Rebecca (Criterion Collection) Review

The Film

In the canon of Hitchcock's films, his work tends to fall into three categories. The first are the unquestioned masterpieces, films that are seen as cinematic classics and hold up as brilliantly today as when they were first made (or, in the case of Vertigo and Psycho, rather better). The second are the extremely entertaining and superbly made films that nevertheless are generic works, albeit ones that do credit to the genre that they belong in. Typical examples of these are To Catch a Thief, Shadow of a Doubt and Suspicion. Finally, the last films are the weird anomalies, ranging from the artistic failures (Topaz springs to mind) to the one-offs. Rebecca is one of these, occupying for many the same place in Hitchcock's work that Spartacus does in Kubrick's; it's an extremely well made film that nevertheless lacks many of its director's trademarks. However, the film is nonetheless Hitchcockian, perhaps more so than the man himself gave credit for.

Opening with the superbly evocative line 'Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again', the plot is (mostly) faithful to the Daphne du Maurier novel, itself a reworking of Jane Eyre, concerning an anonymous young woman (Fontaine) who falls in love with the dashing but mysterious Maxim de Winter (Olivier), a man still haunted by the death of his previous wife, Rebecca. As the Fontaine character marries Maxim, she slowly comes to realise that there is more to Rebecca's death than meets the eye, even as she comes into conflict with the sinister housekeeper Mrs Danvers (Anderson), and the sneering cad Favell (Sanders), who may, or may not, have known more about Rebecca's death than he is letting on.

Although Hitchcock was under David O Selznick's thumb throughout the production of the film, as well as having the unwelcome restrictions of the Hays Code to contend with, it is remarkable how 'Hitchcockian' many sections of the film are. The opening scenes at Monte Carlo look forward to To Catch a Thief in their blend of romance and humour, albeit with an edge of suspense to them. Of course, it is in the scenes at Manderley where the book was most successful, and Hitchcock manages to keep the tension high, skilfully encouraging Olivier to play against the matinee idol image that he was beginning to cultivate at the time, and adding the tiniest suggestion of lesbianism in Mrs Danvers' obsession with Rebecca, adding to the psychological games that the characters play.

What is most notable about the film is how, even while it stays close to the novel, Hitchcock foreshadows many of his later films. Manderley itself is portrayed in much the same way that the Bates Motel was in Psycho, with the same air of creeping dread present when 'I' is searching for clues of Rebecca's past life. Perhaps more crucially, Maxim's obsession with Rebecca is not dissimilar to Scottie's captivation with Madeleine in Vertigo; the critics who praise Hitchcock's brilliant originality in the later film ought to be reminded that he had already covered the same territory, albeit in more conventional fashion, nearly 20 years before.

The casting is, as with most of Hitchcock's films, superb. Fontaine is obviously limited by the role, which requires her to be gauche, hysterical and relieved by turns, but is fine in the part. Olivier gives a remarkably mature performance, oddly seeming much older than he did in his Shakesperean adaptations later in th 1940s; it helps that he had not yet decided that he was An Actor, and so did not embellish his performance with the hamminess for which he later became infamous. The film is, however, utterly stolen by Anderson and Sanders. Mrs Danvers is up there with Norman Bates as a great Hitchcockian villain, and Anderson plays the part in a weirdly subhuman way, as if Danvers (the 'Mrs' seems utterly bizarre) was a visitor from another planet of some kind. Meanwhile, Sanders is utterly wonderful in what is essentially an extended cameo, drawling and sneering as if he'd come from a completely different film, as well as delivering the immortal line 'I say, marriage to Maxim is hardly a bed of roses, is it?'

It's hard to try and reclaim Rebecca as the 'lost classic' that people occasionally have seen it as. Despite being the only Hitchcock film to win an Oscar for best film, its pleasures are often literary, rather than cinematic, and the Hitchcockian touches present were his act of rebellion against Selznick's domineering stance, rather than an organic union of director and material. All the same, it is highly entertaining, superbly acted, and does contain enough of The Master in it to be called, with justification, another Hitchcock masterpiece.

The Picture

Criterion have done a fine job on the film's restoration. As with their equally excellent work on Notorious, the film's quality is superb, with no noticeable print damage or degradation, and a beautiful print has been used for this DVD transfer. Occasionally, there is some minor grain, but otherwise this is about as good as a 60-year old film can reasonably be expected to look.

The Sound

A mono mix is provided, which does a fine job of highlighting Franz Waxman's romantic score, as well as keeping the dialogue clear and audible. It's not the most sonically exciting of soundtracks, but a 5.1 DTS remix is hardly necessary here!

The Extras

In my recent review of The Ruling Class, I suggested that the slightly minimal extras might have been because Criterion's attention was focused elsewhere, specifically on their new editions of Notorious, Spellbound and this film. Thankfully, they have (or, in the case of Spellbound, will) proved to be worth the wait. On the first disc, there is a highly technical but interesting commentary by Leonard J. Leff, who discusses the film’s background, production and themes exhaustively.

Broadly speaking, the rest of the extras are divided up into four categories; the first is perhaps the most compelling, as it deals with the film’s genesis, including an essay on Du Maurier and the book, as well as a fascinating section on screen tests. (The Vivien Leigh one has to be seen to be believed as to how close the film came to being utterly ruined by her miscasting). The next section focuses on the film’s production, and includes a fascinating collection of production correspondence from Selznick and Hitchcock, giving a valuable insight into their troubled working relationship. Additionally, there’s an amusing collection of results from test screenings, as well as an absolute gallery of production photographs. There are also a couple of brief telephone interviews with Fontaine and Anderson from 1986; these are entertaining enough, but most of the ground is covered in Leff’s commentary on the first disc.

The next two sections are, perhaps, less compelling, but still well worth exploring. The ‘ballyhoo’ segment deals with the film’s reception and publicity; the most interesting part here is some silent footage of the 1940 Oscars, complete with commentary by Leff, and with some priceless shots of Hitchcock playing to the camera. There's also an interesting segment of Hitchcock's 1962 interviews with Francois Truffaut, although it is rather marred by being simultaneously translated, meaning that Hitch's thoughts are occasionally hard to hear. Having said that, he has some interesting points to make about at least one massive plot hole, which simply doesn't bear close inspection!

Finally, no fewer than 3 complete radio adaptations are included; the best of these is the 1938 Orson Welles adaptation, which has all the flair that you would expect from Welles. Ironically, one of the versions here has Vivien Leigh finally playing ‘I’ opposite Olivier, her husband at that time; suffice it to say that her reading of the part is somewhat unconvincing.


A fine film is provided on a fine disc. Criterion have done well, yet again, and the sheer quality of this package should be enough to convince any Hitchcock fan to invest in a truly fascinating collection of supplementary material, and an excellent film to boot. Recommended.

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