1940s, 4/4, Alfred Hitchcock, Best Picture Winner, Drama, Review

Rebecca: A Second Look

Dripping with atmosphere, brimming with wonderful performances, and feeling like there’s a ghost around every corner of the almost mythic Manderley, Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rebecca may be one of his lesser great works, but it’s still great. That we can talk about the gradations of his great films is a testament to how many he had and how skilled he was in general.

However, to attribute the film entirely to Hitchcock alone is to undersell how much David O. Selznick had to do with it. Hitchcock wanted to change the central character of Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) drastically from the book, making her far more active, which would have required a different actress than Fontaine, but Selznick was furious at the prospect (a not uncommon occurrence with the man), and Hitchcock, chastised on his first American project, returned the character to how Daphne de Maurier had written her. The film ends up feeling like Hitchcock directing a Selznick picture, which means that I kind of split the film between them evenly.

The script feels more in line with what Selznick may have wanted from a “woman picture”, as opposed to the more mechanical plot offerings that Hitchcock was more familiar with after his time as king of the filmmaking castle in Britain. In fact, there’s borderline no plot at all through the thing, and it’s mostly a study of a woman fighting off the ghost of her husband’s first wife, manifested in how the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), keeps the memory of Rebecca de Winter alive a year after her death. Given more free rein, I could imagine Hitchcock developing more set pieces on which to hang the action of the film. Instead, it’s pretty straightforward gothic romance.

Still, within that framework, Hitchcock knew what he was doing, proving well that he could operate outside of his comfort zone and familiar territory. He would do it more than once in his career to varying degrees of success (Mr. and Mrs. Smith is pretty entirely a Carole Lombard comedy, I Confess is more of an attempt at straight drama with heavy German Expressionistic visual elements, and The Wrong Man is him experimenting with cinema verite), and this is one of the more successful of those efforts. It also proved seemingly fruitful for the professional relationship between Hitchcock and Selznick, but it would quickly sour a few years later when Selznick gave The Paradine Case his full attention, running roughshod over Hitchcock in a way that Selznick was prone to do with any other filmmaker, fracturing the relationship and pleasing Hitchcock to no end when the contract ended.

Still, his first effort is a rather wonderful meld of the two personalities. Selznick guided the story in pre-production, especially in scripting, Hitchcock was left alone for production, and Selznick guided post. It worked really well here.

Rating: 4/4


4 thoughts on “Rebecca: A Second Look”

  1. Oy. This is going to take forever, catching up to you. But at least the journey will be fun for a while.

    This is another one I first saw in college (Feminist Interpretation of Film…wasn’t fun but the movies mostly were).

    I absolutely love the production design and camera work. Manderly makes Mrs. DeWinter look like a child (it’s notable that we never get her first name, unlike ‘Rebecca’). Laurence Olivier is obviously a heavyweight talent but…he’s mostly wasted in this role. Judith Anderson however is an archtype of the crazy.

    It feels like a haunted house movie but it isn’t. But it is. Figurative, not literal ghosts. I like how the movie plays with that line, making you think it might actually cross the line into the supernatural. Of course that really only works on the first viewing. On rewatches, I mostly just look at the sets and enjoy the ride. Great character actors in this one too.


    1. I have a feeling you won’t be along for the ride with Ernst Lubitsch, at least his silent stuff of which there are a couple dozen or so, so there’s going to be a big section where you will feel little need to keep up. So, don’t feel like you need to rush.

      It’s mainly a showpiece for the production itself, and less the story, but I get into the story repeatedly. It’s all the ghost elements. It’s just got great atmosphere through and through, anchored by a solid story with great actors bringing it back to reality.

      It’s not very Hitch, but Hitch did good.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s