Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film was originally going to be about the sinking of the Titanic. When he arrived at the Port of New York in 1939, the producer David O. Selznick (who had signed the Englishman to a long-term contract) met him and immediately spirited Hitch off to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to see the ocean liner Selznick had bought to portray the doomed ship. Hitchcock told me that Selznick had said, “There you are, Hitch, make the most of it!” And, the director went on, he had thought to himself: “Let’s see now... ‘Make the most of it, make the most of it...’ I’ve got it! We’ll start on a close-up of a rivet, and pull back!”
However, instead of this, in 1940, he did an admirable adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca (available on DVD), which won the Academy Award for best picture—the only time a Hitchcock film won that prize, though of course it was presented to producer Selznick (who had won the previous year as well for a little something called Gone with the Wind). Rebecca also earned Hitch his first of five Oscar nominations for best director——the others were for Lifeboat (1944), Spellbound (1945), Rear Window (1954) and Psycho (1960)——but the most famous filmmaker in movie history never won a competitive award from the Academy, only a belated honorary Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award toward the end. (He came out slowly to a standing ovation and made the shortest speech in Oscar history before exiting slowly to a standing ovation: “Thank you,” he said.)
Though Rebecca has its weaker moments——Judith Anderson’s evil Mrs. Danvers is a bit much at times; Laurence Olivier could not believably smoke a cigarette; the wrap-up is a trifle too neat—-the story of a young woman in deadly competition with the deceased title character nevertheless remains very affecting. Joan Fontaine’s notably honest, endearing performance, together with Hitchcock’s sensitive and piquant direction, holds the interest securely throughout this suspenseful love story-melodrama.
Fontaine didn’t win best actress that year, but the Academy made it up to her the following season by giving her that prize for a far less challenging role in Suspicion, yet another Hitchcock picture (co-starring Cary Grant in the first of four pictures he did with the Master of Suspense). Olivier is at his most attractive here (when he isn’t smoking) and this is also his most movie-starish (in the good sense) appearance, probably his most appealing. There is also excellent support from George Sanders’ charming bounder at the head of a fine British cast, plus a very funny performance by Florence Bates as a pushy American.
Seeing Hitchcock’s empathetic treatment of the lead woman in this and realizing that Psycho——in which the lead woman is killed off midway——came only 20 years later, reveals a shocking social and cinematic descent for the female: Hitchcock’s prescient view has been mirrored in the increasingly poor roles for women over the subsequent half century. Since the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, what enduring female stars have been developed besides Barbra Streisand? In its day, Fontaine’s hugely dominant role in Rebecca was in a good ‘20s and ‘30s tradition, and hardly unusual. These days it would condescendingly be called a chick flick.