Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison (based on the novel by Daphne du Marnier, adaptation by Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan)
Stars: Laurence Olivier (Maxim de Winter), Joan Fontaine ("I"), George Sangers (Jack Favell), Judith Anderson (Mrs. Danvers), Gladys Cooper (Beatrice Lacy), Nigel Bruce (Giles Lacy), Reginald Denny (Frank Cawley), Col. Julyan (C. Aubrey Smith), Florence Bates (Mrs. Van Hopper)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1940
Country: U.S.
Rebecca Criterion Collection Blu-ray

The relationship between producer David O. Selznick and director Alfred Hitchcock began with Rebecca. Both men were dynamic thinkers and bullheaded control freaks—it is amazing in retrospect that they managed to work together on four movies, which also included Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), and The Paradine Case (1947). As film scholar Leonard J. Leff noted in his book Hitchcock and Selznick, “Hitchcock did not succeed despite Selznick any more than Selznick succeeded despite Hitchcock. The dynamics of the relationship served both men, not only as artists but—of equal importance to them—as Hollywood professionals.”

There is little doubt that Hitchcock would have eventually made it to Hollywood even if Selznick hadn’t signed him to a seven-year contract in 1938 (especially given the rapidly collapsing state of film production in England at the time owing to World War II). But, the fact that Selznick signed him first is testament to both the producer’s power and influence at the time and his thorough understanding of the movie industry in the 1930s and early ’40s. With the exception of Walt Disney, Selznick was the only successful independent producer of big-budget movies during the studio era prior to World War II, overseeing hits like A Star is Born (1937) and Gone With the Wind (1939).

Rebecca was, in many ways, more of a Selznick film—at least in its initial conception—than a Hitchcock film. This is something Hitchcock himself openly noted in his extensive interviews with François Truffaut: “it’s not a Hitchcock picture,” the director claimed, although one of his primary criteria for denying it that label is the fact that it is largely lacking in Hitch’s signature black humor (something he apparently tried and failed to insert against Selznick’s demand that almost anything remotely funny be removed from the film).

Produced with a large budget on elaborate sets and aimed at a primarily female audience, Rebecca would be a grand follow-up to Selznick’s romantic epic Gone With the Wind, which won the Best Picture Oscar the previous year. Yet, because Selznick was so busy with postproduction on Gone With the Wind while Hitchcock was shooting Rebecca in 1939, the director had a great deal of freedom to make the film his own way (although Selznick still maintained as close a watch as possible on the production and often demanded changes and urged Hitch to speed up his pace). Nevertheless, even if Hitchcock wouldn’t describe it as a “Hitchcock picture,” Rebecca is still filled with many Hitchcockian stylistic flourishes (elaborate crane shots, stylized shadows) and themes (the darkness beneath the veneer of everyday life, the none-too-subtle Freudian undertones that make the film so unnerving). He even managed to insert small touches of horror, such as the fact that we rarely see the sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers walking anywhere; rather, she simply appears.

Rebecca has been widely noted as the initiator of the so-called “female Gothic” cycle of films in the early 1940s, which also included Hitchcock’s Spellbound and Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Similar in style, tone, and theme to film noir, the female Gothic cycle complicated notions of romance and gender that had previously been the rock-solid foundation of Hollywood romances; as Molly Haskell wrote about many films of the war era in From Reverence to Rape, “The trust that accompanied attraction is a thing of the past. Instead, relationships are rooted in fear and suspicion, impotence and inadequacy.”

This is a precise description of the marriage depicted in Rebecca. The film starts out in the south of France, where the unnamed narrator (Joan Fontaine in her first leading role) is working as a paid companion to a wealthy and obnoxious woman named Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates). There, Fontaine meets a wealthy Englishman named Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), who is brooding over the death of his first wife, Rebecca. Fontaine’s character and Maxim develop a relationship—I hesitate to say they fall in love, although it is clear she is infatuated with him—and decide to get married. Maxim takes her back to Manderley, his enormous, sprawling mansion in Cornwall, where she tries to fit into a life of privilege and wealth. Coming from a poor background with limited education and no pedigree, Fontaine’s character is immediately out of place, a situation that is abetted by Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), the mysterious—nay, nefarious—housekeeper who was so fond of Rebecca that she immediately despises Fontaine for even thinking of trying to take her place. In her mind, Rebecca, in life or death, is the only true “Mrs. de Winter,” and it is not much a stretch to read into Anderson’s performance both psychosis and sexual obsession.

In this sense, Rebecca is a perfect distillation of what film historian and scholar Robert Sklar described as the hallmark of film noir: “its sense of people trapped.” Fontaine is caught in a web not of her own making, and, because she is young, innocent, inexperienced, and without family, she has nothing to fall back on for protection. She is cut adrift, and shots of her diminished within the cavernous rooms and extensive hallways of Manderley become an apt visual metaphor for feelings of loss and alienation in what should be her “home.”

Maxim is a complex, nearly unreadable man—Olivier plays him perfectly, tender and gentle at times, but given to sudden violent outbursts and a complete refusal to deal with anything in his past, especially if it is related to Rebecca. Fontaine’s character gets the sense that Maxim has never stopped loving his first wife, thus she is caught in a predicament in which she is jealous of a woman who no longer exists. Rebecca is therefore all the more powerful because she lives only in people’s memories, traces of her everywhere, ensuring that she is never forgotten.

Rebecca was based on an extremely popular 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier, whose Jamaica Inn had already been adapted by Hitchcock for his last English film in 1939 and whose short story would be the basis for his 1963 film The Birds. Shot in heavily stylized black and white by George Barnes—the indebtedness to German expressionism is apparent in virtually every frame of his Oscar-winning cinematography—Rebecca is a dense, deeply textured emotional excursion, one that ultimately ensures that no easy answers are found. Even when the film turns into something of a conventional mystery in the last third—one that trades on the Hitchcockian twistedness of our hoping that someone gets away with a clearly criminal conspiracy—there is no sense that the emotional entanglements are anywhere closer to being resolved. That the film ends in a fiery denouement is all too fitting, forever sealing the impossibility of resolution despite a passionate embrace.

Rebecca was both a critical and commercial success, and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year. It is often said that Rebecca’s Oscar was the only one that Hitchcock ever won, but, as Hitch himself noted in his typically sardonic manner in one of the many memorable passages in his interviews with Truffaut, that is not true:

F.T.: The picture won an Oscar, didn't it?
A.H.: Yes, the Academy voted it the best picture of the year.
F.T.: I believe that’s the only Oscar you’ve ever won.
A.H.: I never received an Oscar.
F.T.: But you just said that Rebecca...
A.H.: The award went to Selznick, the producer. The directing award that year was given to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath.

And isn’t that what made Hitchcock such a great director? He never overlooked the details.

Rebecca Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary from 1990 by film scholar Leonard J. Leff
  • Isolated music and effects track
  • Video conversation between film critic and author Molly Haskell and scholar Patricia White
  • Video interview with film historian Craig Barron on Rebecca’s visual effects
  • Daphne du Maurier: In the Footsteps of Rebecca, (2016) French television documentary
  • Making-of documentary from 2007
  • Footage of screen, hair, makeup, and costume tests for actors Joan Fontaine, Anne Baxter, Vivien Leigh, Margaret Sullavan, and Loretta Young
  • Casting gallery with notes by director Alfred Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick
  • Hitchcock interviewed by Tom Snyder on a 1973 episode of NBC’s Tomorrow
  • Tomorrow interview with Fontaine from 1980
  • Audio interviews from 1986 with actor Judith Anderson and Fontaine
  • Three radio versions of Rebecca, from 1938, 1941, and 1950
  • Theatrical rerelease trailer
  • Essay by critic and Selznick biographer David Thomson and selected Selznick production correspondence, including with Hitchcock
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateSeptember 5, 2017

    While Criterion’s 2001 DVD of Rebecca was great for its time, their new 4K restoration on Blu-ray marks a substantial improvement. Scanned in 16-bit 4K from the original 35mm nitrate camera negative and given a full digital restoration by the Motion Picture Imaging Group, Rebecca looks absolutely gorgeous. and has been available on DVD from Anchor Bay in a bare-bones edition with a good, but not great transfer. Criterion's new two-disc special edition is an improvement in several ways. The high-definition image is sharp and clear; there is some visible grain, but this helps it maintain a distinctly film-like appearance. The black levels are excellent, and much improved from the Criterion DVD, which tended to lean a bit gray at times. The monaural soundtrack was mastered from the original soundtrack negative and is presented in lossless PCM Linear. The dialogue is clear and the musical score sounds warm; ambient hiss has been virtually eliminated. As with the DVD, Criterion also offers an isolated music and effects track so we can fully enjoy Franz Waxman’s musical score and the complex sound design.

    In terms of supplements, there are so many that they had to be spread across two discs—a rarity for even the most packed special editions. The supplements are a mix of the old and the new, with a good chunk of what appeared on Criterion’s 2001 DVD having been ported over here (some of which actually dates back to their 1990 laserdisc edition), although not everything, so you might want to hold onto that DVD set if you have it.

    From the DVD we have a screen-specific audio commentary by Leonard J. Leff, who wrote the indispensable 1987 book Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood, which remains the best and most thoroughly researched account of this unique producer-director partnership (Leff also cowrote with Jerold L. Simmons The Dame in the Kimono, an excellent collection of case studies of films that challenged the Production Code). For those who have read Leff's work, there won’t be much new revelation in his commentary. However, for those who are not well-versed in this part of Hitch’s career, Leff gives both an excellent overview of the working realities of film production under Selznick and also offers a fine reading of the film itself. Also from the DVD we have extensive footage of screen tests for the role of the narrator with Anne Baxter (who was only 16 at the time), Margaret Sullivan, Loretta Young, Vivien Leigh (whose wrongness for the part is almost embarrassingly obvious), and Joan Fontaine. There are also hair, makeup, and lighting tests with Anne Baxter, Margaret Sullivan, and Joan Fontaine and costume tests with Joan Fontaine, mostly with dresses that never appeared in the movie, as well as casting notes from Selznick and Hitchcock. Also from that disc are two phone interviews conducted by Leff in 1986 with actresses Joan Fontaine (20 minutes) and Judith Anderson (11 minutes) as part of his research for Hitchcock and Selznick. Finally, we also get a re-release trailer and three complete radio versions of Rebecca, one that predates Hitchcock’s film and two that follow. The earliest comes from 1938, the year the novel was published, and was staged by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater (it also includes an interview with Daphne du Maurier). The other two broadcasts are both from the Lux Radio Theater, one from 1941 starring Ronald Colman and Ida Lupino (with an interview with David O. Selznick) and the second from 1950 with Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

    There are also quite a few new supplements, starting with a fascinating and enjoyable video conversation between film scholars Molly Haskell and Patricia White, who discuss the film’s themes and how it has held up over time (24 min.). “Visual effects” is a new 17-minute interview with Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Craig Barron, who discusses some of Hitchcock’s unique touches and the design and execution of the film’s subtle “trick shots,” which include rear projection, matte paintings, optical effects, miniatures, and puppets. Daphne du Maurier: In the Footsteps of Rebecca is a 55-minute documentary that originally aired on French television in 2016. It covers the author’s life and work, with a particular emphasis on Rebecca and how it “haunted” the rest of her career. There are also two significant new archival inclusions: a 17-minute interview with Joan Fontaine from a January 9, 1980, broadcast of the NBC program Tomorrow and a 44-minute appearance by Alfred Hitchcock on the same program on November 26, 1973. Criterion has also ported over “The Making of Rebecca,” a 28-minute documentary that previously appeared on MGM’s 2008 “Premiere Collection” DVD. It features interviews with Hitchcock’s granddaughter Mary Stone, filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, film critic Richard Schickel, and film scholars Rudy Behlmer, David Thomson, Jonathan Kuntz, and Bill Krohn, among others.

    As great as that roster of supplements is, you should be aware that quite a bit from Criterion’s 2001 DVD did not make the cut, so you will definitely want to hold onto it. Missing here are an illustrated biographical essay on Daphne du Maurier; an essay on the differences between the novel and the movie; an extensive collection of production correspondence and memos (some of which is now printed in the insert booklet); location photographs; set stills, wardrobe stills, and production photographs; a 1939 screen test questionnaire; deleted scene script excerpts; excerpts of a recorded interview with Alfred Hitchcock by François Truffaut; a gallery of poster art and ad slicks; and newsreel footage of the 13th annual Academy Awards.

    Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

    James Kendrick offers, exclusively on Qnetwork, over 2,500 reviews on a wide range of films. All films have a star rating and you can search in a variety of ways for the type of movie you want. If you're just looking for a good movie, then feel free to browse our library of Movie Reviews.

    © 1998 - 2024 - All logos and trademarks in this site are the property of their respective owner.