Review by Michael Jacobson
Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, George Sanders, Judith Anderson,
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 130 Minutes
Release Date: November 20, 2001
night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”
I was about 13 years old, my mother surprised me with a copy of Daphne du
Maurier’s Rebecca. Suspiciously
viewing the romance-novel styled cover, I thought she had flipped.
She told me it was one of her favorite books in her youth, and assured me
I would like it as well.
was so right. Rebecca revealed
itself as a real page-turner, with a sympathetic lead heroine, the eerie chill
of a good ghost story, and a mystery that unraveled one thread at a time until
it reached it’s unpredictable and startling conclusion.
task of bringing Rebecca to the screen in 1940 fell into the right two
pairs of hands. David O. Selznick
was a talented producer with a reputation for betting the farm when he thought
the risks worthwhile, as well as for his megalomaniac sense of control over all
of his film projects, even to the point of practically calling the shots over
his directors’ shoulders. While Rebecca
was in production, another little film of his was on its way to becoming one
of cinema’s most acclaimed, awarded and popular entries, Gone With the
other pair of hands belonged to Alfred Hitchcock. A director recognized as a genius in his native England for a
string of popular and lauded movies that integrated suspense and humor, he was
still largely unknown in America outside of the most fastidious circles of film
fans. He, too, had a reputation for
singular visions and autonomy, but his desire to break into mainstream American
moviemaking led him to accept a contract from Selznick.
all know the tale of what happens when the unmovable object meets an
irresistible force. The clashes
were well documented, but at least there was a happy result to it all.
Hitchcock’s first American production turned out to be an instant
classic. It captured all of the
spirit and essence of the original novel (I’m pleased to say), with a terrific
lead performance by Joan Fontaine, a great supporting cast, an expressive sense
of lighting and photography (which won an Oscar), and a beautiful but spooky
house that almost became a character in and of itself.
as mentioned, plays the never-named protagonist (only ever referred to as Mrs.
de Winter, or more specifically, the second Mrs. de Winter).
She is a simple traveling companion to a wealthy boorish woman (Bates) in
Monte Carlo when she first meets the quietly charming but mysterious Maxim de
Winter (Olivier). A polite but rapid romance leads to marriage, and soon, the
second Mrs. de Winter is on her way to England…and Manderley.
gorgeous mansion that we learn was once home to society’s best and biggest
events, the lush house now seems like an empty shell. It’s not literally haunted, but one can sense through the
narrative and Hitchcock’s stylings that there are certainly different kinds of
ghosts. The former Mrs. de Winter,
the Rebecca of the title, has been dead about a year, but even though she makes
no physical appearance in the film, she becomes a significant character in the
unfolding of the story. Though
Maxim seems peacefully happy with his new bride, there are reminders of Rebecca
everywhere. The second Mrs. de
Winter can’t help but feel insecure by the comparisons others make of her to
Rebecca, who by all counts was stylish, elegant, and beautiful.
housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (an impeccable performance by Anderson), is a darkly
clad figure that moves through Manderley with an icy efficiency.
In scenes where she follows Mrs. de Winter, one can’t help but think
she is the very shadow of death. She
is the main caretaker of Rebecca’s memory.
In a scene where she finally shows Mrs. de Winter Rebecca’s room, which
she has unhealthily maintained to anal retentive perfection, the dramatic
vibrations are strong. There is a
sense of almost romantic devotion expressed by Mrs. Danvers which is both subtle
and loud at the same time, if such a combination is possible.
felt strongly for Mrs. de Winter in the novel, and I felt equally so for her in
the movie. Ms. Fontaine won the
role (which, as evidenced by the screen tests included on this disc, was coveted
by some of Hollywood’s most talented ladies), and she is absolutely perfect
from beginning to end. She even
looked exactly the way I imagined from the book.
Ms. Fontaine was Selznick’s choice…at first, Hitchcock disapproved,
but not nearly as much as Laurence Olivier, who adamantly wanted his companion
Vivien Leigh to play the role. His
constant impatience and snide remarks about her (usually made in front of her
face) was said to have really worn on her self-confidence, but the browbeating
at least eventually won the sympathy of Hitchcock, who grew to become her
champion over the course of the shoot.
himself is good as the aloof Maxim, and though one could criticize his cruel
treatment of his leading lady, one also has to imagine that his coldness helped
bring out the best in her. If Mrs.
de Winter was supposed to be self conscious and insecure, it’s easy to imagine
Ms. Fontaine channeling that into her character.
are also two noteworthy supporting performances, one by the always devilishly
charming George Sanders (a future Oscar winner for All About Eve) who
plays a key role in the unfolding of events at the finale, and, as mentioned,
Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers. She
plays the role with a cold inscrutability…we can’t always see the wheels
turning in her head, but we have no doubt that they are turning, and wondering
what that will lead to is one of the film’s best dramatic arcs.
as usual, the real star of a Hitchcock film is Hitchcock himself.
His first American picture is a complete triumph, with a remarkable
visual style, expressive black and white photography, and smooth editing that
mixes with the performances and the script to make for an engrossing
entertainment. Watching Rebecca is
sheer cinematic pleasure…I actually watched the movie through twice before
writing this review just for the joy of it.
won the only Best Picture Oscar ever awarded to a Hitchcock film, but of course,
the legendary director’s career was not exactly downhill from that point.
Rebecca was a key building block in the development of his
personal style, one that would full come together for the first time a few years
later with Notorious (another stellar Criterion DVD) and continue into a
string of some of the most recognized and influential pictures ever made.
fans always come back to Manderley, where the ghost of Rebecca lives
a breathtaking delight…having owned copies of Rebecca on both VHS and
on the previously released Anchor Bay DVD, I was startled and thrilled with this
new Criterion offering. The
difference is night and day. Rebecca
is a somewhat dark film, but it was never intended to be murky, and this
pristine, cleaned-up and restored presentation proves that.
The Oscar winning black and white photography is simply gorgeous, with a
full range of grayscale employed, as well as deep, true blacks and crisp, clean
whites. An early scene where Maxim
dances with his future bride is an excellent indicator…Olivier’s black suit
contrasts beautifully with Fontaine’s white dress…both are clear and
detailed, and there is no fuzziness of definition between them. The house, of course, is an Expressionist’s dream come
true, and the light and shadow play create lingering imagery. All of this is presented perfectly, with no grain (even in
the darkest settings) and a print that is remarkably clean for one that is over
60 years old. Sure, there is a
speck here or there, even a spot of dirt or two once in a while, but they are so
few and far between that I’d consider them more than acceptable for such an
old film. This transfer is an
mono soundtrack sounds better than ever, too, thanks to some audio restoration.
For a real treat, listen to the music and effects track, which is a good
indicator of the work that went into this DVD offering.
Dialogue is clear throughout, and the terrific musical score adds scope
and range to the proceedings. I
noticed very little in the way of background noise…quiet scenes are usually
just that, quiet. All in all, a
very pleasing effort.
is a double disc offering from Criterion…need I say more?
Okay, I will. Disc One, which includes the film, also features the
aforementioned isolated music and sound effects track, which will definitely
please restoration buffs. There is
also a fairly good commentary track by film scholar Leonard J. Leff, who
authored a book on the collaborations of Selznick and Hitchcock.
Two contains a wealth of information, much of which is in print form.
I enjoyed reading the production correspondence, which includes letters
from Selznick detailing the selection process that eventually won Ms. Fontaine
the lead role, his trepidation over Hitchcock’s methods (the fact that Hitch
wanted the set perfectly lit just for rehearsals was a cross for him), and more.
There are also excerpts from Hitchcock’s conversations with Francois
Truffaut on the film, an essay on Daphne du Maurier, script excerpts from
deleted scenes (including Selznick’s note on a never-included lunch sequence),
the results from a 1939 audience questionnaire on the film (a very interesting
read), plus hundreds of photos including sets, costumes, production stills, ads
and posters, promotional memorabilia (including a fragrance named for the film),
and more. There is a re-issue
trailer as well, along with a 22 page booklet with essays and info on the movie.
saved the best for last…there are two phone interviews conducted by Leonard J.
Leff in 1986 with Joan Fontaine and the late great Judith Anderson
respectively…what a treat for classic movie buffs! Both women are warm and funny, and recall their experiences
on Rebecca with fondness. Ms.
Fontaine learned for the first time in her conversation with Leff that Hitchcock
had wanted her to star in many more of his pictures in the 1940’s, but that
probably contract negotiations with Selznick prevented them…a shame.
out the second disc are three hours of radio show adaptations, including a 1938
broadcast from Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre, featuring an interview with
Daphne du Maurier. There is also a
1941 Lux Radio Theatre version of the story with Ida Lupino and Ronald Coleman,
along with an interview with Selznick. Finally,
there is a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast from 1950 starring Laurence Olivier and
his first choice for leading lady, Vivien Leigh.
What an amazing package!
is a true
Hollywood classic…expressive, entertaining, and absorbing, and a fitting
introduction to America for director Alfred Hitchcock.
This double disc release from the Criterion Collection is unquestionably
one of the very best DVD releases of the year, with it’s startling new
transfer and wealth of wonderful extras. If
you love movies, you definitely need to make a place on your shelf for this