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Hitchapalooza 11: Goin’ Goth With Rebecca (1940) July 7, 2009

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.

The only Oscar Hitchcock ever “won” was the one that Selznick got for producing Rebecca, the best picture of 1940. They never gave him an award for directing film (nor did the DGA, by the way), and here’s another bit of trivia for you – Hitchcock had TWO of his films nominated for Best Picture that year, since Foreign Correspondent was also up amongst the ten nominees, but the directing award went to John Ford for Grapes Of Wrath. Typical motion picture academy – Rebecca was Hitchcock’s first Hollywood production, so he was probably viewed as a newcomer rookie, someone who needed to wait his turn behind more deserving veterans. And even though I like Rebecca, to be honest if Hitchcock were to win for something that year, it should have been Foreign Correspondent.

The plot follows the familiar gothic novel formula – sweet innocent girl marries elegant upperclassman with DEEP DARK SECRET and moves into BIG SCARY OLD HOUSE which has to be well stocked with CREEPY SERVANTS OUT TO GET HER before every secret is revealed and everything else catches on FIRE. Add Fabio and you have the cover of the paperback version. Add some vampires and werewolves and you get Dark Shadows.

Formula isn’t necessarily bad, however – after all, every Shakespeare comedy is basically the same formula (mismatched lovers somewhere in Italy disguise themselves and mix up identities! And then everyone gets married! Yay!) – if the characters are interesting, if the mystery is compellingly laid out, and the performances are strong, then what’s not to enjoy? And that’s what we have here, with Laurence Olivier playing the mysterious British gent with the deep dark secret – one that, by the way, would be solved fairly quickly if he were an American Jew like me and constantly whined out loud about every problem – no secrets there! But then we’d no story. No wonder these gothic novels are never set in a deli with the pastrami going up in flames at the end. None of these things work unless the woman is passive enough so as to never confront hubby and ask the simple questions about his past, and never say to the staff that all of the old wife’s stuff should be packed up and put into storage and by the way, this is MY house now and any of you that screw with me are as good as fired, got that? Everything has to be unsaid, repressed, secret and hidden – therefore, everyone involved in the story has to be British, puritannical-American, or both.

Joan Fontaine plays the innocent second Mrs. De Winter (she’s never given a name), an early role for her and an excellent one – Fontaine always played the ingenue well, whether here or again for Hitchcock in Suspicion a year later, or later on in Ophuls’ Letter From An Unknown Woman. She made a nice career of playing the girl who falls for guys with darkness to them while trying to lighten them up with innocent pain-hiding smiles. Granted, through much of this movie we keep waiting for her to grow a backbone and stop taking crap from everyone around her, but when two of the standout performances in the film come from the two villains – Judith Anderson’s evil housekeeper Miss Danvers and George Sanders’ creepy Jack Favell – it’s more cinematic fun to see the baddies have the advantage over her.

Anderson always made a good stern-speaking creepazoid, whether here or as Memnet in The Ten Commandments, and Sanders had a nice career of playing elegant sleazeballs.

Olivier wanted to play opposite his wife Vivian Leigh, and when Fontaine was cast, evidently Olivier treated her badly – so Hitchcock quietly told EVERYONE to treat Fontaine badly, since it would help her get into character more. Part of me thinks Hitchcock a manipulative bastard for doing this, but considering Fontaine worked with him again, she must have been okay with it.

What makes this movie work well is how it creates the omnipresence of the missing title character so well – if the memory of Rebecca looms with shadows over any possible happiness for Fontaine & Olivier, Hitchcock shows us those shadows throughout the house, as we share Fontaine’s perspective of finding the monogrammed linens and stationary, as well as the perfectly preserved shrine-room dutifully kept by Mrs. Danvers. A nice directing touch comes later when Oliver recounts their last night together and as he describes Rebecca’s movements on that night, the camera follows the blank space through the room as if following her in flashback – a wonderful way to relate a presence-through-memory-only of the character, which is the thing the entire plotline hinges upon.

A chick movie, to be sure, but a good chick movie.

Next up to bat: more familiar Hitchockian territory – murder with innocents wrongly accused – with 1950s Stage Fright!



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