Have we really never had Alfred Hitchcock visit us at Movie Klub? We haven’t! And yet it might be an odd choice to start with 1940’s Rebecca, even though it was Hitchcock’s first American film and his only film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. When you say “Hitchcock,” most people think of films that are more thrilling or frightening than Rebecca; films like Psycho, North by Northwest, or Rear Window. However, Rebecca is as thematically rich and well-acted as any of those films, and its Oscar win was well-deserved.
Joan Fontaine plays a woman (if you listen close, you’ll notice she is never named) who is stuck in Monte Carlo with a miserable job as a “day companion” for a shrewish high-society woman. She meets and falls into a whirlwind romance with Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), and they find themselves wed practically before she quits her job. Once they arrive at the spacious Manderley estate, she finds that de Winter’s first wife Rebecca is on the minds of every servant and friend of the family. There are no supernatural elements to this film, but Rebecca’s ghost is so powerful that she might as well be a physical presence.
There’s no question that this film suffers a little bit in the eyes of today’s audiences. Olivier is a legend, but his extremely theatrical technique was out of style a decade before most Movie Klubbers were even born. His treatment of Fontaine might have been typical for the time, but it’s absurd now; the shot in which he forces her to wave goodbye with her handkerchief drew as many laughs as the entirety of Wayne’s World.
But just because this film works in a way that today’s movies do not, doesn’t mean it’s worse. It’s easy to say that de Winter is just a Don Draper-level sexist, but there are women not named de Winter in this movie who say whatever they like and don’t get treated like property. The reality is that there’s a deep level of self-hatred in Fontaine’s character, and in her performance. That’s why she allows other people’s memories of Rebecca to push her around in the same way that her day companion does at the start of the film – she doesn’t feel like she deserves to be the new lady of the house. Her low self-esteem just doesn’t look like the low self-esteem in today’s acting.
And as for Olivier, his performance surely appears strange at first. He seems to be ordering Fontaine to love him rather than romancing her, and he has some odd mood swings during his big emotional scenes. It’s not until the third-act twist that we realize he’s a damaged person too, which puts his behavior in the beginning of the movie in a different light. He wants to be the lord of the manor, to have the upper hand in his marriage, but he doesn’t know how to get it and wouldn’t know what to do with the upper hand if he had it. The film has to solidly establish him as one type of character before surprising us with the revelation that he’s the exact opposite.
Thus, Rebecca reveals itself to be the film that blazed the trail later traveled by movies like Rashomon and Memento: a movie about how fallible our memories are, and about how our memories can shape our lives even if we’re remembering incorrectly (or remembering correctly, but living in denial and lying to ourselves). Fontaine and Olivier only seem to be acting oddly at the beginning of the movie because they’re being tortured by their memories, and unable to live up to the ideal image created by the memories of those around them.
Thus there is the only real problem with Rebecca, one that wasn’t a problem at all in the time of its release: it takes its own good time getting to the big twist that explains everything. Hitchcock spends almost a half-hour just introducing Maxim and his future wife to us and explaining how they came to be married, then another half-hour or more setting up the way that memories of Rebecca haunt the grounds and staff of Manderley. The movie as a whole is 132 minutes, and for a modern audience to whom a movie like Seven seems deliberately paced, every minute of that is likely to be felt.
But you can’t blame Hitchcock for not anticipating the attention spans of audiences thirty years after his death. He was making a sort of Gothic melodrama that fell out of style around the time that Marlon Brando became the best actor in the world. We shouldn’t allow Brando’s greatness to short-change Olivier, and we shouldn’t allow Coppola or Spielberg to eliminate melodrama from film history. There was a time when Rebecca was thought to be the best movie in the world. Explore that time. It’s worth it.
Reviewed by Mark Young