I still haven’t seen Psycho, North by Northwest, or Rope. I haven’t seen enough Hitchcock to make an unequivocal declaration, but to me, at this point in time, Rebecca is his best work.
I was fortunate enough to watch Rebecca without the premise, themes or twists spoiled: and I recommend you watch this film with as little information as possible. I’ve said this many times but in Rebecca‘s case it’s never been more imperative. This review will contain spoilers, if you haven’t watched Rebecca please don’t read this blog until you do.
Rebecca is the story of a young woman adapting to her new life as the second wife to the wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). He’s struggled in the year since his first wife, Rebecca, died in a sailing accident. The newlyweds build a life together despite being haunted by reminders of Rebecca.
Rebecca is a ghost story. Her death haunts Maxim de Winter and his new bride (Joan Fontaine). Her presence dominates the film as the chief obstacle for Joan Fontaine’s character. Fontaine can’t escape the legacy of her new husband’s first wife and finds herself feeling foolish and out of place in Rebecca‘s shadow. And why shouldn’t she? Fontaine’s character doesn’t even get a name! Look at the credits, she’s credited only as “I” for how she refers to herself. Whereas Rebecca’s all anyone can talk about, her absence fills more of the screen than Hitchcock’s girth and she doesn’t appear once. There’s no images of her, no flashbacks, nothing. She’s the titular geist. Her memory, her absence, looms large over the lives of the people she left behind. “I” can’t even embrace being called “Mrs. de Winter” because that too she must share with Rebecca.
Evidently David O. Selznick frequently clashed with Hitchcock over almost every aspect of production on Rebecca. His famous memo to Hitchcock concerning the legendary director’s first treatment of the script is a masterclass in contempt. I found myself agreeing with every point Selznick makes in that memo and can only conclude that Hitchcock’s best work (up to this point) is that which he had to compromise his vision. Hitchcock was a visionary auteur who’s style changed the filmmaking for the better; but he wasn’t the best storyteller.
It seems to me that in the majority of his preceding films, Hitchcock had nearly complete control over the final product. I suspect that the films where Hitchcock had complete creative control are the films I find most boring, improbable (wink), and repetitive. In complete contrast, the Hitchcock films I’ve liked most are those that feel the least Hitchcockian. I liked Jamaica Inn (Hitchcock apparently hated it because he found Charles Laughton difficult to work with. I look forward to watching Night of the Hunter to see how Laughton holds up in the director’s chair) and I loved Rebecca (Hitchcock’s reported as saying it’s not got enough humor to be a true Hitchcock movie). Conversely, I really didn’t enjoy his favorite of his own work Shadow of a Doubt.
It’s difficult to appreciate Hitchcock’s brilliance in visual storytelling because he kind of wrote the book on it. His contributions to the film making craft are so significant and numerous that his influence is in every modern film. Imagine you got to taste the first pizza ever made. It was probably mind blowing at the time but if you compared it to the modern advancements in pizza technology (ie: stuffed crust, deep dish) you’d probably think the original pales in comparison. That’s how I feel about most of Hitchcock’s work; Rebecca being the most significant exception.
Rebecca builds an eerily captivating mystery over it’s 2 hour and 10 minute runtime, morphing from meet-cute-fish-out-of-water comedy to a horrific haunted house story with an ending that must’ve inspired Citizen Kane, The Changeling and others. There’s too much to say about this movie. It’s phenomenal. It’s captivating. It’s a deserving Best Picture, and it may be the best film I’ve seen since starting this blog. I hope you seek it out and enjoy it too.