Alfred Hitchcock’s maiden U.S. film most certainly deserved its Best Picture Oscar in 1940. Seeing it again further fuels the inanity of the Academy, which never saw its way clear to a Best Director nod for one of the planet’s finest filmmakers.
George Barnes’ black-and-white “photographed by” images (marvellously aided and abetted by the detailed models—especially of the major silent character: Manderley estate) are at one with the frequently desperate, lonely moods of Daphne du Maurier’s expertly crafted chronicle of a seemingly “simple” personal secretary who comes to share the huge mansion with an army of servants and a husband who remains obsessed with his first wife (Rebecca) more than a year after her drowning by misadventure.
Hitchcock’s incredible sense of pace (knowing when to let silence add movement and flow), shot making (the water fountain waltz being just one example), cinematic characterization (Manderley virtually speaks to the viewer) is already in high flight. He is blessed with stars and supporting actors who “get” his vision even as the writing team (screenplay Robert Sherwood, Joan Harrison; adaptation Philip MacDonald, Michael Hogan) serve up the author’s many twists and turns with convincing scenes.
In the leads, there are two strong performances from the women. Joan Fontaine’s (the second Mrs. De Winter) journey from naïve, head-over-heels young woman to sage wife—who understands that some family secrets are best left for dead—is superb. Judith Anderson’s portrait—replete with a severe hairdo that must have caused constant pain—of the Wicked Witch/Bitch of the West, chief housekeeper is evil incarnate. Her comeuppance must have produced deafening cheers when the film first hit cinemas 76 years ago.
A charmingly mustachioed Laurence Olivier fires on most cylinders as the troubled widower, Maxim de Winter, coming off a touch too caddish at times, but managing a classic confession where the camera and director bring Rebecca into frame without anyone seeing her. George Sanders playing Jack Favell is ideally villainous as he heartily resorts to blackmail to secure an “easy” life—just as his late “cousin’s” husband appears to enjoy.
Proving again that “there are no small parts only small actors,” Florence Bates positively exudes wealthy shallowness as Mrs. van Hopper (Mrs. De Winter II’s employer), simultaneously revealing important backstory and character with the greatest of ease. For the men, Leonard Carey brings a fine touch of John Steinbeck’s Lennie (Of Mice and Men—cross-reference below) to the role of Ben while Leo G. Carroll’s brief appearance as Dr. Baker is perfectly nuanced to add impact to the incredible surprise that ruins some lives and saves others, far beyond the grave. JWR