Reviewed by Ivana Redwine
Tagline: "The shadow of this woman darkened their love."
Length: 130 minutes
MPAA Rating: Unrated
In 1938 Daphne du Maurier's melodramatic novel Rebecca became an international bestseller, and film rights were acquired by Hollywood producer David O. Selznick. Also in 1938, Alfred Hitchcock, then a noted director of British-made suspense movies, signed a contract with Selznick and was soon named to direct the screen adaptation of the novel. Thus began the making of Rebecca (1940), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and went on to become a much-loved classic. This movie is one of my favorites because Hitchcock brilliantly suffused the film with an air of mystery and dread as the young heroine gradually discovers the circumstances surrounding the death of her husband's previous wife.
I am thrilled to own the Criterion Collection two-disc DVD set containing Rebecca. The picture and sound quality are terrific, and the DVDs are packed with interesting and informative special features dealing with this entertaining movie. If you have any interest at all in older American films, this is a DVD set you'll treasure.
Rebecca opens with a voiceover narrator delivering one of my favorite lines: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." From there the narrator quickly flashes back to Monte Carlo, where a likable young woman (Joan Fontaine) is working as a paid companion to an older woman. The young woman is introduced to the brooding Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), whose wife recently died, reportedly in a boating accident. Although de Winter treats the young woman more like a daughter than someone he's in love with, they marry, and he takes her back to England to his vast estate, which is called Manderley.
The second Mrs. de Winter finds life at Manderley difficult, largely because the spooky housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) is devoted to preserving the memory of the first Mrs. de Winter. In fact, the second Mrs. de Winter comes to feel almost as if the estate is haunted by the ghost of her predecessor, whose first name was Rebecca. But gradually the mystery surrounding Rebecca is unraveled, leading to a dramatic ending.
I really enjoyed the commentary by film scholar Leonard J. Leff on Disc One of the DVD set. He comments on Hitchcock's well-known propensity for photographing "blonde Galateas in torment" and also says that "thanks to Hitchcock, 'Rebecca' becomes a psychological thriller." Leff asserts that Selznick was much more detail oriented than Hitchcock and claims that Selznick often worked "fueled on Benzedrine." Leff summarizes the difference in approach to Rebecca between producer and director by saying, "For Selznick, the novel was the Bible; for Hitchcock, the visuals were God."
On Disc Two of the DVD set there's a fascinating memo, which can be reached by selecting "We Intend to Make Rebecca." Selznick wrote the memo to Hitchcock when he became incensed by a treatment that had been supervised by the director. Dated June 12, 1939, the scathing memo begins: "It is my unfortunate and distressing task to tell you that I am shocked and disappointed beyond words by the treatment of REBECCA."
Also on Disc Two are excerpts from the script for a deleted luncheon scene. I found it interesting that Joan Fontaine's character here is denoted by "I." This is because in du Maurier's novel the first-person narrator is never named, and Selznick insisted that she remain unnamed in the movie. In the memo mentioned above, Selznick instructs Hitchcock: "This is not a point of story telling but simply of showmanship."
I really enjoyed watching the screen tests for the female lead in Rebecca, which are also on Disc Two. In addition to Fontaine, tests for Anne Baxter, Margaret Sullavan, Loretta Young, and Vivien Leigh are shown. Sullavan comes across as too self-assured, and I was very conscious of the fact that Leigh was acting. I thought Baxter, who was only 16 years old at the time, tested well, but on the DVD there's a memo Selznick wrote that states: "She is ten times more difficult to photograph than Fontaine, and I think it is a little harder to understand Max de Winter marrying her than it would be Fontaine."
There are some worthwhile interviews on Disc Two, including a 1986 phone interview Leff conducted with Judith Anderson. At one point he asks her if she was aware of the current of homosexuality between Mrs. Danvers and the dead Rebecca in the scene where the housekeeper shows Rebecca's underwear and translucent nightgown to the second Mrs. de Winter. I found it interesting that Anderson responds, "I wasn't aware of it then, but I certainly am now."
There are a large number of other bonus materials on the DVDs, and I have listed most of them below.
Selected Special Features on the DVDs: