Well, here is the first of the Hitchcock entries in the challenge. It’s the earliest of his films on the list (as well as being his first Hollywood picture), and you can definitely see a number of other influences at work here, unlike his later films which were almost completely dominated by the master of suspense alone.
I may keep banging on about it, but this film is yet more proof that a great story, acted well, will always make a great film. Some of the effects are laughable at times (the exterior shots of Manderley are clearly a model, when Maxim and the second Mrs De Winter are walking on the beach the background is moving quicker than they are, when driving in Monte Carlo Max pulls on the handbrake while the background continues to move), but everything else on screen makes you suspend your disbelief so much that you just don’t care.
A few years ago I went to see a theatre production of Rebecca starring Nigel Havers, and this film reminded me of that in a lot of ways. It’s a very theatrical film (as a lot of films from that era are), from the artificial sets, to the snappy dialogue. I was especially drawn in by the use of lighting to give the impression of fear and despair when Mrs Danvers is trying to talk the second Mrs De Winter (the film doesn’t give the heroine a first name, just as in Daphne Du Maurier’s original novel) into committing suicide.
The first half of the film is actually quite a light affair, and pretty funny at times – sometimes intentionally:
“Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper: Most girls would give their eyes for the chance to see Monte!
Maxim de Winter: Wouldn’t that RATHER defeat the purpose?”
And sometimes unintentionally, due to the difference in attitudes to gender politics between viewers now and in 1940, such as when Max proposes by saying “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.”
The thing that really hold’s Rebecca together though the much darker second half, and stops it feeling too melodramatic or overlong, is the central performances from Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Fontaine has been a little overlooked in the decades since this film’s release, as most reviewers have focussed on the character of Mrs Danvers. However, Mrs de Winter’s transformation from her schoolgirl crush to near breaking point is heart-breaking. Apparently, Olivier was a complete bastard to her on set as he had lobbied hard for his then-girlfriend Vivien Leigh to get the part. The story goes that Hitchcock harnessed this, and persuaded Fontaine that everyone on set hated her. Whether this is true or not isn’t important – what is important is that her performance makes this story totally believable.
As for Oliver, it is simply a pleasure to watch such a master at work. I think this may well be the first time I have seen him in a film, and I can’t believe it took me 32 years to watch one of his performances when I claim to be such a lover of film/theatre. As my wife (watching with me) pointed out – he looks so ‘modern’. He has that timeless quality to his screen-presence, and at times almost looks out-of-place compared to the other characters. Not in an awful, jolting way – more like one of the ancient Gods having come down to play amongst the humans.
I find it a little ironic that the least ‘Hitchcockian’ Hitchcock film was the only one ever to win the Best Picture Oscar, and although it doesn’t really feature any of the usual Hitch trademarks of innocent people on the run, charming sociopaths, maguffins, or the audience as voyeur – it is still recognisably Hitchcock, and still recognisably a great film.