Director: Alfred Hitchcock; Screenplay: Joan Harrison and Robert E. Sherwood (screenplay), Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan (adaptation), based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier; Cinematography: George Barnes; Studio: Selznick International Pictures, United Artists; Producer: David O. Selznick
Cast: Laurence Olivier (Maxim de Winter), Joan Fontaine (The Second Mrs. de Winter), Judith Anderson (Mrs. Danvers), George Sanders (Jack Favell), Florence Bates (Edythe Van Hopper), Nigel Bruce (Major Giles Lacy), Gladys Cooper (Beatrice Lacy), Reginald Denny (Frank Crawley), C.Aubrey Smith (Colonel Julyan), Leonard Carey (Ben), Leo G.Carroll (Dr. Baker), Melville Cooper (Coroner)
- "Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?"
While the roster of great Hollywood films in this year may not be as deep as the landmark 1939, it is still a stunningly impressive list. It is another instance of there being a handful of films one could choose as the best of the year and receive little or no argument for the selection. It is a year showcasing superstar actors, legendary directors, and unforgettable films. Making my selection for 1940 may not have included as much back and forth consideration as the previous year, but this is not due to the lack of worthy contenders. In fact, if considering only the top four or five from both years, I don’t think it would be outrageous for someone to claim that 1940 is the superior of the two. In reading the previous statement again, I’m now realizing that the same could be said for nearly any year in the 40s. It’s just a great era for film. At any rate, the upshot of this little tangent is to recognize that there was no drop-off between the banner year of 1939 and the beginning of the new decade.
But fortunately for my sanity (and time and personal life!), this selection did not require the same deliberations and reexaminations of various films before making a choice. With the many great movies to choose from, there was an early favorite from the start and no other movie managed to catch it. Alfred Hitchcock made a splash with his first foray into Hollywood. Not only did Rebecca take home Best Picture honors for the year, but it remains among the best work ever directed by the Master of Suspense.
Many have argued that this would be more aptly classified a David Selznick film. The legendary producer, riding high off of the success of the previous year’s Gone With the Wind, is known to have played a domineering role in many facets of the film. He insisted that Daphne du Maurier’s novel be faithfully adapted. It was Selznick that oversaw the casting and significant areas of production and development that traditionally remain within the domain of the director. Selznick is said to have insisted on certain shots that he wanted Hitchcock to include and it was at his instigation that the score of Franz Waxman was embellished in certain scenes to add emphasis. In hindsight, this debate on how much Selznick’s input to the film influenced the final result is pointless. If Selznick was overly meddlesome, the story doesn’t suffer in the least. The Waxman score is at times overstated, but it is still beautifully composed and such embellishment was simply par for the course in the movie industry.
While Selznick was very hands-on in his role as producer, there remain elements throughout the film that are unmistakably Hitchcock. For a film that contains terrific acting performances, the most remarkable characteristic that strikes me each time I watch it is the engrossing atmosphere that Hitchcock creates. It is apparent right from the opening moments of the film, as the camera reveals the smoldering embers of the Manderley estate in one continuous tracking shot. An ominous tone is immediately set for what will unfold over the course of the story, serving as a clue that no matter how beautiful Manderley may at times appear, darkness will at some point descend upon the estate. It also serves as a statement that the move to Hollywood and big studio production will take nothing away from Hitchcock’s effectiveness. The visuals in this studio setting are spectacular.
Even more remarkable is the fact that Hitchcock also creates an equally appealing light atmosphere in the first half of the film. Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a grieving aristocrat, is vacationing in Monte Carlo when he meets an American girl (Joan Fontaine) who serves as a paid “companion” to rich matron Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates). The two spend time together in the picturesque beachside scenery and Maxim eventually proposes marriage in order to keep his new companion from venturing back to the United States with Mrs. Van Hopper. At first glance, this early section of the film plays more like a light comedy, as the two try to continue their budding romance without bringing it to the attention of the snooping Mrs. Van Hopper. The interaction between Maxim and Van Hopper is quite funny, as Van Hopper aspires to impress the wealthy de Winter and Maxim is interested in nothing but getting close to Van Hopper’s assistant. In hindsight, there are moments in Monte Carlo that portend the events to come – such as when the two lovers begin to discuss drowning and Maxim suddenly becomes uncomfortable – but they are not yet menacing.
Once the couple is married and returns to the de Winter estate at Manderley, the atmosphere returns to the tone set in the opening sequence. At Manderley, Mrs. de Winter learns that she has a significant household staff at her disposal, led by the icy Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). It quickly becomes apparent to Mrs. de Winter that her predecessor’s presence still looms over everything that happens at Manderley. Maxim seems eternally preoccupied with his former wife. Mrs. Danvers is fanatically devoted to the late Rebecca de Winter and her memory. Danvers is clearly contemptuous of Maxim's bride, quite successfully terrifying her at every opportunity. The issue is intensified when Mrs. de Winter learns that Rebecca died by drowning and soon comes to suspect that Maxim may have had a role in the death.
The progression toward the memorable climax at Manderley is interesting because it feels like an unrelenting descent into darkness. There appear to be moments of deliverance from the dread – such as when certain circumstances surrounding Rebecca just prior to her death are revealed – but they are never completely calming. The descent continues until it is completely engulfing (pun intended, for those that have seen the film!). Ultimately, the couple is able to emerge from Manderley, but not before surviving chilling and trying ordeals.
There is not a wasted performance in the entire film, so finding one outstanding role is impossible. Laurence Olivier is rightfully remembered as one of the finest actors to ever enter the profession. The success of his performance in Rebecca is a result of not overacting and attempting to live up the top-billing, but instead making Maxim the aloof, confused character that he is supposed to be. Joan Fontaine infuses Mrs. de Winter with just the right amount of awkwardness as she tries to make sense of her new life in Manderley. Mrs. Danvers is absolutely haunting. Even the lesser supporting roles are wonderful. Florence Bates is very funny as Mrs. Van Hopper, playing her as the epitome of a wannabe aristocrat. George Sanders is excellent as the conniving and mysterious Jack Favell. On a side note, when is George Sanders not excellent? Usually taking on such supporting roles, Sanders seems to always emerge as a commanding on-screen presence.
As I said earlier, however, what most resonates with me is still the atmosphere. The darkness and shadows of the opening shot. The eeriness of Manderley. The feeling of the mansion being a Gothic prison. The way that Hitchcock is able to frame Mrs. Danvers so that just the sight of her is unsettling. For these accomplishments, credit has to be given to both Hitchcock and cinematographer George Barnes. Daphne du Maurier should be praised for creating the compelling story, but it is Hitchcock and Barnes that bring it alive and make you feel it.
Other Contenders for 1940: Another great year. The biggest competition came from films of two other celebrated directors. If not for the final speech that closes the film, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator would contend for being my favorite from him. As it is, it’s still outstanding and one that never ceases to make me laugh. The other close runner-up is another atmospheric mystery and something of a dark horse. The Letter, directed by William Wyler and starring Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall, is certainly an acclaimed film but I’m not sure how much consideration it gets for being selected the best of 1940. I think it’s a great movie and is among the best performances of Bette Davis’ career and is on the short list of Wyler’s best. Wyler also released a second outstanding film this year in The Westerner. Walter Brennan was deserving of his Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Judge Roy Bean.
The one that I suspect will be the most popular selection from others is John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. You’ll hear no argument from me if that is the case. It’s a masterpiece and another that I gave serious consideration.
While never a serious candidate for me personally, it is also worth mentioning that I do quite like Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday and consider it to be far superior to his other highly praised screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby.