"Gosh! 2009 was the year of Milk and Benjamin Button! Wow. I mean wow."

Film Alfred Hitchcock reaches The States, signing a seven year deal to work under David O. Selznick and though he’s now essentially working within what amounts to a huger, more oppressive version of the studio system he was used to back home, Selznick gives him far greater latitude and flexibility with the material. Which makes it all the more perverse that his first film, like the disappointing Jamaica Inn, is based on a Daphne Du Maurier novel and set in Cornwall, with British leads in Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier.

Rebecca is the deceased wife of Olivier whom his new wife Joan Fontaine finds impossible to live up to. The couple meet and marry in Monte Carlo and Fontaine follows him to the old estate, Manderley, were everything is still arranged as Rebecca expected and the adversarially witchy housekeeper Mrs. Danvers maintains (the house keeper is played with carefully subsumed mania by Judith Anderson who would end her career first playing the Vulcan High Priestess in Star Trek III then four years in Santa Barbara). Slowly it becomes apparent that tragedy stalks the house and there’s nothing that Fontaine can do to stop it as the dead woman's lifestyle slowly subsumes her and threatens to drown her own personality.

Rebecca is technically a step up again from his Gaumont period just as The 39 Steps showed an improvement from British International Pictures. So much of an improvement in fact, that it won Best Picture at the Oscars the following year and garnered nominations in almost every category (it wasn’t a short or in a foreign language!). He lost out to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath. It was that kind of year. I can't imagine future cineaste looking back at the list of films under consideration this year with quite the same awe. "Gosh! 2009 was the year of Milk and Benjamin Button! Wow. I mean wow." Nope, not going to happen.

Back at this film, Hitch is clearly revelling in the larger budget and so, though this is a far more domestic piece than something like The Lady Vanishes, it has a much greater sense of scale and extraordinarily impressive photography from the great George Barnes (who won the film’s other Oscar). There are shots which still influence filmmakers now particular the moment when the curtain’s are drawn back in Rebecca’s room and daylight floods in for the first time in a year.

Hitch is so control of style and form in fact that he’s able to conjure Rebecca into a rounded being through that photography, plus editing, music and the performances of the other actors to the point that she’s as vivid the viewer’s imagination as the characters on screen. In one scene the camera is tilted backwards and forwards to reveal the movements the woman made in the past, as though an actress is still in shot. Perhaps she’s played by The Lady Vanishes’ Margaret Lockwood with some of her bite from The Wicked Lady.

I was surprised by how closely the film follows Kirsten Thompson's four act structure with each of the turning points worked around Fontaine's discovery of who her predecessor was. At first turning point Fontaine reaches Mandalay, next she enters her predecessor's room and at the next she discovers the truth about the woman she's replaced and each happens at just over half hour intervals until she almost drops from the plot as the focus changes to the investigation into exactly how Rebecca died.

And once the secrets are revealed, you want to go back and watch the film again with this new perspective, something that is rare of films from the period. If nothing else it means you can scrutinise Larry superb 'tache some more and wonder at the way that Anderson seems to drift through scenes like a ninja, almost popping up on queue to give Fontaine a disapproving look. Mrs Danvers was played by Diana Rigg in the 90s tv version of the book and I can't imagine she had quite the same austerity (though you can bet I'll be seeking the dvd to have a look).

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