‘Rebecca’: Why Hitchcock’s First American Film Was so Ahead of Its Time

By Sven Mikulec

Even though Alfred Hitchcock, discussing Rebecca with the great François Truffaut, labeled the film as “not a Hitchcock picture” due to its alleged lack of humor, it’s still by and large a truly Hitchcockian piece of art. The master’s first American film is an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name, which he made under the patronage of the independent producer David O. Selznick. Masterfully crafted, psychologically deep and nuanced and with excellent lead actors in the form of the charmingly reticent Joan Fontaine and the ever-so-solid Laurence Olivier, Rebecca is a mystery thriller truly ahead of its time. There are numerous entertaining information about the project that we might find peculiar: it’s one of the first movies to use voice-over narration, it’s a film that could be thought of as the peak of Selznick’s producing career, winning him a second Oscar in a row after Gone with the Wind, it’s the first of no less than six films that Hitchcock made with his most frequent collaborator, actor Leo G. Carroll. But all trivia aside, it was a project that was all but easy to finish. Rebecca went way behind schedule and half a million dollars over budget; its creation was marked by Hitchcock’s frequent clashes with Selznick, who was so upset about the director’s methods and vision that he even thought about cancelling the production. But his patience prevailed and ultimately paid off.

The years and future generations of movie-goers have been kind to Rebecca—the film is considered one of Hitchcock’s most prominent ones, a classic psychological thriller that was aptly adapted to the screen by Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan, a film incredibly advanced for the period that gave birth to it: with the help of screenwriters MacDonald and Hogan, Hitchcock created a narrative suspenseful and mysterious, not allowing for the titular character even to be seen, clearly but elegantly and subtly suggesting sexual misbehavior and homosexuality, so subtly that it flew over the heads of the unwitting Hollywood censorship board. Rebecca was the first step in Hitchcock’s American phase and he could have hardly started off this phase of his career with a movie more intriguing than this.

Here’s a rarity: Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison, Philip MacDonald & Michael Hogan’s script for Rebecca [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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The legendary interview from 1963; Peter Bogdanovich interviews Alfred Hitchcock.

Rebecca was a Brontë thing really, a romantic Victorian novel in modern dress. In a sense you could get annoyed with the Joan Fontaine character because she never stood up for herself, she let Mrs. Danvers override her. But after all that’s applying a modern point of view to what I say is a Victorian heroine.

Wasn’t Rebecca the first film in which you experimented with a tracking camera as opposed to the use of montage?
Pretty well, yes. But only because we were going around a big house. I don’t think it was really right, because after all, the eye must look at the character. It must not be conscious of a camera dollying unless you are dollying or zooming in for a particular purpose. —Peter Bogdanovich interviews Alfred Hitchcock

“In private life, Hitchcock’s astringent outlook enables him to take an enormous, if deadpan, satisfaction in the distress of his friends and acquaintances, especially in situations induced by himself. Although his flair for practical jokes has suffered a setback in Hollywood, where the novelty of his surroundings and the constant sun seem to have cramped his style, he is beginning to feel more at home, and judging from his past record it is only a question of time until he gives Louie B. Mayer the hot foot. He once offered an English property man a pound for the privilege of handcuffing him overnight, and just before snapping on the manacles gave the victim a drink into which he had slipped a strong laxative. Hitchcock has a sense of values and gave the fellow a 100% bonus the following morning because of the unusual humor of the circumstances.” —England’s Biggest And Best Director Goes To Hollywood, Life (1939)

The Mercury Theatre of the Air made its last broadcast December 4, 1938, and The Campbell Playhouse began December 9, 1938. The series made its debut with Orson Welles’ adaptation of Rebecca, with guest stars Margaret Sullavan and Mildred Natwick. Bernard Herrmann composed and conducted the imaginative score, and later used much of it for the film Jane Eyre. The radio drama was the first adaptation of the 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier; the author was interviewed live from London at the conclusion of the broadcast.

“Hitchcock’s first experience of working in Hollywood was not an entirely happy or satisfying one. While, in many respects, Rebecca was very personal to Hitchcock—allowing him to explore more clearly than ever before his deepest thematic concerns—the film belongs as much to its producer as it does to its director. Hitchcock appears to have undertaken the film with certain misapprehensions: that he would have the full control he’d been accustomed to; that he could adapt the source novel as freely as he pleased; that he could insert touches of his typical British humor (his early draft had Maxim and his anonymous wife meeting on a channel steamer, with Maxim bringing on her seasickness by blowing smoke in her face!). Hitchcock was swiftly disillusioned. Selznick insisted on the strictest fidelity to du Maurier that censorship would permit, oversaw the entire production, and asserted his contractual right to final cut.” —Rebecca: The Two Mrs. de Winters by Robin Wood

“As David O. Selznick put Gone with the Wind into production in the late 1930s, he realized that he needed help with other pictures on the studio schedule. He had soon hired a rotund Englishman as director and producer, but Rebecca—the first of four collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock—was very much a David O. Selznick production and a Selznick International release. “We bought [the novel] Rebecca and we intend to make Rebecca,” Selznick told Hitchcock early on, but the director had other ideas. “I believe that I owe much of the success I have been lucky enough to achieve to my ‘ruthlessness’ in adapting stories for the screen,” Hitchcock said. Though the initial screen treatment of the novel bore Hitchcock’s signature, Selnick argued for structure, characterization, and dialogue much as author Daphne du Maurier had conceived them. Producer and director battled for almost a year as the writers produced a well-crafted screenplay, an amalgam of Selznick fidelity and Hitchcock touches.” —Leonard Leff



The documentary takes the fight between director Hitchcock and producer Selznick over the control of the films they’re making and uses it as a symbol of the end of Hollywood, meaning that during their collaboration and after that, the power of the producer decreased on behalf of the director’s, and ‘great producing’ as Selznick did on Gone with the Wind was gone with the wind.

Henry Fonda narrates this portrait of film producer, David O. Selznick with many clips from his films and interviews with the directors and stars he worked with.

To George S. Barnes, A.S.C., goes the distinction of having been selected by his fellow members of the camera profession as the foremost director of photography for 1940. At the Thirteenth Annual Awards Banquet of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Barnes was proclaimed the winner of the 1940 Academy Award for the year’s best black-and-white cinematography, in recognition of his skill in filming Rebecca. —George Barnes Wins 1940 Academy Award, American Cinematographer, 1941

This marvelous BBC documentary was broadcast in two parts in 1999: Alfred, the Great and Alfred, the Auteur, and focuses on the important parts of Hitchcock’s career. It starts off with his early life and work experience at the German studio UFA, which moves into his first features such as The Lodger, Sabotage, and The 39 Steps. It then moves into his initial Hollywood work, with classics such as Rebecca and Rope. There’s also a look into his failed production company Transatlantic Pictures, who made Rope and Under Capricorn.

Join Academy Award-winning sound designers as they reveal how Alfred Hitchcock employed sound to make audience members leap from their seats in fright or crawl under them from excruciating suspense.

Director Martin Scorsese is our guide into the power and mastery of Hitchcock’s visual style, breaking down landmark sequences from Vertigo, The Birds and Psycho.

Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro, William Friedkin and many others celebrate the enduring legacy of the man many consider the greatest filmmaker the medium has yet produced. Discover why Alfred Hitchcock’s movies thrill audiences and inspire filmmakers, who continue to employ his cinematic techniques to this day.

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Photographed by Fred Parrish © Selznick International Pictures, United Artists. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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