Rebecca (1940)

Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson

Rebecca is a classic psychological du Maurier thriller made in 1940 by Alfred Hitchcock, and stars Laurence Olivier as the wealthy Maxim de Winter, Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs de Winter, and Judith Anderson as the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.

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.

On release the movie was lauded by the critics and became a major box-office success, grossing $2.5 million in its first year. It established Joan Fontaine as a major star after several years of struggling to make the grade in Hollywood, and it also marked Hitchcock as one of the top new Hollywood directors.

It comes as something of a surprise to learn that 'Rebecca', his first American movie, was the only film to earn 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'. Also in contention for the prestigious award were 'The Grapes of Wrath', 'The Philadelphia Story' and 'The Great Dictator'.

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. With his Best Picture win, Selznick became the first producer to win consecutive Best Picture Oscars, after 'Gone with the Wind' the previous year.

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. Hitchcock shows great skill in using characters of great psychological complexity to generate atmosphere and suspense. 'Rebecca' paved the way for such later classic Hitchcock thrillers as 'Suspicion' in 1941, 'Strangers on a Train' in 1951, 'Vertigo' in 1958 and 'Psycho' in 1960.


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 the naïve young woman (who is never named) played by Joan Fontaine and Maximilian "Maxim" de Winter, played by 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, and move into Manderley, but as their relationship deepens, Fontaine is haunted more and more by the seemingly 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, played brilliantly by Judith Anderson, who always seems to be hovering near the nerve-racked Fontaine, have to do with the strange goings-on? And where does Jack Favell, Rebecca's lover and first cousin, played with gusto by George Sanders, come into the picture?

'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 insane by the secrets of the house, but Hitchcock is more than happy to let the tension build and build toward the haunting conclusion.


Producer David O. Selznick purchased the film rights to the 1938 best-selling Daphne Du Maurier novel for $50,000. His major concern at the time was the book's title which he thought sounded Jewish. .He unsuccessfully tried to convince the book's U.S. publisher to change it. He was forced by Joseph Breen of the PCA (Production Code Administration) to alter the ending of the film so that either de Winter is punished for Rebecca's murder or that her death should be accidental.

The novel is written in the first person and the movie was amongst the first Hollywood films to make successful use of voice-over narration with Joan Fontaine delivering lines almost exactly from the novel.

Shooting was completed on November 20, 1939, 27 days behind schedule. Three of the lost days were caused by Fontaine having flu.

The famous opening sequence where the camera moves up the drive to the house, used a half-sized version of Manderley, built on a separate soundstage.

The handwriting for Rebecca de Winter that is discovered amongst her stationery was provided by Selznick's wife, Irene.

Also considered for the Joan Fontaine role were her sister, Olivia de Havilland, Anne Baxter, Loretta Young and Margaret Sullavan. Vivien Leigh was also in the running but producer Selznick vetoed her due to her very public affair with Laurence Olivier when both were married to other people.

Olivier, himself, was second choice for the de Winter role after Ronald Coleman and William Powell and Lesley Howard were also briefly considered.

'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 Cast

Joan 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


Director ... 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 Awards

Two 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