery herein is in exactly what way are these people all touched by the tragic death of the mysterious lady.
One of the biggest upshots of the film is that it was produced by David O. Selznick, producer of Gone with the Wind (1939), and major figure in Hollywood. His obsessions and auteurist visions and Hitchcock’s didn’t mesh as much as Hitchcock did with Daphne du Maurier, writer of the source novel, as well as the material for Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939) and his later film The Birds (1963). In fact, the material seems like a fancy dress rehearsal for Hitchcock’s later classic Vertigo (1958), with the ghosts of lost wives and themes of obsession and madness.
It’s a pretty great film. Having just caught a Joan Fontaine double feature a month or so back, it’s kind of interesting. She’s very good here as the naive and beset young mistress of the house. She would go on to win her own Oscar for Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) the next year, though that film (and that performance) aren’t nearly as good as here in Rebecca.
The Oscars have always been confounding. But Hitchcock is almost always great.