I'm trying to watch all the movies that have won the Oscar for Best Picture. Next was the 1939 winner, Gone with the Wind, which beat Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz and Wuthering Heights. I've already written my impressions of this movie, which you can read here.
The 1940 winner, Rebecca, was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starred Sir Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. Rebecca is a haunting movie full of suspense, like a ghost story without the ghost.
The other nominees in 1940 included several classic films: All This, and Heaven Too; Foreign Correspondent; The Grapes of Wrath; The Great Dictator; Kitty Foyle; The Letter; The Long Voyage Home; Our Town; and The Philadelphia Story.
Rebecca tells the story of an unnamed young woman, played by Joan Fontaine, who while vacationing with her employer in the south of France, falls in love with a wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter, played by Sir Laurence Olivier. At the close of the brief vacation, he asks her to marry him, and she moves with him to his sprawling, isolated country estate.
As soon as she moves in, she must compete with the memory of the dead wife, Rebecca, whose monogrammed belongings are everywhere, her presence felt in practically every room. This omnipresence is compounded by the fact that Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who was Rebecca's personal maid, wastes no opportunity to compare the new bride to the first Mrs. de Winter.
It's a credit to Hitchcock's directing that he makes a relatively uneventful tale so engrossing. He does this, in part, through his use of subjective cameras angles, one of his trademark techniques. We often see the action through the point of view of the new Mrs. de Winter. Even though she might be standing in a luxurious room, in broad daylight with the windows open, the camera zooms in obsessively on all the monogrammed items belonging to the former mistress, mimicking the uncertainty and rising anxiety of the young bride.
In the beginning of the movie, Joan Fontaine, who is the younger sister of Olivia de Havilland, reminded me very much of Scarlett Johansson, with her naturalistic portrayal of a young personal assistant who is at times unsure of herself, and at others giddily optimistic. As the movie proceeds, her performance gets increasingly more pained, so that she seems to be literally at the point of breaking.
Sir Laurence Olivier as Maxim de Winter is, by contrast, reserved, taciturn, almost icy in his demeanor. He is frequently self-absorbed, and his young bride is certain he must be sunk in thoughts about his dead wife.
Equally well cast is Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers. Although she's not a very imposing figure, having a petite figure, she seems the very embodiment of malice. In a way, she becomes the living embodiment of the dead wife, ensuring that her memory persists.
Rebecca shows why Hitchcock was regarded as such a master. He could take a very simple story and imbue it with emotion, so that the viewer is intrigued. Nothing in a shot is accidental: he thought about everything, and those little details are a joy to discover on repeated viewings.
That's the difference between Hitchcock and a modern director like M. Night Shyamalan. His undisputed best movie, The Sixth Sense, worked because viewers were interested in the story, not suspecting there was a twist at the end. In Shyamalan's other films, by comparison, he engages in sort of sleight of hand, where the viewer anticipates a twist. When the secret is finally revealed, the viewer is frequently disappointed, because nothing could compare to being genuinely surprised.
Hitchcock, however, didn't waste time with such tricks. Viewers might suspect that secrets will be revealed, but they get so involved in the story that, by the time the veil is lifted, the viewer may have forgotten they were trying to figure it out. Hitchcock focused on telling the story: telling it intensely and personally, but never sacrificing sense for shock value.
I am a big Hitchcock fan and have seen many of his classic films. I had viewed this movie years ago and had forgotten it to such a degree that it was like watching it for the first time. Only the haunting unease of the movie had stayed with me in my memory.
Unfortunately, Rebecca is currently out of print on DVD. If you want to watch it and don't already own it, you'll have to search Amazon.com or eBay for used VHS copies. I would caution against buying any new DVDs, unless you're certain it's not pirated.
If, like me, you are a Hitchcock fan and you haven't yet seen Rebecca, put it on your list of movies to watch. While Rebecca lacks the action-packed thrills of North by Northwest and the heavy-duty drama of Vertigo, this quieter tale is nonetheless a master work.
ETA: Rating (out of 5): ****
Hitchcock didn't need car chases and spies to thrill movie-goers.