Thursday, March 4, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Rebecca (1940)

Welcome to another entry in the Oscar Film Journal!  We're about a month and a half out from the 93rd Academy Awards and I'm attempting to watch as many Best Picture nominees of years past as I can before then....

Today I'll be talking about Alfred Hitchcock's first US-produced film, the psychological thriller/gothic romance known as Rebecca, starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson.  Released in 1940 and based on the best-selling novel, Rebecca is about a young woman who marries an affluent widower after a whirlwind romance and moves into his palatial estate, only to find that she has trouble filling the shoes of his apparently beloved first wife, the titular Rebecca.  The Second Mrs. de Winter, as she's known in the story, comes from modest means and finds herself unable to adjust to this lavish new lifestyle, further exacerbated by a menacing housekeeper named Mrs. Danvers, who remains dutifully loyal to Rebecca and thus resents this new bride trying to replace her.  As the story progresses we learn that things are not quite as they seem - Mr. de Winter is very secretive about his past life, and new information about Rebecca's death threatens to fling the newly married couple's lives into disarray.

Rebecca marked the first and only time Hitchcock worked with famed producer David O. Selznick, a partnership marred by intense creative strife between the two strong-headed film auteurs.  Hitchcock wrote the first draft of the screenplay, changing much of the story details from the novel, believing that a film director should take liberal artistic license in adapting a previous work.  Selznick refused to make any major changes, insisting that audiences would want to see the popular novel faithfully translated to the screen.  In the end Selznick got his way, and the film was a major commercial and critical success, garnering an astonishing eleven Oscar nominations and winning Best Picture and Best Black & White Cinematography.  
Rebecca also launched the career of its unlikely star Joan Fontaine, younger sister of Olivia de Havilland (of Robin Hood fame), with whom she had an intensely competitive relationship.  Hitchcock apparently went to great lengths to get out of Fontaine the performance he wanted, convincing her privately that her castmates, all established actors, didn't think she was up to the task of a leading role.  The resulting performance conveyed a young woman of great self-doubt and hesitation, perfect for a character trying in vain to fit into her new surroundings.  Laurence Olivier plays Maxim de Winter as a man haunted by his past, easily impatient with his inexperienced new bride and quite obviously hiding terrible secrets.  But the standout performance for me was Judith Anderson as the icy, penetratingly ominous Mrs. Danvers, whose treatment of the second Mrs. de Winter makes one realize what power a servant can have over an employer.  Anderson plays her stoic and unhospitable at first and then becomes seething and vindictive as her motives become clearer.  

Aiding Anderson's chilling performance of course is the strikingly atmospheric visual aesthetic (courtesy of art director Lyle R. Wheeler) and George Barnes' gorgeous early-noir cinematography; Mrs. Danvers' appearances are almost always shrouded in sinewy shadows to heighten her sinister aura.  Rebecca also boasts beautifully detailed miniatures and matte paintings, for which Jack Cosgrove and Arthur Johns received a Best Special Effects nomination.  I definitely picked up on some visual choices that must have influenced Orson Welles' direction for Citizen Kane (including this film's final shot).  Coincidentally Welles was the first to dramatize Rebecca, albeit in radio form.  

All in all, Rebecca is a pretty superb film from the "early" Hitchcock era (he'd been making films for 15 years by this point), and while he didn't yet have total control over his Hollywood projects, he delivered a visually fantastic, palpably expressionistic psychological thriller, whose pulpy influence can be felt not only on Kane but on modern films such as Gone Girl.  A prominent example of the 1940s "Don't Trust Your Spouse" subgenre, Rebecca has all the tropes of film noir married with the murky ambiance of 1930s monster movies.  Themes of betrayal and manipulation play out amid viscous fog and gothic hallways, as that unsettling, scheming housekeeper lurks in the shadows....

I give the film **** out of ****.

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