Alfred Hitchcock had directed more than twenty films in his native England before making the move to Hollywood to make Rebecca. The change of continent had no effect on the oh so Britishness of his first Tinsel Town endeavour. Rebecca is more English than the Queen flashing a bad toothed grin on a double decker bus in the rain while enjoying tea, crumpets and perpetuating an out of date, irrelevant system of monarchy.
Hitchcock was notoriously overlooked by the Academy and never won a Best Director Oscar. But with Rebecca, he did score his biggest Oscar success when it won for Best Picture. Sure, it’s no Vertigo, North By North West, Psycho or a dozen other better Hitchcock movies people would rank above it, but at least his only major Academy win didn’t come with some genre crap like The Birds.
It turns out this is somehow the first Laurence Olivier performance I’ve ever seen and I can see what all the fuss is about. He’s really great as Maxim de Winter, some variety of English toff with a mansion and all. On holiday in Monte Carlo, he meets a girl played by the smoking hot Joan Fontaine, who doesn’t have a character name until she becomes known as “the second Mrs de Winter”, the first being the titular (and dead) Rebecca.
Once married, the character of Rebecca is revealed through stories told by Olivier, his house staff and friends. Initially, Fontaine struggles to live up to the nostalgic legend of her predecessor, but because this is a Hitchcock movie, things aren’t quite as they seem. It’s when these twists and turns begin that Rebecca really starts to get interesting. Because honestly, the first half is kind of boring and by the numbers. But it turns out, all that familiar blandness makes the impact of the second half hit that much harder.
According to the IMDB entry for Rebecca…
“Because Laurence Olivier wanted his then-girlfriend Vivien Leigh to play the lead role, he treated Joan Fontaine horribly. This shook Fontaine up quite a bit, so Alfred Hitchcock decided to capitalize on this by telling her everyone the set hated her, thus making her shy and uneasy – just what he wanted from her performance.”
The screenplay isn’t much kinder to her either. I’m not sure if it was a deliberate decision by the writers to make her character more submissive, or just a sign of the times, but this move is pretty sexist in its attitude towards Fontaine and a woman’s place in a relationship. Instead of a romantic proposal, Olivier makes sure she knows who’s boss by belittling her with, “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.” On paper, that looks like it could be delivered playfully and maybe even sweetly… That’s not how it plays in the movie. And I’m not sure if there is a right way to deliver a line like, “I should be making violent love to you under a palm tree”. If there is, Olivier didn’t find it.
Misogyny aside, Rebecca is definitely worth a look. It’s a tale of murder, mystery and intrigue, never needing to actually show any of the gruesome details. It’s a great example of being effective through what you don’t see, instead of what you do.