Rebecca was director Alfred Hitchock's auspicious Hollywood debut

In a time when people are confined to their homes, spare a thought for the heroine of this movie. Young and unworldly, she married a man she hardly knew and was off to live in a strange, large house. Her husband was wealthy, but she was often left alone there with stranges, household staff whose attitudes ranged from politeness to outright malevolence.

David O Selznick had a problem. The studio head's production of Gone With the Wind was a smash hit and won eight Oscars and two special Academy Awards including best film. But once you've reached the Hollywood pinnacle, what direction can you go but down?

Joan Fontaine, left and Judith Anderson in Rebecca. Picture: Supplied

Joan Fontaine, left and Judith Anderson in Rebecca. Picture: Supplied

Selznick was a particular fan of literary properties - he had been behind adaptations of David Copperfield, among others. His first production after Gone With the Wind was an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's popular 1938 Gothic novel Rebecca.

Director Alfred Hitchcock had had a successful career in his native Britain, where his films included The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Jamaica Inn (1939) - from another du Maurier novel - but he wanted to go to Hollywood. Selznick put Hitchcock under contract. Hitchcock's first film for Selznick would be Rebecca.

Rebecca, in both book and film, has echoes of earlier Gothic novels like Jane Eyre. tells the story of a diffident young woman whose name is never revealed. She is the travelling companion of a wealthy American woman. While they are in Monte Carlo, the heroine meets a mysterious, wealthy older man, widower Maxim de Winter and marries him. They go to his Cornwall estate, Manderley, where the new Mrs de Winter is constantly and unflatteringly compared to Maxim's previous wife, Rebecca by the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers.

It's all strange and disquieting but things will become even more so before long.

The film maintains some of the novel's devices: the heroine has no name of her own - she is known only as Mrs de Winter and the title character is never seen, but Rebecca's influence looms large throughout, giving the story an eerie atmosphere.

Laurence Olivier, cast as Maxim, was bitterly disappointed his lover Vivien Leigh - who had won an Oscar for Gone With the Wind - was not acting opposite him. Selznick wanted to keep the two apart until their divorces were finalised to avoid scandal and he thought Fontaine better suited to the role. Olivier by all accounts treated Fontaine most unkindly which contributed to her performance as an uncertain, insecure woman.

Despite Selznick's desire for fidelity to the text, there were some changes. The story's big revelation had to be altered since the Motion Picture Production Code, a regulatory body established by the studios, would not permit it.

Although the Code's bans included depictions of homosexuality, Hitchcock was able to intimate Mrs Danvers' obsession - or was it infatuation? - with Rebecca and get away with it, helped by Australian actress Judith Anderson's intense performance.

Hitchcock and Selznick clashed frequently: the latter liked to exert a lot of control over his productions, with infamously long and frequent memos. Hitchcock's method of "cutting in the camera", shooting only what he intended to use, infuriated Selznick, who took control of postproduction such as editing and retakes, so it's hard to know how much to credit to each. Hitchcock did make his customary cameo appearance, walking by in the background of one scene.

While not considered one of Hitchcock's top movies by critics, Rebecca still holds up as a suspenseful tale with fine performances and an ominous atmosphere only occasionally lightened by humour.

Selznick went on to produce or co-produced some notable films including The Third Man (1950). His final film was Farewell to Arms (1957). Selznick died in 1965.

Following Rebecca, Hitchcock for Selznick made Spellbound (with its Salvador Dali dream sequence), released in 1945 and The Paradine Case (1948).

But arguably his more interesting films in the period were made on loan to other studios, including Lifeboat and Notorious. And he went on to a brilliant career. He died in 1980.

While Selznick was no slouch and won the Oscars, Hitchcock became the more enduring and influential filmmaker.

This story Classic films of 1940: Rebecca first appeared on The Canberra Times.