Rebecca as the one Alfred Hitchcock movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, because even among those who are able to airily deride the whole eight decades and change of the Academy's existence as a whole lot of trivial nonsense, Hitch's failure to receive any other recognition from that body is a peculiarly rankling thing. It is understandable, therefore, that we should want to somehow use this as the thin link between the great director and some kind of Establishment recognition, though I'm never quite certain why people are so concerned that Hitchcock never received an award that was denied to Howard Hawks and Stanley Kubrick, but given to Delbert Mann and John G. Avildsen, and given twice to Frank Lloyd.
Anyway, it is certainly fair to think of Rebecca therefore as Hitch's one dance with Oscar; or we could alternately think of it as the second consecutive Best Picture winner made by David O. Selznick's Selznick International Pictures, and I think that gets us rather closer to the mark. Nobody would ever in a thousand years mistake the style or intent of Rebecca for those of Gone with the Wind, and even in the limited form we see it here, the technique of Alfred Hitchcock is individualised like nothing in the Victor Fleming-led slurry of rotating directors in the '39 epic; but like that picture, Rebecca is a work of self-consciously prestigious literary filmmaking with lush production values - it's not set appreciably earlier than the time of its production, but it has the sumptuousness of a costume drama, which alone is enough to put this more in line with the producer's career than the director's.
Lest we forget, Rebecca was Hitchcock's very first American movie, and as just the latest in a long line of European imports to Hollywood, he didn't have nearly as much control or authority as he'd have accrued by the time it came to make his peerless run of masterpieces in the '50s, and that's even before we come to Selznick's notoriously controlling attitude towards everything that ever came out with his name on it. Theirs was not a happy, nor productive relationship, and their two subsequent collaborations after Rebecca, 1945's Spellbound and 1947's The Paradine Case, are among the very worst films of Hitch's career (though Spellbound is a good sight more "Hitchcockian" than his other Selznick pictures). Rebecca itself was the site of many pitched battles: the director wanted a significantly freer adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier source novel; the producer would certainly have preferred a lavish color movie to the moody black-and-white Gothic he was given; and so on, and so forth.
So, the director assigned Rebecca was not the populist genius whose movies and television shows made him a brand name; he was at best the well-regarded man behind several solid British genre movies, a couple of which were truly great. Hiring him over to make this film wasn't about buying his brand name, but about putting a hip Brit in charge of a movie set in Britain, and that is mostly what we get. There are moments that are pure, unbridled Hitch: a tracking shot backwards from a monogrammed napkin to a wide shot of a dining room looks forward to a reverse version of the same idea in Notorious, some years later; the opening track along an obvious, though detailed model, is marvelously robust in its atmospheric artifice, and echoes the similarly fake establishing models in the earlier The Lady Vanishes. And golly, everything to do with the villain!
But we'll get to her. For what I was driving at is how much of Rebecca feels like awfully polished but not, in general, terribly creative prestige filmmaking of the '40s. God knows I'd rather watch this than most other literary adaptations of that era, produced by Selznick or otherwise; it stands up awfully well in its class of Best Picture nominations, too. But there is an awful lot of awfully standard-issue filmmaking on display, and it's not helped out by the director's evidence disinterest in his two main characters, or at least his two lead actors. Briefly - and anything more than that starts careening into more spoilers than the script deserves, for this is an awfully dense mystery with both a mid-film and a climactic twist - it's the story of an unnamed woman, played by Joan Fontaine, who falls desperately in love with George Fortescue Maximilian de Winter (Laurence Olivier), marries him after a whirlwind romance in Monte Carlo, and only belatedly discovers that his stately family home at Manderley, along with himself and all of his servants, is deeply in thrall to the memory of Maxim's previous wife, the domineering Rebecca de Winter, dead in a boating accident the year prior. Told very rigidly from the point of view of the second Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca suffers rather badly, as a mystery, as a thriller, and as a drama, from the generally unsatisfying performances given by Olivier and Fontaine, both of whom were routinely better than this, and Fontaine in particular who seems spectacularly ill-used by this filmmaker (she won an Oscar the following year for his Suspicion, despite it being possibly her worst starring performance). Though she's claimed since that he was one of her favorite collaborators, so what the hell do I know.
Regardless, Fontaine's Mrs. de Winter is a giant blank at the middle of a scenario that needs something for us to hold onto as we move through it: the story very purposefully leaves her without a past identity, of course, but in Fontaine's hands, she not only lacks a name but even very much of a personality, especially in the first hour, when the film is heavy on style and largely empty of narrative. It's one thing that we don't know where she came from; but other than the most surface-level fact of trying to survive in a house of mysteries, we also don't really find out who she is in the film's present.
Olivier, meanwhile, is tiresomely shouty and strained: it's not necessarily a terrible performance in his career overall, but it simply doesn't overlap with any other element of the film's aesthetic. And, like Fontaine, his director isn't apparently interested in doing anything to make the performance or the character any more than functional.
No, the character Hitchock was clearly most interested in was Mrs. Danvers, the Manderley housekeeper and Rebecca's confidante, fairly overtly coded as a lesbian (neither the first nor last psychotic queer in Hitchcock's cinema, but I believe the only woman), and played with extravagant skill by Judith Anderson. It is a small part, but one that towers over my memory of the movie, such that every time I see it, it takes me aback to realise just how little screentime Danvers actually receives. But lordy, does she make the most of that time; and if Hitchcock fails to cede much ground to Fontaine, leaving her mousy little victim even more retiring and withdrawn than the script requires, he does everything possible to draw focus to Danvers, blocking entire scenes just to increase the impact of her position in the frame - her introductory shot is a perfect example, as she swoops into a sheet of grey servants like a great black sea - and letting the camera linger over her crazy wide eyes. The one place that Rebecca feels every inch a Hitchcock film is in the form of Danvers and her sexually-tinged obsession, and the haunted, ghostly way she moves and talks.
And now if you'll excuse me for a truly gross inconsistency, I really do need to make up for how much energy I've put into beating up on a movie that I like. For like it I do - it's nearer the bottom of my Hitchcock ranking than the top, but there's more to movies than just how well they stack up against, pound-for-pound, the finest directorial career in Hollywood history. For one thing, David O. Selznick knew how to give good spectacle, and Rebecca is a gorgeous production: the lavish sets and George Barnes's richly shadowed cinematography mean that at a minimum, it's virtually never less than beautiful simply to look at it, and particularly in the film's middle, when the second Mrs. de Winter is firmly ensconced at Manderley but still quite confused as to what the hell is going on there, he and his suspense-friendly director do a fairly good job of saturating the movie with a sense of ominous closeness, a decayed palette of greys that suffocates the life right out of you (though Hitchcock's addiction to rear projection does sometimes get the worst of him; surely there was a reason for the Manderley banquet hall to be shot that way, but it was not because it served the film's atmosphere). Judith Anderson is, by herself, enough to justify the whole cast, but George Sanders as the slimy cousin of Rebecca who drives most of the third act, Gladys Cooper as a half-supercilious, half-kind guiding face for Mrs. de Winter, and especially Florence Bates as the grotesquely smug and satisfied society woman who employs her as a paid companion in the film's opening are all quite great on their own. And certainly, the matter of Du Maurier's story works like gangbusters, though I don't find that the movie is as good a version of the book as the book is. It's a fine, beautifully-crafted piece of Hollywood cinema from a golden era for the form, and terrifically entertaining as such, even if it's hardly the best picture of 1940 or any other year.