In 1940, Alfred Hitchcock came to Hollywood to direct what would become one of his greatest achievements. Yet it is somewhat surprising that despite his long career, only “Rebecca” earned him an Academy Award for Best Picture. Producer David O. Selznik, hot from the huge success of “Gone With The Wind” a year earlier, seized the opportunity to work with Hitchcock, pairing the director with Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic ghost story. I can recall a number of Hitch’s films, such as “The 39 Steps” and “North By Northwest”, in which the hero and the heroine end up falling in love, but are nevertheless essentially suspense films with an element of romance. “Rebecca” on the other hand, is strictly a romantic story with elements of suspense. A seaside estate (later the inspiration for Orson Welles’s Xanadu mansion) is the setting for the romance between Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. They marry after a brief encounter, but as their relationship deepens, Fontaine is more and more haunted by the spirit of his dead wife, Rebecca. In a way, this is a ghost story, although not in the literal sense. The mansion may not be literally haunted, but it is permeated by Rebecca’s spirit. Innocent Fontaine is nearly driven to madness by the dark secrets of this huge mansion, but Hitchcock is more than happy with letting the tension build toward the unforgettable conclusion.
It doesn’t surprise me one bit that “Rebecca” won Best Picture and Best Cinematography at the Oscars that year. It was up against “The Letter”, “The Philadephia Story”, “Grapes Of Wrath”, and ironically, Hitchcock’s final british film “Foreign Correspondent” (all of which were excellent pictures). And despite the fact that it was David O. Selznick who took that Oscar home (Hitchcock never won an Academy Award for directing), Selznick will always be remembered for “Gone With The Wind”. Now “Rebecca”- that was Alfred Hitchcock’s work.