Despite being disavowed in later years by the master of suspense as "not a Hitchcock film", Rebecca (1940) remains the only movie Alfred Hitchcock ever made to win the coveted Best Picture Oscar; an oversight on the part of AMPAS perhaps. But it may also indicate just how close to perfect Hitchcock came on his first time out in Hollywood. Afforded all the lavishness of resources that producer David O. Selznick could provide (and more meddling along the way than Hitch' expected, and that created a friction in their artistic temperaments) Hitchcock was forced by Selznick to adhere to a strict literary adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's celebrated novel. And it is saying much of both Hitchcock and Selznick that the resulting film illustrates a symbiotic melding (rather than a clash) of their creative wills.
The arrival of Hitchcock in Hollywood began innocently enough with a personal invitation from Selznick to work on a movie adaptation of the ill-fated Titanic. Arguably, Selznick had zero interest in this project – despite purchasing The Leviathan (a rusty liner whose resemblance to the Titanic was uncanny). However, Selznick knew that the project was of considerable interest to Hitchcock and Selznick wanted Hitchcock under contract. Installed in a comfortable bungalow with precious little to do Hitchcock’s dismay began to mount. It was somewhat quelled when he and Selznick finally agreed on Rebecca (1940) as their first collaborative effort. After all Daphne Du Maurier was not only greatly admired by Hitchcock - she was also a close personal friend. To say that Hitchcock was wholly unprepared for the omnipotent and intrusive way Selznick ran his studio is perhaps an understatement. Selznick always considered himself more a collaborator than a mogul. And he was acutely aware that any film he released was 'A Selznick Picture' directed by Alfred Hitchcock. But Hitchcock had worked in Britain under absolute creative freedom to do as he pleased. Regrettably, on the set of Rebecca, Hitchcock quickly discovered he was expected to take ‘advise’ from Selznick (something he was not used to).
But this was Hollywood - not England. As yet unproven to American audiences, Hitchcock took his lump and marching orders from the producer, sometimes willingly, but mostly with grudging - if quiet - apprehensiveness. As example: Hitchcock was not at all thrilled by Selznick’s choice of Joan Fontaine for the film's heroine. In hindsight Fontaine was absolutely the right choice, a virtual unknown despite having broken into movies the year before. Eventually Hitchcock came to appreciate Fontaine's contributions, so much that he would choose to work with her again on Suspicion a year later. Rebecca is essentially Bronte’s Jane Eyre set in modern times. While vacationing with her paid companion, Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates) in Monte Carlo a young nameless waif (Joan Fontaine) marries an aloof aristocrat, Maxim de Winter (Lawrence Olivier). For a while Maxim and his new bride are divinely happy. He sees in her all the unspoiled sweetness and purity lacking in other women and absent from his own superficial circle of friends.
However, upon returning to his ancestral home, the foreboding seaside estate - Manderly - the presence of Maxim’s first wife – the haughty and late Rebecca - begins to intrude on the couple’s marital serenity. It seems that everyone from Maxim’s sister, Beatrice Lacey (Gladys Cooper) to the matronly, yet unsettlingly cold housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) will not allow Rebecca’s memory to fade. Feeling stifled in her new home, the second Mrs. de Winter (never named in either the novel or film) decides to throw a lavish costume ball to resurrect the glory and grandeur of the old days at Manderly. However, her plans go horribly awry when she arrives at the ball costumed in the same attire as Rebecca the previous year; a gown deliberately chosen for her by Mrs. Danvers. This similarity sends Maxim into a rage and he orders his wife to go upstairs and change. She and Mrs. Danvers have a confrontation in Rebecca’s bedroom and Danvers attempts to brainwash the overwrought newlywed into committing suicide.
Instead, the discovery of a shipwreck off Manderly’s coast leads to another sunken vessel located below the tides with Rebecca’s remains aboard. Maxim further complicates matters when he confides in his wife that he knew all along the body was there. “How did you know?” she asks. “Because I put it there,” Maxim explains. This filmic revelation represents an alteration to the novel. In print, du Maurier's hero is also a murderer; Maxim has killed Rebecca in a fit of rage after she reveals to him that she is pregnant with another man’s child. Selznick, a purist when adapting literary works, utterly detested making this revision. It was imposed on him by the Production Code.
Hence, what ought to have been a moment of shocking revelation in the film is instead slightly anticlimactic. Yet, Olivier’s powerful oration of that tragic moment when Rebecca accidentally struck her head on a piece of ship’s tackle, leaving Maxim to hide the body, is expertly played and even more sublimely executed by Hitchcock's first person camera work. Exonerated from any wrong doing at a public inquest, Maxim hurries home to his new wife whom he realizes he truly loves; only to discover that Mrs. Danvers has gone mad and torched their beloved Manderly – presumably with his new wife inside. After a frantic search of the grounds the lovers are reunited on the front lawn just in time to witness Mrs. Danvers demise.
For the final shot Selznick wanted the smoke from the burning mansion to form the letter 'R' high above the flames. Hitchcock balked at this decidedly tacky idea. Instead, a compromise was achieved. The camera tracks into the horrific blaze inside Rebecca's bedroom, coming upon a close up of the embroidered pillowcase on her bed; the ‘R’ consumed by the flames. As Hitchcock’s American entrée, Rebecca is impressive to say the least. In hindsight, Selznick’s constant badgering through memos, revisions and input has strengthened and tightened the novel’s loose construction. And although Selznick's 'suggestions' would eventually cause a rift between these two collaborators - with each going their separate ways - Hitchcock's meticulous planning and technical craftsman was not always as well served at other studios after he and Selznick parted company.
On the heels of Selznick’s colossal success with Gone With The Wind (1939), Rebecca proved a valiant successor, incredibly popular with audiences. It received near unanimous critical praise and accolades. Today, the film retains much of its big screen magnificence. The screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison deftly condenses the novel's rambling plot. Franz Waxman's brooding score provides an unsettling backdrop brimming with malevolent tensions. Lyle Wheeler's art direction captures the moody grandeur of Manderly - itself a character in both the novel and the movie. And then, of course, there is the cast. Laurence Olivier is superb as the emotionally distraught/guilt-ridden man about town who cannot disentangle himself from his sordid past. Joan Fontaine gives what is probably the best performance of her career as the nameless second wife. She embodies all the fragile insecurities and tender apprehensions of a wallflower thrust into the lap of luxuries she does not understand but is desperate to embrace.
However, the standout performance in the movie remains Judith Anderson's demonic housekeeper. Here is a character study so brutally wicked, a woman entrapped by her memories of the past that her sense of self has entered a state of malignant decay from the acidic ever-presence of her first mistress. Anderson chills to the bone with this incomprehensibly evil, yet strangely lost creature of emotionless darkness. Danvers self-destructs before our very eyes and her spiral into that insanity is terrifyingly conveyed. Rebecca is a great movie - period. It is also, most definitely, a Hitchcock picture; perhaps not the one Hitchcock would have made if left to his own devices, but nevertheless fraught with Hitchcockian touches that make our skin crawl with suspense-laden delight. In the final analysis, however, Rebecca is Selznick’s baby, one for which he won his second consecutive Best Picture Academy Award. No other producer in Hollywood history has been able to do as much.
MGM/Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray of Rebecca slightly bests both the previous Criterion and Anchor Bay Home Video DVD editions with a few minor caveats. First, I don't believe MGM/Fox has gone back to the drawing board for a true 1080p upgrade. Second, like the Criterion DVD edition, the MGM/Fox release substitutes a title card with ‘Rebecca’ in capital letters, rather than the ‘signature’ hand written script that appeared as the actual title credit in 1940 (and on all subsequent poster and campaign art related to the film). To date, only the Anchor Bay release contains this proper title credit. Third, like the Criterion DVD – the isolated music and effects track on this Blu-ray uses a substitute piece of underscoring for the scene where Maxim and the second Mrs. DeWinter arrive at Manderly for the first time. Frankly, I am at a loss to explain these oversights on an otherwise impeccable mastering effort.
Predictably, the Blu-ray improves where film grain is concerned. There's more of it and it looks very film like - not gritty or digitized or suffering from excessive DNR. The gray scale tightens up slightly, and contrast darkens a tad. But fine details are not all that much sharper this time out than on the DVD and this is a definite sign that a new 1080p master has not been employed for this Blu-ray release. Also, the slight instability in the image that was evident during the first three minutes of the aforementioned DVD release continues on the Blu-ray upgrade. Otherwise, this is a very fine presentation of a great classic film. The audio is mono and adequately represented.
Extras are all imports from MGM/Fox's DVD and include a thoroughly informative audio commentary by Richard Schickel, the aforementioned isolated music/effects track, extensive galleries of art and stills, two featurettes; one on the making of the film and the other on author, Daphne Du Maurier and three radio broadcasts of Rebecca as a play. Good stuff all around. Aside: even though I am endorsing this Blu-ray upgrade, my advice is to hold onto or acquire the Anchor Bay DVD (now out of print but available through private collectors) for authenticity. To date it remains the only version of Rebecca to include the film's original 'signature' title credit. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Anchor Bay DVD 3.5