Top Fifty Films of the 40s — Number Thirty-Eight

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#38 — Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

Rebecca holds a unique place in Oscar lore as the sole Alfred Hitchcock film to nab the Best Picture trophy (or Outstanding Production, as it was still called at the time). The famously unrewarded filmmaker lost out to John Ford (for The Grapes of Wrath) the second of four Best Director awards Ford collected in his career. Of course, naming Rebecca Best Picture without similarly honoring Hitchcock is patently absurd, given the director’s always distinctive stamp characterized by a nearly unparalleled skill at the interlocking of the mechanics of narrative with a striking visual sense (to be fair, Ford may be Hitchcock’s closest rival in this inherent filmmaking talent, at least among his contemporaries). No one else could have made Rebecca, not with the same sense of elegance and psychological acuteness. Hitchcock’s first American production, it signals everything to come, all that would earn him the title The Master of Suspense. In some ways, it’s a more useful example of his prevailing preoccupations and smart storytelling tactics than some of the later, more famous works that get routinely held up for their tricky imagery and twisty razzle-dazzle. The story of Rebecca, adapted from the Daphne du Maurier novel of the same name, is direct, even simple. It’s the inner complications in the souls of the characters that give the film its heft and potency.

It’s telling that Hitchcock openly and famously discussed the use of MacGuffins in his work. He saw the largely meaningless, even somewhat undefined object that drives the plot as a useful tool to get at what he was really interest in, namely the corrosive worry, bitterness, duplicity, and suspicion that drove drama. Hitchcock may have made films that can reasonably be categorized as horror, but there were no vampires of werewolves marauding through his films. The supernatural wasn’t a requirement to make an audience unsettled. The embedded nastiness of humanity would do the trick just fine. in Rebecca, Joan Fontaine plays a young woman who meets and falls in love with a gloomy, dashing widower (Laurence Olivier). After a whirlwind two weeks, they marry and he takes her back to his country estate in England. It’s there that the new Mrs. de Winter (no other name is provided for Fontaine’s character) confronts the long, intrusive memory of her predecessor, the Rebecca of the title. The plot holds plenty of additional turns, but it’s all to stoke the blaze of the lead character’s inner turmoil as she finds herself in an increasingly dire situation. The point is not what happens, but how she reacts to it.

Gifted with a craggy emotional landscape to traverse, removed by miles from the sort of simpering melodrama more typical for the day, Fontaine is fiercely committed to the material, exploring the many shadows as they close in around her. Olivier turns his Shakespearean authority to his role, imbuing it with imperious menace. Like a pool player trying to carom off of every rail, Hitchcock also makes room for a splendidly droll supporting performance by George Sanders, an acquaintance who figures prominently in the sordid history of Rebecca. There’s a lot going on, but it never feels overwhelming. Instead, the simplicity I identified earlier is the most lasting quality of the film, a remarkable testament to Hitchcock’s impeccable sense of storytelling balance. At his best, he always seemed to know precisely what a film needed at any given moment and had the shrewd timing to deploy the vital element in just the right way. He proved that repeatedly throughout his career. Rebecca was hardly the first time he did so, but it’s a striking opening salvo as he began the fruitful phase of his career that took place in the epicenter of filmmaking.

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