Uber-producer David O’ Selznick would bring director Alfred Hitchcock to America from England, team him up with one of the most popular novels of the day, Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 phenom, “Rebecca,” and win that year’s Academy Award for Best Picture (Selznick’s second in a row after a little programmer called “Gone With the Wind.”) Not a bad start. Of course, it helps if you make an amazing motion picture in the process, which is exactly what “Rebecca” is.
Our heroine is never named other than with the pronoun “I,” and is portrayed by the then somewhat-unknown Joan Fontaine (sister of Olivia De Havilland), who offers up one of history’s most impressive “arrivals” as a full-blown movie star. Our heroine is an innocent who’s terribly vulnerable and a newlywed very much in love with her husband, Maxim (Laurence Olivier), a deeply troubled man still working through the death of his first wife.
Swept off her feet, this orphan who made un undignified living as a paid companion and doormat to an insufferable woman, is suddenly thrust into a world she never knew existed. Maxim is incredibly wealthy and sole-owner of Manderley, a breathtakingly gothic estate populated with servants and also the intimidating and suffocating shadow of Rebecca, Maxim’s dead wife.
It’s within this shadow that the new mistress of the house, already a fragile flower, wilts even further. Rebecca’s hold on the living is supernatural and the primary keeper of that flame is housekeeper Miss Mrs. Danvers (an unforgettable Judith Anderson), who wields the memory of her former mistress like a psychological club to break down her “replacement.” Miss Danvers is destined to succeed until a shipwreck uncovers truths that will either result in the destruction of all involved or their salvation.
Thanks to my notoriously bad memory, I had almost completely forgotten the plot of the film and did forget the outcome of the mystery. And what a treat it was to rediscover this spellbinding two hours full of unexpected twists and the kind of suspense Hitchcock perfected, that which comes from a man who unknowingly puts the woman he loves in terrible danger and finds he can only save her by crossing an emotional Rubicon.
“Rebecca’s” show-stopper is the masterful scene in which Maxim finally tells his full story, when the pieces of all that came before are made to make sense and come together. This is a moment of flashback that isn’t a flashback and one that only an actor and director in full command of their powers and perfectly in tune with one another could pull off.
But the real star here is Fontaine, who would go on the following year to work again with Hitchcock in “Suspicion” and win the Oscar for Best Actress. Selznick, hoping to recreate the public relations boost his search for Scarlett O’Hara created, auditioned anyone and everyone, but most certainly made the perfect choice. Fontaine’s beauty takes your breath away, but there is no more difficult persona to pull off than that of an innocent, and this the actress does flawlessly.
One of the pitfalls for Fontaine in playing this nameless heroine was not only the risk of melodramatic, wide-eyed pathos, but in not taxing the patience of the audience with a one-note performance that drains our sympathy through the act of being a perpetual victim. Through the hard work of plotting and characterization, a fine script certainly does some of the heavy-lifting, but it’s the bottomless depth of Fontaine’s eyes that does the real storytelling and communicates that it’s worth hanging in there because there’s much to be discovered in this woman.
As is always the case with timeless films and most of what this Golden Age of Hollywood produced, the essential basics of storytelling are all in place. Though the run-time is 130 minutes, the pacing is perfect and the plot engrossing from beginning to end. And, of course, the black and white photography — that comes alive on Blu-ray — and production design are about as good as it gets.
The Selznick Empire might’ve burnt out quickly, but the style itself has been made immortal thanks to a producer obsessed with perfection and a remarkable eye for talent.
“Rebecca” is available at Amazon.