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American Cinematographer (1997) - Du Maurier + Selznick + Hitchcock = Rebecca




Disparate elements combine to deliver a classic exercise in atmospheric suspense.

"I've a feeling that before the day is over someone is going to make use of that old‑fashioned but somewhat expressive term foul play," drawls the inimitable George Sanders in David O. Selznick's production of Rebecca. With Alfred Hitchcock directing, of course, foul play could be expected.

Rebecca began in 1938 as a novel by Daphne du Maurier. The book captured the attention of Hitchcock, the British director who had built his reputation as the "master of suspense" with melodramas such as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935). After glancing through galley proofs at Elstree Studio while directing The Lady Vanishes (1938), he considered buying the property, but decided that the price was too high.

Standing at the entrance to Manderley are the butler. Robert (Philip Winter), Giles (Nigel Bruce), Max (Laurence Olivier), Beatrice (Gladys Cooper) and the second Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine).

Kay Brown, East Coast story editor for Selznick, sent a synopsis to her boss with the highest recommendation. After consulting with his resident story editor, Val Lewton, the producer acquired the film rights to du Maurier's book for a hefty $50,000.

The novel is told in the first person by an unnamed young woman, a shy paid companion to the gross Mrs. Van Hopper, who is on holiday in Monte Carlo. There, "I" meets moody Maxim de Winter, a wealthy English widower. They marry and return to his estate, Manderley, which seems haunted by memories of the beautiful Rebecca, the first Mrs. de Winter, who supposedly drowned the previous year while boating alone. The new bride grows increasingly terrified of the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, whose abnormal devotion to Rebecca makes her hate her new mistress; she even tries to coax her to commit suicide. The discovery of Rebecca's corpse in her scuttled boat casts suspicion on Max, who had identified another body as Rebecca's. Max admits to his wife that he killed Rebecca when she boasted that she was pregnant by one of her lovers. A doctor reveals that Rebecca had learned that her supposed pregnancy was actually terminal cancer. The coroner rules death by suicide. Rebecca's lover, Favell, telephones the news to Danvers, who goes berserk and burns Manderley to ...

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Parts of this article were based on conversations with the late Arthur Arling, ASC; Clarence W. D. Slifer, ASC; LyIe Wheeler; and Harry Wolf, ASC.