Rebecca holds the unique distinction of being the only Alfred Hitchcock film to win a Best Picture Oscar (more to that, it’s one of only three of the director’s films even nominated for the award). In retrospect, it seems absurd to think that Hitchcock – the most famous director in film history – received such little award recognition. How could this universally adored filmmaker (Have you ever heard someone say “I don’t like Hitchcock films”?) have been passed over so routinely?
Of course, the films that have gone on to leave indelible marks on all of cinema like Vertigo and Psycho were so radical that their contemporary audiences can hardly be faulted for being confounded by them. But what about Rear Window, Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt or North by Northwest? How did Rebecca, one of the master filmmaker’s most respected yet less remembered entries, achieve what no other film of his could?
Of course, when considering an award that carries as much political ramification as the Academy Award, one has to take into consideration elements far beyond the actual merit of the content. As such, Rebecca’s production background is ripe for awards prestige. That the film was adapted from a revered literary source, produced by the preeminent David O. Selznick (hot off Gone with the Wind), and marked the acclaimed British director’s first American production certainly factored into its Awards glory. But even after stripping all the extratextual factors away, one can still sense the prestige of the production solely by looking at the film product itself.
In a nutshell, Rebecca is about a wealthy widower and a modest young woman who marry in a whirlwind romance but then must face the inescapable specter of the groom’s recently deceased wife. Yes, it is a ghost story but this is no haunted house fright-fest; the complications of a deceased wife are dealt with logically. The presence of Rebecca lives on, not in the form of an apparition but through her belongings, her past relationships and the copious memories that linger. If I had to pinpoint one reason for Rebecca’s prestige it is precisely this: the film’s interest in the natural over the supernatural and the emotional over the sensational.
Also working to that effect is the enrapturing love story that opens the film. Our lead characters, played by Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, meet under almost fairy tale like conditions: both vacationing miserably in Monte Carlo due to the burden of their company – Olivier’s in the form of his deceased wife’s memory and Fontaine’s in the form of a boorish employer who has hired her as a paid companion. The two find refuge from their situations in each other’s arms and after a few days, when Fontaine is scheduled to depart, a hasty marriage is procured to prevent their parting. Within days she has become the Second Mrs. de Winter (the only name to which her character is referred throughout the film) and Olivier’s Maxim de Winter whisks her off to Manderley, his grand estate in the British countryside.
A simple girl at heart, the Second Mrs. de Winter is overwhelmed by the sprawling estate and the bevy of servitude at her disposal, none so much as the imposing Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), whose relationship with the deceased Rebecca may not have been exclusively professional. Needless to say, she is exceedingly resentful of Maxim’s new wife. The relationship between Maxim and the Second Mrs. de Winter matures and progresses in unexpected ways and by the story’s end, aligns itself firmly within the tradition of gothic romance – there’s more than a hint of Jane and Rochester here (such comparisons are further explored in the DVD’s featurette, “The Gothic World of Daphne Du Maurier”).
One of Rebecca’s most remarkable qualities is the restraint that Hitchcock exercises in the film’s storytelling. Hitchcock is regularly referred to as the “master of suspense” but I always think that epithet requires a bit of a qualification. Hitchcock was certainly the master of the suspense sequence, but he wasn’t always the master of the suspense film. Films like Suspicion and Topaz may feature tremendous sequences, but they are housed within rather staid and unimaginative films. In contrast, Rebecca is consistently paced from start to finish, every moment flowing smoothly and every development carrying increasing interest. Certainly, there are a few scenes that stand out (the stark lighting of the home movies sequence, a character’s chilling attempt to coerce another into suicide), but nothing that threatens to overshadow the rest of the film and dissipate its slow-boil intensity.
The flipside of this is that the film does not feature an easily extractable segment like the crop-duster in North by Northwest or the shower scene in Psycho; scenes that will forever incite new viewers to seek out the film for generations to come. But at the expense of continued popularity comes the film’s defining quality (and the conduit for its Oscar): the avoidance of sensationalism. And this isn’t to say the film isn’t thrilling. In fact, it has a nail-biting last half hour that achieves its palpable suspense purely through dialogue and nary a shock tactic.
The Criterion Collection released a two-disc edition of Rebecca in 2001 but that version has been out of print for a good number of years now. Thankfully, MGM has brought Rebecca back into the DVD market. It returns at over half the price of the original Criterion edition but without some of its eccentric special features or resplendent packaging. While the MGM release doesn’t contain such curios as the 1939 test screening questionnaire or an excerpt from the 1940 Academy Award ceremony, it does retain some of the old wares and introduces a few new features.
The primary new addition is a 30-minute featurette simply entitled “The Making of Rebecca”. It chronicles the uneasy collaboration between Hitchcock and O. Selznick and features interviews with an array of scholars that will have film students rushing to the store. Amongst the large number of top academic names are Richard Shickel (who also provides an audio commentary track), David Thomson, Drew Casper and Thomas Schatz; sadly nothing from Robin Wood or Richard Allen.
Of the imports from the Criterion disc, screen tests with Margaret Sullivan and Vivien Leigh are most fascinating – if for no reason other than for the rarity of getting to see screen tests of actors who didn’t end up getting the role. Elsewhere, Orson Welles enthusiasts will be delighted to see the return of the 60-minute Campbell Playhouse radio production of Rebecca produced by Welles and John Houseman.
As for the other major new supplement, the aforementioned “The Gothic World of Daphne Du Maurier”, the 20-minute feature provides background on the literary great and explores similarities between her writings and Hitchcock’s films. One scholar describes one of her stories that Hitchcock desired to adapt but was unable to as being a companion piece to Vertigo because of their penchants for incorporating alternate realities. The comparison struck me as funny because for my money, Rebecca and Vertigo make for a fascinating double feature in and of themselves. As examples of variations-on-a-theme, both films revolve around the attempt to replace a departed significant other, albeit with lead characters that possess very different motivations, indeed.