Producer David O. Selznick had just finished the massively successful 'Gone With The Wind' and he seized the opportunity to work with Hitchcock, pairing him with Daphne Du Maurier's wonderful 1938 gothic ghost story.
It comes as something of a surprise to learn that only 'Rebecca', his first American film, earned Alfred Hitchcock an Academy Award for Best Picture. In fact, it was ironic that at the Oscars the film beat Hitchcock's own final British picture, 'Foreign Correspondent'. The film received a total of 11 Academy Award nominations including Olivier, Fontaine and Anderson for their respective roles and won two - Best Picture and Best Cinematography. On release it was lauded by the critics and became a major box-office success.
All of Hitchcock's trademark artistry was used to full effect: there's the murky, mysterious earlier history, the barely contained suspicions, the fairy-tale romance doomed by the encroaching past, and, of course, the looming spectre of foul play.
Working for the first time with the luxury of a big Hollywood budget, Hitchcock transformed the Manderley mansion almost into a character itself. The palatial estate by the sea is the atmospheric setting for the strained romance between Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. He is a wealthy widower wooing the innocent Fontaine, and she never questions her good fortune in finding such a loving man.
They marry after a whirlwind romance, but as their relationship deepens, Fontaine is haunted more and more by the seeming continuous presence of his dead wife - Rebecca and she convinces herself that her husband is still in love with Rebecca. She discovers, too, that he has a quick temper and reacts in a fiery way to anything regarding his first wife. Is the haunting merely a figment of her imagination, or the fruits of paranoia, or is a more nefarious force at work? And what, if anything, does the sinister servant Mrs Danvers (Judith Anderson) who always seems to be hovering near the nerve-racked Fontaine, have to do with the strange goings-on?
'Rebecca' does lack some of Hitchcock's trademark playful touches, although he makes his customary cameo appearance near the end when he is seen outside a phone box. The general absence of humor is due in no small part to the unremittingly gloomy, gothic nature of Du Maurier's melodramatic novel. Innocent Fontaine is nearly driven to madness by the lingering secrets of Manderley, but Hitchcock is more than happy to let the tension build and build toward the haunting conclusion.
'Rebecca' has a wonderful storyline with a surprising ending, and it is magnificently played by a wonderfully talented cast. It is not the most famous of Hitchcock's films, but it is his first masterpiece.
Main CastJoan Fontaine ... The Second Mrs. de Winter
Laurence Olivier ... Maxim de Winter
Judith Anderson ... Mrs. Danvers
George Sanders ... Jack Favell
Reginald Denny ... Frank Crawley
Nigel Bruce ... Major Giles Lacy
C. Aubrey Smith ... Colonel Julyan
Florence Bates ... Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper
Gladys Cooper ... Beatrice Lacy
Melville Cooper ... Coroner
Leo G. Carroll ... Dr. Baker
Lumsden Hare ... Tabbs
Leonard Carey ... Ben
Edward Fielding ... Frith
Forrester Harvey ... Chalcroft
CreditsDirector ... Alfred Hitchcock
Producer ... David O. Selznick
Adaptation ... Philip MacDonald, Michael Hogan, from the original novel by Daphne du Maurier
Screenplay ... Joan Harrison, Robert E. Sherwood
Cinematography ... George Barnes
Music ... Franz Waxman
Format ... B & W
Release Date ... 12 April, 1940
Runtime ... 130 min
Academy AwardsTwo Wins:
Best Picture ... Selznick International Pictures - David O. Selznick
Best Cinematography, Black and White ... George Barnes
Nine Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Director ... Alfred Hitchcock
Best Actor ... Laurence Olivier
Best Actress ... Joan Fontaine
Best Actress ... Judith Anderson
Art Direction, Black and White ... Lyle R. Wheeler
Special Effects ... Jack Cosgrove, Arthur Johns
Best Film Editing ... Hal C. Kern
Best Music, Original Score ... Franz Waxman
Best Writing, Screenplay ... Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison