Sunday, September 3, 2017

REBECCA: Blu-ray (Selznick International, 1940) Criterion

Despite being disavowed in later years by the master of suspense as "not a Hitchcock film", Rebecca (1940) remains the only movie Alfred Hitchcock directed to win the coveted Best Picture Academy Award; an oversight on the part of AMPAS I’m sure (one of many, no doubt). But it may also indicate just how close to perfection Hitchcock came on his first time out, afforded all the resources of a Hollywood dream factory at its zenith. As producer, David O. Selznick provided every virtue (and a few vices), his meddlesome memos creating undue friction between these genius’ artistic temperament). Selznick gets a lot of hate mail these days as an autocrat. Personally, I do not think he is someone I could have worked for, as no one ever worked ‘with’ Selznick. Nevertheless, I can certainly recognize his brilliance as absolute. He was a great man – flawed, but great. Selznick’s zeal for picture-making as an independent remains unsurpassed. To date, he is the only producer to win back-to-back Best Picture Oscars for this and his opus magnum the year before, Gone with the Wind. Selznick’s personality often conflicted with those he employed; being one’s own perfectionist translating equally into a royal pain in the backside. Flush with success, Selznick needled virtually all his employees to do more, do better, and, in essence, strive to see the picture business his way. Unhappily employed at just about every major studio for very brief, though nevertheless creatively fertile periods (yielding such immortal classics as A Bill of Divorcement 1931, King Kong 1932, and Dinner at Eight 1933 among many), Selznick eventually took the unheard of step then of becoming his own boss, setting up shop with financier, Jock Whitney’s money in the old RKO-Pathé backlot. For a while, their formula worked. It was audacious and expensive; exacerbating to any creative with a mind and a will of his own.
However, like the monumental figurehead of his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer – the raja of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Selznick firmly believed in the supremacy of the mogul as master of all he surveyed. To be under contract to a studio meant indentured servitude. Unaccustomed to such microscopic scrutiny, Hitchcock would later rebel. Certainly, he was not pleased that the project for which he had agreed to cross the Atlantic – a retelling of the ill-fated tale of the R.M.S. Titanic, had been scrapped by Selznick upon his arrival in town; Selznick too heavily invested on the set of Gone with the Wind to pay Hitch’ any mind. Despite having already purchased a rusty and retired liner as a stand-in for the Titanic, Selznick would never return to his plans to make a picture about its maiden voyage. In Hollywood, Hitchcock languished for nearly a year – unable to procure work elsewhere because of his ironclad contract with Selznick. This too was a very bitter pill to swallow. Moreover, in his native Britain, Hitch’ had been considered something of an auteur (long before the term was coined); a designation for which Hollywood then, as now, has absolutely zero tolerance to sustain, please or cater to, unless – of course – it pleases the powers that be first. Selznick, however, was not so easily satisfied. Nor was he inclined to see things any other way but his own. Hitch’ was not a literary purist. Indeed, he conceived his movies on pure cinematic terms – a holdover from his visual storytelling days as a director of silent features. Yet on Rebecca, Hitchcock bowed to Selznick’s edicts, adhering to a strict literary adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's celebrated romantic/Gothic novel. And it is saying much of both Hitchcock and Selznick, the resulting movie illustrates a symbiotic melding (rather than a clash) of their creative wills.
Arguably, Selznick used ‘Titanic’ as a means to get Hitchcock under contract. Alas, installed in his comfortable bungalow with precious little to do, Hitchcock’s dismay began to mount. It was somewhat quelled when he and Selznick finally agreed upon Rebecca as their first collaborative effort. Besides, Daphne Du Maurier was not only greatly admired by Hitchcock - she was also a close personal friend. But to suggest Hitchcock was wholly unprepared for the omnipotent and intrusive way Selznick ran his studio is an understatement. Selznick always considered himself more a collaborator than a mogul; acutely aware every film released by his production company was, in fact, 'A Selznick Picture' – even one directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Almost immediately, Hitchcock was forced to face reality: he would not be given carte blanche at Selznick International – either to explore story ideas or direct autonomously as his own highly stylized dictates would have much preferred. On the set of Rebecca, Hitchcock quickly figured out he was expected to take ‘advice’ from Selznick; curtailing and re-conceptualizing his own clear-eyed vision of what the movie was about so it skewed to Selznick’s particular brand of lush and lovely picture-making. This he did, although on more than one occasion Hitch’ deliberately stalled shooting until Selznick tired of lingering on the inactive set, simply to avoid acquiring any further input from the producer. In many ways, Rebecca is the ideal project for this master and mate to collaborate; the stateliness of Manderly, Du Maurier’s fictionalized Cornwall estate, satisfying Selznick’s verve for grandiosity while the expertly paced screenplay by Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison (created from an adaptation by Philip MacDonald and Michael Hogan) challenged Hitchcock as a supreme example of the classic Hollywood narrative.
As yet unproven to American audiences, Hitchcock took his lumps and marching orders, sometimes willingly, usually begrudgingly with a modicum of personal resentment. Case in point: Hitchcock was not thrilled by Selznick’s choice of Joan Fontaine for the part of the unnamed heroine. In point of fact, she had come to the project by default. Like his Herculean search for the ideal Scarlett O’Hara, Selznick had interviewed and tested scores of eager starlets and established performers for the part, including Vivien Leigh. Selznick’s ‘odds on’ favorite for the longest while was Margaret Sullavan. Briefly, he also entertained Olivia de Havilland; Selznick’s awkwardness in convincing her studio boss, Jack L. Warner to let her partake of GWTW virtually ruining De Havilland’s chances for consideration in Rebecca. In hindsight, Fontaine was absolutely the right choice, a virtual unknown, despite having debuted in bit parts in the movies the year before. Hitchcock had sincerely hoped for a ‘star’. To satisfy this yen, Selznick cast Laurence Olivier in the male lead. Like Hitchcock, Olivier’s reputation in England had quietly soured in Hollywood; a place where matinee idol looks are more highly treasured than classical training as a thespian and disciple of Shakespeare, Shaw and Ibsen. To say Hitchcock was unkind to Fontaine is a bit much. He definitely put her through the paces, working manically to tear down any Hollywood-ized notions she might have about interpreting the part. This browbeating took many forms, but it yielded a performance of unanticipatedly exquisite nuances. Eventually, Hitchcock came to appreciate Fontaine's contributions; so much, he happily elected to work with her again on Suspicion, one 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 completely absent from his superficial circle of fair-weather friends. However, upon returning to his ancestral home, the foreboding seaside estate - Manderly - the presence of Maxim’s first, and now deceased wife – the haughty Rebecca - begins to intrude on the couple’s marital bliss. It seems 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 ghost to fade into obscurity. Feeling stifled in her new home, the second Mrs. de Winter (never named in either the novel or the film) decides to throw a lavish costume ball to resurrect the glory and grandeur of the good old days at Manderly. However, her plans go horribly awry when she arrives costumed in the same gown Rebecca wore to the previous year’s soiree; a frock 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 he knew all along the body was there. “How did you know?” she asks. “Because I put it there,” Maxim explains. This filmic revelation is an alteration to the novel. In print, du Maurier's hero had actually killed his first wife in a fit of rage after she reveals to him she is pregnant with another man’s child. Selznick, a purist when adapting literary works, utterly detested revising the scene. Instead, the decision was foisted upon him by the Production Code. Hence, what ought to have been a moment of shock is slightly reconstituted as anticlimactic melodrama, salvaged by Olivier’s presence as an orator, willing to life a tragic snapshot from his past: the moment when the queerly gleeful Rebecca accidentally tripped and fatally struck her head on a piece of ship’s tackle, leaving Maxim, guilt-ridden, to conceal her body. The moment is expertly plied by Olivier’s wearily strained exhaustion and executed by Hitchcock's first person camera work without resorting to flashback. We get nothing more than a slow pan across the room, finally settling on the sharp tackle half-hidden behind the closet door.
The scene also proves a confessional for what the real Rebecca was like: in totem, a wanton desirable to men, exploiting Maxim’s good graces and his formidable bankroll to set a new standard as the lady of the house. But behind closed doors, she proved an emasculating presence; unimpressed with her new husband and even more content to derive pleasure from making a fool of him by carrying on with her cousin, Jack Favell (George Sanders) while flirtatiously pursuing the estate’s manager and faithful as a bird dog friend to Maxim, Frank Crawley (Reginald Denny). At the inquest, Colonel Julyan (C. Aubrey Smith) is pressed to unearth new evidence about the seacocks – valves aboard Rebecca’s yacht, mysteriously left open for the water to rush in; also, curious holes in the ship’s hull and planking. Favell suggests Maxim had motive for wanting to murder his wife; an inference Julyan cannot avoid. Locating Rebecca’s London physician, Doctor Baker (Leo G. Carroll), Favell is quite certain his log will reveal Rebecca was going to have his baby; the news, instead more ominous and devastating. Rebecca was stricken with cancer. In no time, even morphine would have been useless to ease her pain or delay the ravages of the disease.
Crushed in his aspirations to blackmail Maxim in perpetuity, a verdict of suicide is instead entered for posterity. Exonerated of any wrong doing, Maxim hurries home to share the good news with his wife, only to discover Mrs. Danvers – slavishly devoted to Rebecca while she lived, and spookily zealous to the eternal resurrection of her memory since, has gone utterly mad; torching their beloved Manderly – presumably with the second Mrs. DeWinter still inside. After a frantic search of the grounds the lovers are reunited on the front lawn just in time to witness Mrs. Danvers demise in the flames. For this penultimate farewell to these ghosts from the past, Selznick had wanted the smoke from the inferno to rise and form the letter 'R' high above the flames. Hitchcock balked at this decidedly tacky concept. Instead, a compromise was achieved. The camera tracks into the horrific blaze, winding its way into Rebecca's bedchamber and coming upon a close-up of the embroidered pillowcase on her bed; the ‘R’ consumed in the flames.
As Hitchcock’s American entrée, Rebecca is impressive to say the least. In hindsight, Selznick’s constant badgering through memos and revisions has strengthened and tightened the novel’s construction. And although Selznick's 'suggestions' would eventually cause an irreparable rift in their alliance - with each man going his separate way - Hitchcock's meticulous planning and technical craftsman would not always be as well served at other studios where he was allowed more leeway after he and Selznick parted company. Selznick opted not to build Manderly from the ground up; perhaps, still reeling over the expenditures on GWTW. Instead, a series of half-built interiors were designed by Lyle Wheeler and William Cameron Menzies, augmented by Jack Cosgrove’s impressive matte work. These were seamlessly married to some extremely large ‘miniatures’ depicting Manderly’s exterior: the largest costing a whopping $25,000 and covering an entire sound stage. Moodily lit and photographed by George Barnes, Rebecca’s atmospheric touches lent an air of foreboding to practically every moment; even the lengthy and more gaily comedic Monte Carlo prologue where Maxim courts his new bride under Edith Van Hopper’s hawk-eye; their first ‘cute meet’; she, upsetting a vase at her breakfast table/he, chivalrously inviting her to partake of their meal together before whisking her off for a long drive in the country.  In Victorian terms, ‘long drives’ were usually meant to suggest a woman undone, or at least one that had been, as Mrs. Van Hopper bluntly puts it, “…doing anything she need be ashamed of…” an inference the second, unnamed girl vehemently denies. By the time production wrapped on Rebecca its $1.2 million budget had exceeded Selznick’s initially anticipated bottom line by nearly $513,000. Nevertheless, Rebecca would surpass even Selznick’s expectations in other ways; nominated for a whopping eleven Academy Awards: the most grotesque slight - Joan Fontaine’s losing Best Actress to Ginger Rogers’ cloying performance in Kitty Foyle.
On the heels of Selznick’s other colossal success with Gone with the Wind (1939), Rebecca proved incredibly popular with audiences. It received near unanimous critical praise and accolades. Today, the film retains much of its big screen magnificence. The Sherwood/Harrison screenplay deftly condenses the novel's rambling plot. Franz Waxman's brooding score provides an unsettling backdrop, brimming with malevolent tensions that amplify the melodrama with a sense of danger. Lyle Wheeler's art direction captures the moody grandeur of Manderly - 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 luxuries and a mystery she does not understand but is desperate to embrace. The standout performance belongs to Judith Anderson's demonic housekeeper. Here is a character study so brutally wicked, a soulless creature whose mind is eaten away by a slavish devotion to her memories, she instantly embodies the malignant decay of another time and place, proving an acidic presence to her new mistress. Anderson utterly chills to the bone with this incomprehensibly evil, yet strangely sad creature of emotionless depth. Danvers self-destruction and her spiral into insanity are terrifyingly conveyed. Bottom line: 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 the ole master’s Hitchcockian touches to make our skin crawl with suspense-laden delight. In the final analysis, Rebecca is Selznick’s baby, one for which he took home his second consecutive Best Picture and producing Oscars; a coup yet unrivaled in Hollywood.
Criterion’s new to Blu release of Rebecca is cause to rejoice. Not only has the original camera negative been scanned in at 4K for a clearer, crisper, more refined image (even in 1080p the differences between this reissue and the MGM/Fox Blu from nearly six years ago are evident) but the image is decidedly darker, as it should be, with inkier black levels handsomely displayed in motion. Aside: one point of interest I have been unable to reconcile; as with Criterion’s original DVD release from some years back, the title card ‘Rebecca’ is displayed in a rather stylized calligraphy. In 1998, Anchor Bay released a version of Rebecca on DVD where the title font was essentially an exact match to the ‘hand-written’ script depicted on Criterion’s Blu-ray front cover art (and virtually all of the original poster campaign artwork for the original theatrical release). Indeed, growing up with this movie as a standard on Saturday Night at the Movies, it was this ‘hand-written’ title card that always appeared in the credits. Personally, I find the calligraphy version jarring, as the rest of the font in the title credit sequence is displayed as New Roman Times. Apparently, the ‘hand-written’ text was substituted for the movie’s theatrical reissue. Or was it? I will simply go on record stating I prefer the ‘hand-written’ option. I would have been over the moon if Criterion had applied seamless branching to offer us both sets of credits. Alas, no. It’s a minor quibbling, as there really is nothing to complain about elsewhere on this release. That said, I won’t be retiring my Anchor Bay DVD any time soon. But I digress. The audio from Criterion is PCM mono and sounding about on par with the aforementioned Blu release from MGM/Fox.

We get Criterion's 1990 LaserDisc commentary from film scholar, Leonard J. Leff; head and shoulders above the pathetic 'Plan B' option by Richard Schickel that accompanied MGM/Fox's Blu-ray reissue. Criterion has also managed to port over the isolated score/effects track from the aforementioned release. A word about this, as several recordings featured on the isolated track are complete substitutes for the actual music as it appears in the movie. We also get the 2007 'making of' from the MGM/Fox release. Infinitely more satisfying: two new conversation pieces - the first, between feminist film scholar/authors, Molly Haskell and Patricia White, the other featuring SFX specialist Craig Barron discussing Cosgrove's matte work. We also get copious 'test footage' - a casting gallery annotated by Hitchcock and Selznick, TV interviews with Hitch', Fontaine, and Judith Anderson, and no less than three radio adaptations of the novel - one, with Orson Welles. Last but not least, a new critical essay by Selznick biographer, David Thomson and a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: with minor caveats, this is the Blu of Rebecca we have all been waiting for - mostly, at any rate. Buy today. Treasure forever!

FILM RATING: (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

5+

VIDEO/AUDIO

4.5

EXTRAS

4.5

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