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Rebecca
The Criterion Collection

review by Anthony D.

 

 

Not Rated

Running Time: 130 minutes

Starring: Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson, George Sanders

Written by: Robert E. Sherwood and Joan Harrison

Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock

 

Studio: Criterion

Retail Price: $39.95

Features: Commentary, Isolated Music and Effects, Rare Screen Tests, Interviews, Behind the Scenes Photos, Production Correspondence, Script Excerpts, Casting Notes, Screening Questionnaire, Literary Essay, Academy Award Footage, Re-Issue Trailer, Three Radio Adaptations, Liner Notes and Essay, Color Bars

Specs: 1.33:1 Full Frame, English Dolby Mono, English Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selections (26 Scenes)

Released: November 20th, 2001

 

 

Rebecca weaves a tale of mystery and suspense as a young woman (Joan Fontaine) marries a wealthy, older gentleman (Laurence Olivier) and moves into his stately mansion Manderley on the storm-infested shores of Cornwall. Gothic in quality, with many layers of characterization, Rebecca marked the first American made film which Alfred Hitchcock would direct, and sadly, the only Best Picture Oscar winner in his lengthy career as the Master of Suspense. Rebecca is adapted from a best-selling novel by Daphne DuMaurier; whose writing later served Hitchcock well with Evan Hunter s screenplay from her short story, The Birds.

We first meet the gauche young heroine of Rebecca when she is serving as a companion to a nouveau-riche American matron (former Texan lawyer Florence Bates in a dead-on characterization reminiscent of Kathy Bates) in the French resort of Monte Carlo. Here she makes a splendid impression on the mourning Maxim de Winter, who is traveling the continent following the mysterious death of his wife, Rebecca. Maxim is so taken with the young woman s charms: she s a struggling artist; she has no class; she s beautiful; she's a breath of fresh country air in his stiff upper-lipped British nostrils. He proposes that she marry him and take over the magisterial reigns of his estate: Manderley. Manderley is situated in Cornwall, a place the young girl had visited in her childhood. Manderley is a well-known palatial estate which has been in the de Winter family for centuries. A cold, dank imposing structure, Manderley and its vast lawns becomes a character in and of itself.

The marriage is not met with much celebration nor fanfare when the newlyweds arrive. In the midst of a sudden spot of rain, the young heroine is doused into an even mousier state of appearance. A rather cold shoulder is offered by household staff, particularly the daunting Mrs. Danvers. Manderley s housekeeper is a dominant, rigid, mysterious and officious servant; who like Manderley, holds many secrets. Judith Anderson embodies Dannie with a starkness and lack of warmth rarely seen in films, yet manages to be a powerful force to be reckoned with, as our heroine will soon find out.

As much as the young woman tries to become the lady of Manderley, each futile step is fraught with the haunting presence of Manderley s former mistress, Rebecca. The West Wing (Yes. this is a house with wings and long corridors, grand staircases, towering libraries as well as the eternal sound of the waves breaking on the shore), has been closed down since the unfortunate drowning death of the first Mrs. de Winter. Yet, Dannie has kept Rebecca s room precisely the way that it was on that fatal night when the first Mrs. de Winter went out for a midnight sail. Mrs. Danvers even beckons the new Mrs. de Winter into this santum, which serves more as a sanctuary, to extol the virtues and riches of this sacred room s previous tenant. In a move which would seem to be out of kindness, Mrs. Danvers even advises the young newlywed, that the manse should be opened up for parties again. As hostess of Manderley, the new Mrs. de Winter should wear a gown fashioned after one of the ancestral portraits dominating the hallways; accordingly, the heroine complies to the housekeeper s wishes.

Of course, the gown that the young woman chooses, could turn out to be a final nail in the coffin of what she sees her marriage and status at Manderley to be. The beautifully crafted costume turns out to be (Can anyone guess?) a copy of the very same gown which the former Mrs. de Winter wore, thus assuring the anger of her widower. Max pales and rants that the young, oafish girl should take it off immediately and return to the party in normal clothes. Running up the stairs, the sob-ridden heroine finds a comforting shoulder waiting for her in Rebecca s room. There in that shrine to the former Mrs. de Winter, lurks Mrs. Danvers. With an hypnotic air, entices the young mistress to fling herself from the window. This would be the best possible recourse for all concerned, as she will never beat the ghost of Rebecca who seems to hover over every action at Manderley.

As our heroine faces the sea, and its inviting prospect, alarums are sounded. It seems that Rebecca s sailboat, once lying at the bottom of the brine, has washed ashore, and what seems to be Rebecca s body is aboard. If this is indeed Rebecca, then whose body did Max identify for burial? Why would an expert sails man as Rebecca have allowed a minor storm to capsize her boat? Why has the cabin been flooded as if its flood guards were tampered with from the exterior? I would seem that Max has a lot to answer for. In a breathtaking sequence, one of the truly Hitchcockian moments, Max recounts the night of Rebecca s accident to his love struck young bride. Even after having made this moving confession of accidental murder (with deliberate cover-up activities), the entire gallery of Rebecca s secrets have not been aired; thus keeping the viewer in suspense through to Rebecca s fiery finale.

Rebecca is definitely a masterpiece. The old gal still manages to be a constantly engaging tale; well crafted by its creators. By saying creators, one cannot dismiss that Rebecca is not entirely an Alfred Hitchcock film. There are as many Hitchcockian touches as there are David O. Selznick touches. Anyone familiar with the lengthy history, and final product, Gone with the Wind will know that Selznick was a hands-on producer. Rudy Behmer s excellent book Memo from David O. Selznick encompasses the vast telegraphy of Selznick s role as producer. A David O. Selznick production could be counted on to deliver a cinematic equivalent of its source; Rebecca is no exception. Budgetary constraints were not an issue with Selznick; he delivered on his promise to Rebecca s millions of readers by providing a cinematic novelization, which just happened to have Alfred Hitchcock for its director. So, whose Rebecca is this really? DuMaurier s, Selznick s, or Hitchcock s? The disc s Features make an ample case for all.

The casting of the film is exceptional, though by far the best performance is given by Judith Anderson. As Mrs. Danvers, Anderson is reptilian: her sudden appearances (She is always insinuated into the frame as if she had been teleported there) easily catch one off-guard. Her footsteps, like those of Madeliene in Vertigo cast no footfall. Even the subtext for Mrs. Danvers character rings true in Anderson s strong-willed performance. In the hands of a lesser actor, this role could have become a cliche. Laurence Olivier has his moments, but Rebecca is not one of his better performances. Max de Winter is the least engaging romantic lead; and if it weren t for Olivier s handsome face and mellifluous voice, one would strain to believe that our heroine would even contemplate marriage to this man.

Joan Fontaine s breakthrough performance as the heroine is one of the best characterizations in the entire Hitchcock catalogue. It is Hitchcock s guidance of this neophyte actor which makes Rebecca an Alfred Hitchcock film. Fontaine is believable every step of the way, including the heroine s many missteps. This is a character whose growth from the beginning of the film to its devilish denouement is registered in every pore of Fontaine s being. This is the role which should have garnered Fontaine an Academy Award (It would be her next film with Hitchcock, Suspicion, which would earn her Oscar for her). Joan Fontaine also holds quite a distinction in Rebecca, one that readers of DuMaurier s novel are quite familiar with: the character is given no name.

 

 

 

Another first-rate transfer from those wonderful people at Criterion is offered in all its full-framed, black and white glory, as Rebecca makes its second appearance on dvd. Not having seen the Anchor Bay presentation, I cannot pass any judgement, nor make any comparison to the beautiful presentation that Criterion s disc possesses. This Rebecca is a digital restoration (and preservation) from three sources: the original 35mm camera negative, a 35mm fine-grain master and a 35mm original nitrate print. This combination yielded a new fine-grain master which was used for the film s transfer to dvd. For me to state that Rebecca is far and above my personal choice for best restoration of the year is no understatement. The only thing that would have made me happier would have been to have seen this particular print on a genuine silver screen. The richness of the blacks has never been surpassed. Shadow detail and delineation are spot-on. There are few, if any, age-related artifacts. Not once did I spot that little bugaboo of edge enhancement, either. Since the cinematography accounts for one of Rebecca s Academy Awards, it is appropriate that the transfer is top-drawer. The opening credits, however, have been wildly window-boxed such that there is a huge square of picture information dead center on the screen. The meticulously designed menu screens subtly alter hues with full animation.

 

 

A video presentation that good deserves an equally excellent audio presentation. Criterion delivers this as well with a newly restored Dolby Digital 1.0 English monaural track. Noise reduction has eliminated virtually every hiss, crackle and pop of this 1940 film. Dialogue is clean and precise. Dialects never make it difficult to understand the actors. The romantic strains of Franz Waxman's (and a few brief moments of Max Steiner) score have never sounded so true. Sound effects such as the sounds of the sea are properly atmospheric, most notable in the disc s eighteenth chapter, You couldn't compare. Rebecca most certainly boasts a sterling example of a well-crafted soundtrack, and that well-crafted soundtrack is given its very own track as one of the disc's Special Features. The track allows the viewer to delight in the visual wealth which Hitchcock imbues into every scene.

 

 

Ah, where to begin without becoming a grocery list listing of supplemental features? Not only does Rebecca s first disc offer up two very worthwhile features, there is a second disc of nothing but supplemental features! I certainly enjoyed listening to the voice of the master in one of Hitchcock s audio interviews with Francois Truffaut; a portion of a series of interviews which led to the publication of Truffaut s volume on Hitch. The interview is done in both French (Truffaut) and English (Hitchcock), accompanied by a translator whose words often cover Hitchcock s responses. Two telephone interviews, running up to twenty minutes, are devoted to Judith Anderson and Joan Fontaine. Conducted in 1986, each in its own way demonstrates the fragility of memory; as both ladies have quite different versions of events on Rebecca s set. A trio of MAJOR highlights are the three radio-show adaptations of Rebecca. Interesting casting for all three shows only add to their special value, as several of the key players (Orson Welles, Margaret Sullavan - 1938, Ronald Colman - 1941, and Vivien Leigh -1950) were at one time considered major contenders for the film roles. The radio shows are even chapter encoded, and come complete with commercials. The Supplemental Disc itself is divided into subcategories for easy reference. Some of the special features are holdovers from Criterion s lush laserdisc edition of Rebecca: the screen tests of Ann Baxter, Margaret Sullavan, Vivien Leigh and Joan Fontaine have not lost their luster, nor importance, in the transfer to dvd. As great an actress as Leigh was, the two tests more than adequately demonstrate just how wrong she would have been in the role. Quite a few text screens are devoted to the inter-office memos of David O. Selznick, and unless you own Rudy Behmer s book, these are a handy introduction to just how detail oriented Selznick was. The re-issue trailer is also included showing just how badly Rebecca needed to be restored. Suffice it to say, without listing each and every supplement, that the supplemental disc will garner hours upon hours of entertaining and education facts surrounding all aspects of Rebecca from inception to its Oscar-winning night. I must also mention that Rebecca s packaging (a double Amray collector case) is absolutely beautiful, and the twety-page collector s booklet contains two fascinating essays from two Hitchcock scholars.

 

 

Rebecca certainly belongs in the libraries of Hitchcock fans everywhere. Unlike other Hitchcock features however, this is what is commonly referred to as a woman s picture. Rebecca is a fine companion piece also to Selznick s previous novel-to-screen adaptation: Gone with the Wind. Both feature strong, but flawed heroines being portrayed by actors at the height of their cinematic talents; both are as faithful to their sources as the times would allow them to be; and both still hold up as cinematic marvels some sixty-some years later. Criterion's strong attention to detail and supplemental features definitely make this Rebecca the one to purchase.