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: USA
Rebecca DVD Cover
The relationship between brashly independent movie producer David O. Selznick and auteur 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 smash hits like 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 has 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 that fact that it is largely lacking in Hitch's signature black humor (something he apparently tried to insert, but Selznick demanded the removal of almost anything remotely funny).

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 that year (Selznick remains the only producer to win back-to-back Best Picture Oscars). Yet, because Selznick was so busy with postproduction on Gone With the Wind when Hitchcock was shooting Rebecca in 1939, Hitch had a great deal of freedom to make the film his own way (although Selznick still maintained a close watch 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 never 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, Fontaine's character is immediately out of place, a situation that is only abetted by Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), the mysterious 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."

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, and inexperienced, 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."

Her husband 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, and is thus not trapped by physical existence. Rather, Rebecca is 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 shades of black and white by George Barnes—the indebtedness to German expressionism is apparent in virtually every frame—Rebecca is a dense, deeply textured emotional excursion, one that ultimately ensures that no easy answers are found. Even when it turns into something of a conventional mystery in the last third, 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.

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.

But, isn't that what made Hitchcock such a great director? He never overlooked the details.

Rebecca: Criterion Collection Special Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioDolby Digital 1.0 monaural
SupplementsAudio commentary by film scholar Leonard J. Leff
Isolated music and effects track
Illustrated biographical essay on Daphne du Maurier
Essay on the differences between the novel and the movie
Production correspondence, memos, and casting notes
Location photographs
Set stills
Wardrobe stills
Production photographs
1939 screen test questionnaire
Deleted scene script excerpts
Screen tests with Anne Baxter, Margaret Sullivan, Loretta Young, Vivien Leigh, and Joan Fontaine
Hair, makeup, and lighting tests with Anne Baxter, Margaret Sullivan, and Joan Fontaine
Costume tests with Joan Fontaine
Excerpts of a recorded interview with Alfred Hitchcock by François Truffaut
1986 phone interviews with Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson
Re-issue trailer
Poster art and ad slicks
Newsreel footage of the 13th annual Academy Awards
Three complete radio broadcast adaptations:
  • 1938 Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater broadcast, with an interview with Daphne du Maurier
  • 1941 Lux Radio Theater broadcast starring Ronald Colman and Ida Lupino, with an interview with David O. Selznick
  • 1950 Lux Radio Theater broadcast starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh
    22-page booklet with liner notes by Robin Wood and George Turner's essay "Du Maurier + Selznick + Hitchcock = Rebecca"
  • Distributor The Criterion Collection / Home Vision
    Release DateNovember 20, 2001

    Rebecca 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. First, as with their excellent DVD release of Hitchcock's Notorious a few weeks ago, Criterion's DVD of Rebecca features a newly restored picture. In this case, three sources—the original 35mm nitrate camera negative, a 35mm nitrate fine-grain master, and a 35mm original nitrate print—were used in the restoration. Because original elements were used, the opening sequence differs in terms of the Selznick International logo and the font used for the credits from the Anchor Bay transfer, which was made from a re-release print. Thus, the Criterion transfer is a more accurate version of what you would have seen in theaters in 1940. The digital transfer was then made from a newly printed 35mm fine-grain master and further cleaned up using the MTI Digital Restoration System. The result is uniformly outstanding, the best Rebecca has looked since it was originally released 61 years ago. The image is sharp and clear; there is some visible grain, but this helps it maintain a distinctly film-like appearance. The black levels are generally good, although they tend to be somewhat gray at times, especially in the opening scene. Artifacts, dirt, and other debris are practically nonexistent. This is a first-rate transfer of a classic film.

    As with the image, the soundtrack for Rebecca was also recently restored, again using three different sources, in this case the original 35mm nitrate optical soundtrack negative, a 35mm acetate dupe negative, and a 35mm magnetic music and effects master. The soundtrack is presented here in Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural, and it sound very good. The dialogue is clear and the musical score sounds warm; ambient hiss has been virtually eliminated. Criterion also offers an isolated music and effects track so we can fully enjoy Franz Waxman's musical score and the sound design.

    The problem with writing reviews of discs like this is where to begin in discussing the supplements. I guess I should start off by noting that this two-disc set (with the second disc being all supplementary material) is like a treasure trove for a film historian. Relying heavily on reprinting archived textual materials and unearthing rare footage out of the vaults, Criterion's Rebecca DVD traces the film's evolution in true behind-the-scenes detail. Some of the supplements appeared on Criterion's 1990 laser disc, but the vast majority of them are new.

    A good place to start would be with the screen-specific audio commentary provided by Leonard J. Leff, a professor of English at Oklahoma State University 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 strange, but fruitful 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.

    The supplements on the second disc are divided into four sections, "Dreams," "Fruition," "Ballyhoo," and "Broadcast," which roughly correspond with the stages of the film's production.

    The "Dreams" section opens with "Dreaming of Manderley," an illustrated biographical essay on Rebecca novelist Daphne du Maurier that includes lengthy quotations and images from du Maurier's book Enchanted Cornwall. "Picturization of a Celebrated Novel" is a brief essay that traces some of the primary differences between the page and screen, comparing descriptions of movie scenes with their corresponding passages in du Maurier's novel. Also included are reprints of memos between Selznick and Hitchcock regarding the search for an actress to play the lead role, including one amusing memo from Hitchcock in which he gives his many reasons for dismissing particular actresses (sample: "Too big and sugary"). Also in this section are several memos regarding changes needing to be made to the film in order to comply with the Production Code, most notably the fact that Maxim could not have purposefully murdered his wife and still remain a romantic lead. "Location Research" contains dozens of photographs of various locations and production drawings used to design the sets for the movie. Finally, this section contains 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.

    The "Fruition" section deals primarily with the actual production of the film. There are more memos and production correspondence reprinted here, including an absolutely scathing and extremely detailed letter from Selznick to Hitchcock deploring an initial treatment of the novel worked up by Hitch and his collaborators (we can see here how Hitch was trying to inject humor into the story and how firmly Selznick was against it). "A Curious Slanting Hand" includes handwriting samples in the search for a woman who could produce the specific penmanship Selznick thought Rebecca would have. This section is also heavy with stills and production drawings, including wardrobe stills with Olivier and Fontaine's stand-ins and an extensive collection of photographs of the many, many sets. There is also a script excerpt from a scene that was later deleted from the movie and a corresponding memo from Selznick about this scene, as well the tabulations from a test screening questionnaire from 1939.

    Not surprisingly, the "Ballyhoo" section deals primarily with the film's marketing, including a re-release trailer, a gallery of poster art (both black and white and color), and a gallery of ad slicks used for newspaper advertising (one will notice the prominence of Selznick's name and the virtual absence of Hitchcock's name in all the advertising). There are also a few fleeting moments of original newsreel footage of the 13th annual Academy Awards (the year in which Rebecca won Best Picture) with commentary by Leff. The real treasures in this section, though, are three recorded interviews. One, running eight minutes, is a 1962 interview between Hitchcock and French filmmaker François Truffaut some of which was used in Truffaut's definitive Hitchcock book. The other two are 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.

    Criterion has often included the radio-broadcast versions of classic Hollywood movies as supplements, and here they really top themselves by including 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.

    Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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