Beefing on Hitchcock
1940's Rebecca marks the start of Alfred Hitchcock's run of American films, and what is arguably the "golden era" of his career. Taking all he had learned from the silent film era on through The Lady Vanishes and other definite classics, Hitchcock moved on to Hollywood and into the grandeur and elaborate production of David O. Selznick.
A nameless young lady, an orphan and not high on the social ladder, marries a famously rich widower and moves into his lavish home, where fragments of his dead first wife remain and haunt her. Little by little, the mystery of who the first wife was and how she died come to light, threatening the new couple and their hope of a happy life.
Originally bringing Hitchcock over to work on a motion picture about the Titanic tragedy, Selznick instead put Hitchcock to work on a film adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca. Almost immediately, there was conflict between director and producer. While Selznick felt a book should be represented practically line-for-line onto the screen, Hitchcock preferred to take a basic premise and bring that loosely (very loosely) to the motion picture audience.
After nearly countless rewrites, production was underway with lavish design and an undeniably "Selznick" feel to the entire production. In fact, it is my opinion that the majority of the film feels like more of a Selznick film than that of a Hitchcock film. The one obvious influence Hitchcock had, aside from a bit of the dry witty humour near the start of the film, was in the portrayal of the movie's antagonist Mrs. Danvers. Portrayed by Judith Anderson, the character was uncomfortably creepy yet stoic enough to make the viewer unsure of her actual intentions. Of course, Anderson was (and remained) a lifelong fan and apologist of Hitchcock's genius... so it only makes sense that she gave exactly what the director wanted into the picture.
The male lead Laurence Olivier was a Selznick pick of course, and the female lead was the lesser-known sister of Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine, who Hitchcock cast pretty much because she wasn't her sister. Apparently Selznick wasn't entirely impressed by his choice, but Hitchcock argued that he could make her a star from nearly nothing... something he continued to do with many actresses in his future films. His plan was successful as she won the Academy Award for Best Actress, one of only two the film won that year (the other being Best Picture).
Despite the conflicts between the two powerful movie-making forces, ongoing through the entire filming, editing and production of the movie, both Selznick and Hitchcock still had a mutual respect for each other and the picture in general, and the finished work is a perfect blending of the two personalities and visions. Where Selznick wedged in long scenes of exposition through dialogue, Hitchcock worked around the tedium with camera movements and expressions.
Rebecca easily stands out as one of the most unique movies in the catalog, having so much depth in the direction and production along with a rather intriguing and straightforward story. It is a true classic and a fantastic start to the latter half of Hitchcock's career.