In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Daphne Du Maurier (novel), Robert E. Sherwood (screen play), Joan Harrison (screen play), Philip MacDonald (adaptation), Michael Hogan (adaptation)
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders
Running Time: 130 minutes
Reason for inclusion: This is one of the most highly-regarded Hitchcock films that I still needed to see.
It still baffles me that out of Alfred Hitchcock’s distinguished reputation and extensive filmography, he never once won an Oscar for Best Director. In fact, Rebecca, his very first American film, is his only Best Picture winner. Despite its accolades, Rebecca always seems to somehow get lost in the shuffle. This certainly happened to me, as it is somewhere around the tenth Hitchcock film I have seen. Make no mistake — this is a fantastic film that deserves to be mentioned among his best.
Rebecca tells the story of a young woman (Joan Fontaine), never identified by name, who works as a paid companion of a wealthy businesswoman (Florence Bates). While accompanying her boss on vacation in Monte Carlo, the young woman meets a lonely aristocratic widow named Maximilian de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Despite obvious differences in class and social stigma, the two hit it off, and Maxim invites her to go back to his glorious mansion, Manderley. Within just a couple of weeks, the two are married.
The new Mrs. de Winter has seemed to reinvigorate Maxim with a new outlook on life, but she is constantly under pressure in Manderley. The presence of Maxim’s past wife, Rebecca, is everywhere. Her former bedroom is still sealed shut, left exactly as it was when she passed on in a mysterious boating accident. Pictures and memorabilia from the deceased are everywhere in the estate, and the servants frequently remark on how wonderful Rebecca was.
The worst offender is the lead housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). She is seemingly still obsessed with Rebecca, and her unwelcoming demeanor consistently puts the new bride on edge. There’s something off-putting about this long-time resident, though exactly what it is doesn’t become apparent until the final act.
Now, as someone who has seen nearly a dozen Hitchcock films, I should have expected a twist. Yet ol’ Hitch managed to pull a fast one on me here. After what appears to be a fairly straightforward gothic melodrama about a blossoming (but struggling) relationship in the first act, the film goes in a completely different direction. Secrets are revealed, motivations are announced, and back stories told. This eventually culminates in a fiery conclusion that again feels strikingly different from the rest of the film.
Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson all received Oscar nominations for their performances. While Olivier is certainly memorable in this, it is the two ladies that truly impress. Fontaine is the typical Hitchcock leading blonde, but she perfectly displays the naivete of someone completely out of her element, yet one who also wants to make the best of her new situation. Anderson’s performance is ice cold, and her character’s evil nature earned inclusion in AFI’s 100 Villains list.
Rebecca is not the type of thriller that Hitchcock would later become known for, but it is a haunting mystery that effortlessly managed to keep me guessing throughout. While the director would perfect his craft in later years, this is still an excellent film that is more than deserving of its accolades.