Possibly the best psychological thriller ever made
It would be a Sophie's choice, but if I were forced to choose a favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, my answer could very well be “Rebecca”. A film driven by unsaid emotions rather than action, “Rebecca” keeps the viewer’s mind constantly in motion trying to piece together continual clues. This arresting psychological thriller is a gripping masterpiece that could only have been executed this impeccably by a cinematic genius. Nominated for eleven Academy Awards, it won two, including Best Picture. It also made AFI's list of "The 100 Most Thrilling American Films" of all-time list, coming in at #80. This has been one of my favorite films since I first saw it at a repertory movie theater back in college.
Practically every great film has a great story, and this one is based on the bestselling 1938 Daphne du Maurier novel also titled “Rebecca”. It is a gothic tale of an unsophisticated woman (referred to as “I” in the narration) who becomes the second wife of an aristocratic widower, “Maxim de Winter”. She is thrust into running a house filled with servants and the omnipresent memory of his first wife, the late “Rebecca”. As “I’” narrates at the film’s start, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, we float through a gate, over the twists and turns of an unkempt road, through clouds and mist, and finally come upon the defiant manor Manderley, appearing in semidarkness. The tone has been set and the bewitchment has begun. Like our first glimpse of Manderley, “Rebecca” is a film cloaked in shadows, with mysteries waiting to be uncovered. Also like Manderley, whose gothic walls are filled with uneasiness, fear, and the presence of “Rebecca”, we too are filled with grandeur and trepidation. This film, which explores the power of the dead over the living, only gets deeper and more intriguing as it rapidly propels along.
“Rebecca” was directed by the “Master of Suspense”, Alfred Hitchcock. After a successful career directing about two dozen films in his native England (including such classics as "The Lodger", "The 39 Steps", "The Man Who Knew Too Much", and "The Lady Vanishes”), he moved to Los Angeles, and “Rebecca” was his first American film. He was lured to Hollywood by producer David O. Selznick (whom I wrote about in the “Gone with the Wind” entry) with a four film contract. Each brilliant in their own ways, the two men were mismatched, as they had different styles and both liked to have control over their films. They ended up making just two more films together (“Suspicion” and “The Paradine Case”). For a film with not a lot of action, Hitchcock keeps the pace of “Rebecca” moving at light speed. Tension never lets up as we watch the young bride discover things are amiss, while she nervously lives in the shadow of “Rebecca”. Hitchcock knows just what to show and how to show it to get the most tantalizing and intense effect possible. One example of how he can heighten the most mundane dialogue, is the scene in which “Maxim” explains “Rebecca’s” final night to “I”. Instead of choosing to focus on “Maxim” or “I”, or showing the typical flashback, Hitchcock uses the camera to illustrate “Rebecca’s” movements. In accordance with “Maxim’s” description of her actions, the camera shows the empty sofa where she sat, rises where she stood, and moves as if following her where she walked. Not only does this force us to vividly picture “Rebecca” in our minds, but it also reinforces her eerie, ghostlike presence. For his direction, Hitchcock earned his first of five Best Director Academy Award nominations. Though he won many honorary awards in his lifetime (including the Academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, the Cecil B. DeMille Award, BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award, AFI Life Achievement Award, and more), he shockingly never won a competitive Oscar, a BAFTA (British Academy Film Award), or Emmy (for his TV show) Award. I previously wrote about Hitchcock in the, “Notorious” and “Strangers on a Train” entries, and you can find additional information about him in both posts.
Laurence Olivier stars as “George Fortescue Maximilian "Maxim" de Winter”, the forceful, enigmatic widow and owner of Manderley. We first meet him when “I” stops him from what appears to be jumping off a cliff. From then on, we slowly find out more about this darkly mysterious, melancholic aristocrat. It is a tough role, as “Maxim” is quite miserly with his secretive inner life, and at times behaves utterly ghastly towards his young bride. At the same time, we have to believe “Maxim” desires and loves the young “I”. Olivier is completely believable at both, with occasional outbursts that neither we or his young bride quite understand at the time. Olivier sets up his character very well in the first Monte Carlo hotel lobby scene with “I”, in which, by his eyes, we see him delicately seduced by her innocence. Olivier gives an engaging arc to “Maxim”, and the more I see this film (and know its secrets), the more details I spot in his work. For “Rebecca” Olivier received his second of ten Academy Award nominations as an actor. While an accomplished film actor, Olivier was hailed as the greatest living stage actor of his day, appearing in well over 100 theater productions - especially known for legendary performances in Shakespearean roles, and in “Oedipus”. He carried several of those roles to the big screen (directing many), including film versions of “As You Like It”, "Richard III", "Othello", and “Henry V", for which he was awarded an honorary Oscar for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer, and director. Olivier also starred, produced and directed the 1958 film version of Shakespeare's “Hamlet”, for which he was nominated for Best Director, won his only Best Actor Academy Award, and won an additional Oscar as producer for this Best Picture winner. An eminently honored actor, in addition to his Oscars mentioned above, his countless worldwide accolades include five Emmy Awards, three BAFTA Awards, three Golden Globe Awards, was knighted twice (in 1947 and 1970), and earned an additional honorary Academy Award in 1979 for his body of work. He appeared on stage, film, TV and radio, and along with Sir Ralph Richardson (whom I wrote about in “The Heiress” entry) and Sir John Gielgud, Olivier dominated the British stage for decades. Known for his eloquent speaking voice, he often played royal or noble figures, and men of inner strength and will. He was an actor who worked from the outside in, using a character’s appearance (make-up, voice, accent, and costumes) to inform their inner life. Born in England, Laurence Olivier began acting in school plays, and quickly established himself as a major force on stage. After significant triumphs on the London stage and Broadway, he began his film career in 1930, in British and American films. While having moderate success in films, he still needed to learn how to adjust his theater trained acting for the camera. He luckily met director William Wyler, who directed him in his breakthrough film role in the classic 1939 romance, "Wuthering Heights”. In his book, “On Acting”, Olivier had this to say about Wyler’s impact, “If any film actor is having trouble with his career, can’t master the medium and, anyway, wonders whether it’s worth it, let him pray to meet a man like William Wyler”. For "Wuthering Heights”, Olivier earned the first of his ten Best Actor Oscar nominations, and began a brief period of high profile romantic leading man roles, including “Rebecca”, "Pride and Prejudice”, and “That Hamilton Woman”. He continued to work on stage, film and TV, as both actor and director through the 1980s. Some of his other classic films include "The Entertainer", "Spartacus", "Bunny Lake Is Missing”, "The Prince and the Showgirl”, "Sleuth", "Marathon Man", "The Boys from Brazil", "A Little Romance", and "Clash of the Titans”. He was married three times, all to actresses - Jill Esmond, Vivien Leigh (I mentioned their marriage in the “Gone with the Wind” post), and Joan Plowright. Several sources claim Olivier also had a ten year relationship with actor Danny Kaye. Sir Laurence Olivier died in 1989 at the age of 82.
Joan Fontaine stars as one of the few nameless lead characters in films. Her character is occasionally referred to as “the second Mrs. de Winter”, and as “I” in the narration. Like “Maxim”, outside of their relationship, she remains somewhat of an enigma. Fontaine is fabulous as the awkward, out of place woman tormented by the shadow of the seemingly goddess-like “Rebecca”. Fontaine brings a quality to the character that has us immediately identify and feel for her. In a 1986 interview with Leonard J. Leff, Fontaine motioned that the British cast members (which was just about all of the cast) formed a sort of clan from which she was excluded, and in the end she felt being shunned helped her performance. She is superb, and is the heart and soul of the film. Fontaine can portray nervous hopefulness like no one else. I can point to practically any scene in this film as an example, but a favorite is when “I” and “Maxim” are watching home movies. With stunning projector lighting flickering on her face, she shows such a layered mix of emotions in such a simple and honest manner. It’s no surprise Fontaine was an actress known for playing beautiful, emotionally troubled women. Joan Fontaine was born in Tokyo, to British parents. Her parents separated when she was two years old (later divorcing), and Joan moved with her mother and sister to California when she was quite young. She made her stage debut the same year as her film debut, in 1935. By 1937, Fontaine’s career picked up some steam as she was given decent smaller parts in some successful A-list films such as “The Women”, and “Gunga Din”. After a lengthy auditioning process, beating out more recognizable actresses, she won the lead in “Rebecca”, largely due to Hitchcock’s insistence. It is the film for which she is best remembered, and it changed her career and earned her the first of three Best Actress Academy Award nominations. Her next film was another by Hitchcock, “Suspicion” (this time opposite Cary Grant), for which she earned her second Oscar nomination, and her only win. Many believe her win was consolation for not winning the Oscar for “Rebecca”. Her Oscar was the only one won for a performance in any Hitchcock film. It made her a huge star, and in the early 1940s she was at the height of her career. While continuing to work in films, Fontaine began to appear on television in the 1950s, and by the end of the decade she would work almost exclusively on TV. Some of her other notable films include "Jane Eyre", "Letter from an Unknown Woman", "Ivanhoe", "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea", "The Witches", and 1943’s “The Constant Nymph”, for which she earned her third and final Oscar nomination. She had a fierce competitive streak, was a Cordon Bleu chef, interior decorator, licensed pilot, champion balloonist, and an expert golfer. Her sister was actress and legend Olivia de Havilland, and the two had a notorious feud, leading to them not speak (the last time being in the 1970s). While de Havilland remained quiet about their rivalry, Fontaine was vocal in interviews and in her autobiography, "No Bed of Roses”. Her reasons for the feud varied over the years, from being just common sisterly quarreling, to stating that her sister, older by one year, hated her from the minute she was born. Outside speculation has included competitive careers, Oscar wins and losses, and their mother creating tension between them. One of the most interesting accounts I’ve read was by Fontaine’s daughter, Deborah Dozier Potter, in an article she wrote for the “Santa Fe New Mexican” on August 8, 2020, just after de Havilland’s death. I mentioned a bit more about it in my previous “The Heiress” post. Fontaine was married and divorced four times, including a marriage to actor Brian Aherne. Joan Fontaine died in 2013 at the age of 96.
George Sanders plays “Jack Favell”, “Rebecca’s" first cousin and lover. His part is small, however Sanders is deliciously evil while bringing a burst of energy to every scene in which he appears. This is one of his best remembered roles, along with his Best Supporting Actor Academy Award winning role in “All About Eve”, the first film of this blog (in which I briefly wrote about Sanders). That was his only Oscar win or nomination. He appears in another Hitchcock film, “Foreign Correspondent”, also in 1940. A British born singer and actor, George Sanders appeared in both British and American films. He excelled at playing upper-class, sinister type characters with style. Sanders began his career on stage, including appearing as a chorus boy and singing in a cabaret. His first film appearance was as a singer in a bar in the British 1934 film, “Love, Life and Laughter”. He continued to make films in England and America, with a breakthrough in the 1936 American film, “Lloyd's of London”. He would become a well known character actor and sometimes lead, often in villainous roles. Working steadily up until 1973, Sanders appeared in over 130 films and TV shows, and his other classics include "The Picture of Dorian Gray", "A Shot in the Dark", "Man Hunt ", "Ivanhoe", "The Black Swan", "Village of the Damned", "Journey to Italy", "Call Me Madam”, and as the voice of “Shere Khan” the tiger in the classic 1967 Walt Disney animated film, “The Jungle Book”. His brother was actor Tom Conway. He was married four times, including marriages to two of the Gabor sisters, Zsa Zsa and Magda (to whom he was married for 32 days), and to actress Benita Hume until her death. Marked by a succession of tragedies including the loss of his wife, brother, mother, business investments, failing health, and depression, George Sanders committed suicide in 1972 from a barbiturate overdose. He was 65 years old. He left behind a note that read, “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck”. Such a sad ending for a gifted actor whose work I love.
A standout performance in “Rebecca”, and one the screen's most iconic, is by Judith Anderson, who plays “Mrs. Danvers”, the creepy head housekeeper of Manderley. “Danvers” often appears out of nowhere, and every time she is around, she conjures fear in “I” and the viewer. Her stark, tightly wrapped black hair, half crazy piercing look, and stern, stoic presence are enough to make anyone cower into submission. When Anderson got the part, she was instructed not to pluck her eyebrows for the role. Like much of the film, “Danvers” is shrouded in mystery. Anderson’s performance is so rich with the unstated that it’s easy to imagine “Danvers’” life off-screen. “Danvers” was clearly in love with the late “Rebecca”, and emits a strong lesbian vibe while lovingly showing off “Rebecca’s” lingerie and underwear to “I”. It is one of the film’s standout scenes, with “Danvers” at her spookiest and “I” nervously scared stiff. Anderson gave such a memorable performance, she earned her one and only Academy Award nomination for the role. It also earned “Mrs. Danvers” a spot as the 31st greatest villain on AFI's "The 100 Greatest Heroes & Villains" list. Although mostly known to audiences today from “Rebecca”, Australian born Judith Anderson was primarily a stage actress, considered one of the greatest classical stage actresses of her time. She began her career on the Australian stage, moving to Los Angeles in 1918, followed by New York. She made her Broadway debut in 1923, had a breakthrough with the play “Cobra” in 1924, and by 1926 was a Broadway star. Not endowed with typical beauty, through her presence, elegance, and fashion sense she became a sort of style icon. Her reputation as one of the preeminent stage actress began in the mid 1930s, and would include roles in plays such as “Old Maid”, “Hamlet”, “Macbeth”, “Mourning Becomes Electra”, and “Medea” (for which she won a Tony Award in 1948). Her film career began with a short film in 1930, and her first feature in 1933. “Rebecca” was her second feature film and it set in motion a film and TV career which lasted until 1987. Though she never won an Oscar, she won two Emmy Awards (out of seven nominations) - both for playing “Lady Macbeth” (in two separate productions). Although she is chiefly remembered for playing evil characters, she portrayed many types of women. Her other classic films include "Kings Row", "Laura", "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", "The Ten Commandments", "Stage Door Canteen", and "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock". She also appeared as “Minx Lockridge” on the 1980s TV series, “Santa Barbara” (for which she earned one of her Emmy nominations). In 1960 she became a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and in 1991 she was appointed Companion of the Order of Australia for her work in the performing arts. She married and divorced twice - both somewhat brief marriages. Dame Judith Anderson died in 1992 at the age of 94.
I’d like to say a word about what I feel is one of the most overlooked elements in films - character actors. In this blog, you’ll repeatedly hear me mention how many great actors and actresses are in the supporting cast of many films on here, usually too many to mention. Classic films were generally loaded with an abundance of speaking parts. In Hollywood, the actors called upon to fill these roles were under contract to a studio. Over time many of them developed screen personas, and they would be cast to add color and depth, rounding out a film, and keeping it wholly entertaining. As with “Rebecca”, the massive impact of these short performances are not to be underestimated. That said, once again, I’ll only mention a few of these fantastic and noteworthy actors…
Nigel Bruce plays "Major Giles Lacy”, the brother-in-law of “Maxim”. He brings humor to the film as a jovial, upper-crust man who constantly puts his foot in his mouth. Bruce can’t be beat at playing bumbling men of importance and rank. He is undoubtedly a familiar face to those who watch classic movies, as he appeared in over 75 films in just over thirty years. A British actor (born in Baja Mexico), he began acting on the London stage. After about a decade, he began appearing in British films starting in 1930, then moved to Hollywood in 1934 where he began a successful career as a Hollywood character actor, largely playing variations of clownish gentlemen. Other classics in which he appears include "Suspicion", "Susan and God", "Free and Easy", The Corn is Green", "The Two Mrs. Carrolls", "Limelight", "Treasure Island", and "The Scarlet Pimpernel”, though he is perhaps best remembered for his role as “Dr. Watson”, opposite Basil Rathbone in a series of fourteen “Sherlock Holmes” films. He was married once, to British actress Violet Campbell for over 30 years, until his death. Nigel Bruce died in 1953 at the age of 58.
One of the treats of a Hitchcock film is definitely his supporting cast, and almost always in a standout role is an older character actress. This time it is Florence Bates as “Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper”, “I’s” employer at the start of the film. Hysterically catty, unsympathetic and often downright nasty, she somehow is a joy to watch! We are informed of her nature from the start, when she states, “I’ll never come to Monte Carlo again. Not a single well-known personality in the hotel”. Her layered performance is entirely believable. Take her expression when she realizes there’s a romance going on behind her back. Her reaction is priceless. Florence Bates was a newcomer when cast in “Rebecca”, as it was her first credited film role (after one very brief appearance in one prior film). A former social worker, teacher, lawyer (the first female lawyer in her hometown of San Antonio, Texas), English and Spanish radio commentator, wife, and bakery owner, she began acting on a whim, landing her first role at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse just before turning 50 years old. After performing there for a bit, she landed her role in “Rebecca”. This film led to a lucrative and successful film and TV career, lighting up the screen with over 70 appearances in just sixteen years. Bates appeared in many classics, such as "Kitty Foyle”, "Heaven Can Wait”, "Since You Went Away”, "A Letter to Three Wives”, “On the Town”, “I Remember Mama”, “Les Misérables”, and many more. She even appeared once on the classic TV show, “I Love Lucy”. She was married twice. Florence Bates died in 1954 at the age of 65.
I also want to mention Leo G. Carroll who plays “Dr. Baker”, as I briefly mentioned him previously in the “Strangers on a Train” post. Carroll appears in more Hitchcock films (in credited roles) than any other actor or actress, as he appears in six of them. In contrast to the ethereal feel to the rest of the film, with his very brief appearance in “Rebecca”, Carroll brings realism with the distinguished eloquence of a doctor, grounding the film and making everything plausible. His performance here is a prime example of how vital a small role by a character actor can be to a film.
Not only did “Rebecca” win the Best Picture Academy Award, its cinematographer, George Barnes also won that year’s Best Cinematography statue. Its other nine nominations were Best Director (Alfred Hitchcock), Best Actor (Laurence Olivier), Best Actress (Joan Fontaine), Best Supporting Actress (Judith Anderson), Best Screenplay (Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison), Best Art Direction (Lyle R. Wheeler), Best Editing (Hal C. Kern), Best Special Effects (Jack Cosgrove and Arthur Johns) and Best Original Score (Franz Waxman).
This is a film I’m very excited to share. So gripping it can be seen countless times, and so superlative it has become a certified classic. Enjoy the mystery and intrigue of “Rebecca”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
As I’ve mentioned in my posts on, “Notorious” and “Strangers on a Train”, Alfred Hitchcock makes cameo appearances in many of his films. “Rebecca” is one of them, though this time he is difficult to spot. He appears near the end of the film, just after “Favell” used the pay phone. Hitchcock walks across the screen in the background while a policeman tells “Favell”, “This isn’t a parking place, you know”.
When the film was released in Spain it was so popular that to this day, the type of sweater "I" wears in the film has become known as a "Rebecca".