On 'Rebecca' and 'Foreign Correspondent,' Hitchcock's 1940 double-shot at Oscar glory

Hitch probably never came closer to victory than his first time at bat

<p>Alfred Hitchcock and his &quot;Rebecca&quot; leading lady, Joan Fontaine.&nbsp;</p>

Alfred Hitchcock and his "Rebecca" leading lady, Joan Fontaine. 

Credit: AMPAS

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"Rebecca" was the more prestigious, awards-targeted production: completed in 1939 but released in the spring of 1940, Selznick had specifically postponed it so it wouldn't be trampled by his own blockbuster "Gone With the Wind" in the Oscar race. Laurence Olivier, then at his most movie-star handsome, was hot off his first Oscar nod for "Wuthering Heights"; 21-year-old ingenue Joan Fontaine had been cast as the film's nameless heroine after a lengthy audition process that, according to Hitchcock, Selznick falsely extended only with the intention of generating equivalent media hype to his search for Scarlett O'Hara.

Daphne du Maurier's National Book Award-winning source novel had been published only two years previously, to vast popular acclaim -- it may have been a contemporary romantic mystery rather than a noble historical tome, but in every other respect, the film was the equivalent of what we currently term Oscar bait, with Selznick as its Weinstein-like mastermind.

So it's all the more impressive that the moody, swoony, genuinely disconcerting film that emerges feels as authentically Hitchcockian a work as his later, less producer-steered works. By editing the film in-camera, Hitchcock cunningly curbed Selznick's capacity for creative interference, and also worked some subtle alterations into a script that the producer had insisted remain as faithful as the Production Code would allow to du Maurier's text. (If you're thinking of sex, think again: the Code prohibited the criminal activity undertaken in the novel by Olivier's Maxim de Winter character.)

Hitchcock's most successful innovation concerned the character of housekeeper Mrs Danvers, whose interpretation by British-Australian actress Judith Anderson earned a deserved Best Supporting Actress nod: by making her younger than du Maurier's aged harridan, and bringing sleek lesbian insinuations to her relationship with the deceased title character, Hitchcock and Anderson created one of the screen's greatest, and eeriest, villains. 

Hitchcock himself wasn't wildly keen on the story, which he criticized for its lack of humor. (He'd originally signed on to do Titanic-themed film with Selznick, only for the producer to switch projects.) But "Rebecca" holds up beautifully: it's easy to see why Selznick thought this very English story would be a suitable bridging vehicle for Hitchcock's Hollywood career, but while it shares the crisp storytelling of his British-made mysteries, it feels dreamier and more expansive, a blueprint for the obsessive serenity of form he'd later blur and perfect in "Vertigo." Perhaps his unfamiliarity with Hollywood keyed into the protagonist's own sense of being a stranger in her newly adopted home. Either way, it's one of his most emotionally open films -- and one of the best ever to take the Academy's top honor.

By contrast, Hitchcock cheerfully admitted "Foreign Correspondent" was a B-picture: a fast-moving adventure centered around a naive New York crime reporter sent by his editor to Europe to report on the early rumblings of the Second World War, before becoming dangerously entangled in an international spy ring. Hitchcock intended it as a vehicle for Gary Cooper, but had to settle for the lesser star wattage of Joel McCrea. As the director told Truffaut, "In Europe, the thriller, the adventure story, is not looked down upon... in America, it's definitely regarded as second-rate... This attitude was so commonplace when I started to work in Hollywood that I always ended up with the next best."

With none of the lingering subtext or emotional resonance of "Rebecca," "Foreign Correspondent" is simply a well-executed genre exercise. On his second US assignment, Hitchcock seems more casual at the controls, airily pulling off showy set pieces like the playful Dutch windmill charade and a climactic plane crash; if "Rebecca" teases us with the Hitchcock of "Vertigo" and "Marnie," this is very much the work of the man who'd make "North by Northwest," with McCrea an early model of the urbane but out-of-his-depth American Joe who'd later become a recurring presence in the director's work.

Hitchcock understandably demonstrates less conviction in the story's somewhat tacked-on US patriotism (the closing credits feature "The Star-Spangled Banner" over an image of a bald eagle) that at once dates the film and gives it its most enduring historical value. By making a strapping Yank the hero of a tale of Nazi subterfuge in London, the film stands as a defining piece of Hollywood's early WWII propaganda: rumor has it even Joseph Goebbels was a grudging admirer. "The picture was pure fantasy," Hitchcock admitted, "and in my fantasies, plausibility is not allowed to rear its ugly head."    

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Guy Lodge
Critic
Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.
2013-2014 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
UPDATED: MARCH 2, 2014