Monday, June 22, 2009

1940: Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock)

Released: April 12, 1940

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

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.

Rating: 10/10

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.


  1. Dave - a fantastic choice and your article hits the same points that I love about this film, the atmosphere, the unsettling sight of Mrs. Danvers, etc. There are magnificent performances by all concerned though I especially like Judith Anderson’s performance, but they are all excellent. That all said, I have to rate “The Grapes of Wrath” as my favorite film of 1940 and one of my all time favorites. Fonda’s brilliant performance and his famous speech toward the end of the film resonate with me and stick in my gut. Jane Darwell is the glue that holds the family together through all the rough times, another wonderful performance and one of Ford’s top films of all time. Greg Toland’s low-key natural lighting captures the mood perfectly. The film and the novel remain as relevant today as they did those many years ago.

    Runner ups

    Rebecca – a close second
    The Great McGinty
    The Great Dictator
    The Shop Around the Corner
    Two Disney classics were released that year Pinocchio and Fantasia
    And ah yessss……The Bank Dick

    There are many other films that are worthy of mention also.

  2. Nice review of a great classic. As good as 'Rebecca' is, however, I prefer 'Foreign Correspondent' for 1940. Just chalk it up to my personal tastes.

    Other favorites from '40 I revisit often are 'The Philadelphia Story,' 'My Favorite Wife,' 'The Shop Around the Corner,' and 'His Girl Friday.' I'm glad to see John's endorsement for 'The Great McGinty' which is an under-appreciated film but quite good, IMO. Oh, yes, and 'Torrid Zone' which is immensely fun and watchable.

  3. Here's another vote for Grapes of Wrath, for everything from the way Henry Fonda says the word "homicide" to John Qualen's finest hour on screen as Muley to John Carradine's intense underplaying as Casey the preacher -- it just occured to me how reminiscent (or prophetic) of his late son that performance was. His Girl Friday and Fantasia also rank high for this year.

  4. My own #1 of 1940:

    The Grapes of Wrath (Ford)


    Rebecca (Hitchcock)
    The Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch)
    Pinocchio (Sharpsteen)
    The Thief of Baghdad (Korda)
    Fantasia (Sharpsteen)
    Our Town (Wood)
    Pride and Prejudice (Leonard)
    The Philadelphia Story (Cukor)
    His Girl Friday (Hawks)

    THE GRAPES OF WRATH is one of the greatest of all American films (vies with CITIZEN KANE in fact for the #1 slot, methinks) but I can't fault you Dave for choosing REBECCA, a film that is also one of my personal favorites, and one of Hitchcock's unquestionable masterpieces. John mentions Toland's photography in the Ford picture (one of the greatest in cinema) and then there's the work of Mr. Barnes in REBECCA, (which you note in your review) is exquisite and poetic, as is one of the cinema's greatest scores by Franz Waxman. What I loved most about THE GRAPES OF WRATH was the unity of the film, that derived to a great extent from the leitmotiv of the rattling old truck in which the Joad family travels with their clothes, pots and pans and ramshackle furniture. This filmabout "unhappy men of the soil" is perhaps the most important and shattering social document we have, both as literature and as film, and the craftsmanship here from Fonda's performance through the supporting cast and the stunning Steinbeck mise en scene is incomparable. I could watch this film every week. And I agree with Samuel Wilson on his tabbing John Carradine, whose eerie portrayal is another unforgettable element in the film.

    I am no fan of THE GREAT DICTATOR as much as I love Chaplin.

  5. And in my delirium to play this game I did not mention that your review really captures the film's sensory elegance.

  6. Thanks for the compliments, guys, and great selections. Like I said, I agree that Grapes of Wrath is an outstanding film. Just personal preference tips things in the direction of Rebecca.

    I'd be curious to hear if anybody else likes Wyler's The Letter? I know it's not seen as being on the same level as some of the other films mentioned, but it's one I've always loved.

  7. I'm with you on Rebecca, and tGoW is my second. Nice work.

  8. I would have to agree with you on REBECCA, but for me, most worthy of note are FOREIGN CORRESPONDANT, THE MORTAL STORM and MY FAVORITE WIFE. Great films all in a great film year.
    Nice post.


  9. Thanks for the feedback, Mark and Rupert!

    Mark - Love the new banner on your blog. I hadn't made my way over there in a little bit, but it's great.

    Rupert - I'm glad you posted, because it directed me to your excellent blog. I've been looking through a little bit and really like what I see. I've added your blog to the links here.

  10. This is one movie that I really want to see. And more so, a book that I really want to read.

  11. I love 'Rebecca' and have watched it many times - great review. I also really like 'The Shop Around the Corner' and 'The Philadelphia Story' - a great double for Jimmy Stewart in one year - and 'His Girl Friday' too. I think I'd give all of those top marks, but I haven't seen 'The Grapes of Wrath' as yet. Judy

  12. I used to go with Fantasia for '40, but upon re-watching it this year it seemed somewhat ponderous an greater in idea than in execution. Instead I'll vote for Pinnochio, which I also re-watched this year; its storytelling is fantastic and every frame is filled with tremendous detail and invention, the thing just moves.