‘Rebecca’: Alfred Hitchcock transforms seductive love story into satisfying suspense

Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson in 'Rebecca'
Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson in ‘Rebecca’

To precede any one of Hitchcock’s films with “Hitchcock’s Masterpiece…” is practically redundant. It’s like calling the theory of relativity “Einstein’s Stroke of Genius” or calling David “Michelangelo’s Breathtaking Sculpture”: It simply goes without saying. So, when talking about a Hitchcock film, one should just assume a discussion of a truly great piece of filmmaking. Rebecca, currently available in a Criterion Collection double-disc set, is no exception.

At the 13th Annual Academy Awards Ceremony honoring the films of 1940, Rebecca took home the Oscar for Best Picture, making it the only Hitchcock film to ever earn the coveted statue. A haunting film that is often overshadowed by some of Hitchcock’s later works, Rebecca is no less accomplished. Hitchcock’s first American film, his first with any real budget, was a pairing of power-hungry creative minds; one being the meticulous director, and the other being the glamorous producer, David Selznick. Selznick was responsible for such grandiose films as A Star Is Born and Gone With the Wind and would later go on to back SpellboundThe Paradine Case, and the film-noir classic, The Third Man. By this time in his career, Hitchcock had made close to 30 films, giving him more than enough time to develop an unmistakable style. So, one can imagine the kind of power struggle in play when these two great minds began producing a lush, expensive Hollywood film version of one of the best-selling books of its time. Despite more than occasional clashes in vision during production, the end result was a major accomplishment for both. Rebecca stands tall as a milestone in film history, but more importantly, a damn fine piece of art and entertainment.

Both the Hitchcock film and the book by Daphne DuMaurier begin the same way: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” The line is uttered by the film’s central character, known only as “I”. She is never named, nor need she be, because hers is a journey that also becomes ours. In the opening shots, we are given a peek at Manderley, the massive estate where most of the film will take place, and even then, we sense that not all is well. Manderley obviously houses great secrets, and it is the duty of this film to reveal them in the most memorable of ways. We first meet Maxim De Winter (Lawrence Olivier) as he contemplates jumping off a cliff. He is stopped just in time, by the lovely and naïve heroine (Joan Fontaine). From that moment on, they are swept into an unexpected whirlwind romance that ends in a spontaneous wedding. The wedding marks the end of everything the heroine has ever known and an entry into a world that is not only alien, but frightening and mysterious as well. “I” enters into the marriage with the vague knowledge that she is following in the footsteps of someone much grander and more important than she should ever hope to be, the late Rebecca De Winter. However, she is in love, and love blinds her to the difficult challenges ahead.

Once she arrives at Manderley, the heroine is introduced to Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), the still devoted servant of the late Rebecca and one of the all-time great characters of the silver screen. Mrs. Danvers is the culmination of all of the creepiest babysitters you have ever had, appearing out of nowhere, just in time to catch you doing something stupid. She never smiles, instead she seems to be carrying on a constant inner monologue of her sinister plots against someone, in this case, the “new” Mrs. De Winter. Danvers is also one of the big screen’s earliest and coolest lesbian characters. Because Hollywood was under a self-imposed production code at the time, there were certain things never to be shown on film. Lesbianism, or any suggestion of such “sexual perversion”, would have been rejected by the code as morally offensive. Still, Hitchcock was a clever little devil and there is no mistaking his obvious awareness of Mrs. Danvers’ affections, although the words are never spoken. Because Danvers is a predatory and “evil” character, her tendencies were probably overlooked by the censors, because, after all, homosexuality is predatory and evil, right? Unfortunately, that was the general consensus then and, thankfully, that mentality has begun to fade. Despite the uncomfortable undertones that her character suggests, Danvers is truly one of Hitchcock’s greatest villains and her presence on screen sparkles with mystery and terror. Her final moments are absolutely unforgettable.

Joan Fontaine (bottom) and Laurence Olivier (left) star in 'Rebecca'
Joan Fontaine (bottom) and Laurence Olivier (left) star in ‘Rebecca’

The relationship between “I” and Maxim De Winter is a fascinating one. Hitchcock excels in his observation of unhealthy love relationships and Rebecca is no exception. It’s interesting to note, however, that Hitchcock often focuses on consistent ideas of male love and female love. His male characters tend to be afraid of commitment and often give cold receptions to true love. His female characters on the other hand are often naïve or have severe emotional problems that cause them to act foolishly. The love that the heroine demonstrates for Maxim is tender and subservient, almost that of an obedient daughter. On the other hand, Maxim’s love for “I” is quite different. Most of the time he seems cold and patronizing. Even when he shows an element of tenderness, the script counteracts it with a gesture to suggest the opposite. For example, when Maxim and “I” get hastily married, they come running down the stairs in a happy moment of new love. But, before the moment is through, the minister calls out for them reminding Maxim that he left behind the marriage license. An innocently amusing moment at first glance, but in conjunction with Maxim’s actions through the rest of the film, it’s a powerful foreshadowing of his unwillingness to commit to this or any woman.

The most obvious charm to Rebecca is the overwhelming sense of great mystery and uncomfortable suspense. From the opening shots to the unforgettable conclusion, Hitchcock is able to transform a seductive love story into one of slow, satisfying suspense. Hitchcock’s amazingly acute eye triumphs here in his love of manipulating camera and light for maximum effect. Wide shots of the Manderley interiors with a dwarfed heroine in the middle of the screen accentuate her feelings of loneliness and fear. Darkly lit and smoky frames of Mrs. Danvers appearing through transparent curtains heighten the eerie suspense of her every action. Shadows cast upon Maxim’s face suggest a psychological prison he is always trying to escape. The film is filled with articulate mood and dripping with atmosphere.

Rebecca is given the royal treatment in a beautiful double disc set from Criterion, who have released excellent prints of 5 other Hitchcock films. The transfer is nearly flawless. As opposed to the earlier DVD version, marred with muddy blacks and whites and distracting scratches, this print seems as though it’s brand new. Criterion claims, in the liner notes, “preserved from the original 35mm nitrate camera negative”. Black and White has never looked as glorious as it does here. The special features are plentiful, but I assume some will appear lackluster to the casual filmgoer. Some of the better features include screen tests for many of the women who auditioned for “I”, including Vivien Leigh and Margaret Sullivan. There are also radio interviews with Hitchcock, Joan Fontaine, and Judith Anderson. Criterion has also included three different radio broadcasts of Rebecca, one with the vocal performance of Orson Welles. The commentary track is by film scholar Leonard J. Leff, who provides a wealth of information concerning relationships between actors, crew members, and fascinating insight on the relationship between Hitchcock and Selznick. He also points out much of Hitchcock’s technique and is even gracious enough to point out continuity flaws and mistakes. While the track doesn’t have the insider’s feel that tracks on some other discs do, this is nonetheless very interesting. It’s unfortunate that they were not able to gather any production documentaries on the making of the film. Instead they allow you to file through pages of text which explain much about production, pre-production, filming, costumes, etc., which I imagine many viewers will not have the patience to sit through. There are no deleted scenes, but there are the script pages with the scenes that were left out. The features are plentiful for those with patience, but for those who desire more visual behind-the-scenes insight you won’t get an overload from this particular set.

All in all, Rebecca from the Criterion Collection would be a shining star in anyone’s DVD collection. Even if one doesn’t spend the time exploring all of the special features, the spotless, beautiful transfer alone is worth the price tag. It’s an essential for any serious or casual fan of Hitchcock and for lovers of fine cinema or old Hollywood classics. (I would also recommend it to everyone else.) While the heroine in Rebecca declares that she can never go back to Manderley, we have the glorious privilege to return over and over again.

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