Hitchcock’s first American film, Rebecca (1940), would be the director’s only picture to receive an Academy Award for Best Picture. (Hitchcock himself never received a Best Director Oscar -- an absurd oversight partially redeemed with an honorary Oscar in 1967.) A faithful adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s best-seller, Rebecca marked the first of three collaborations between Hitchcock and German-born composer Franz Waxman, whose other film credits include The Bride of Frankenstein, Sunset Boulevard, and A Place in the Sun (the latter two Oscar winners for score).
If Herrmann was the composer most attuned to the neurotic intensity of Hitchcock’s work, Waxman was his closest rival: his scores for Suspicion, Rear Window, and Rebecca all strongly support their movies’ action and their psychological underpinnings.
To suggest the ghostly Rebecca de Winter -- the dead, never-seen first wife of Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier) -- Waxman employed the eerie sounds of the novachord, an electronic keyboard that is heard whenever Rebecca’s memory is invoked. Its sepulchral whispers are counterbalanced by Waxman’s throbbing love theme, heard first in the film’s main title, which uses a favorite device of the composer: a repeated figure that seems less a conventional ostinato than the passionate beating of a human heart.
Steven C. Smith is the author of A Heart at Fire’s Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann (University of California Press, 1991), and a recipient of the Deems Taylor Award for writing on music. He is currently a writer/producer on the A&E television series Biography.