One of the more amazing facts of Academy Award history is that Alfred Hitchcock - possibly the most famous and influential filmmaker of all-time - never won an Oscar as Best Director. Five times nominated, he came up empty on each occasion, even the one time that a film of his won Best Picture: 1940's Rebecca; that year, John Ford took home the Best Director prize for The Grapes of Wrath. Moral of the story? Marty Scorsese shouldn't feel so bad - he's in good company.
While my sympathies go to Hitchcock for his consistent slighting at the hands of the Academy, I must admit that I understood their dilemma; both Ford and Hitchcock were amazing directors, and both their 1940 releases were strong pieces of work. Perhaps the split between the two movies was a fair way to honor both films. Boy, that was a tough era for Academy voters, because the competition was so stiff; things lightened up a little after the legendary batch of nominees from 1939, but still stayed tough. (It didn't get much easier the next year, when Citizen Kane lost to How Green Was My Valley, another production from Ford, but a much crummier one.)
Anyway, I won't try to argue which of the two 1940 contenders was the better movie - if just because I haven't seen Wrath in years - but Rebecca definitely is a fine film. It's a curious kind romantic thriller, made odd partially due to the fact we never meet anyone named "Rebecca"; indeed, we discover very early on that she's the dead wife of Maxim De Winter (Laurence Olivier), an independently wealthy British manor owner who apparently remains despondent over his wife's demise.
During a visit to Monte Carlo, Maxim hooks up with a young cutie played by Joan Fontaine; she quickly becomes the second Mrs. De Winter and the two return to Manderley, his daunting and haunting mansion on the English shore. Unfortunately, the figurative ghost of Rebecca hangs over Fontaine at all times, as the occupants - the De Winters continue to employ a large staff, headed by the icy, Rebecca-obsessed Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) - and local residents remain fascinated by all things Manderley.
Most of the film focuses on Fontaine and shows the apparent obsession over Rebecca maintained by her husband and the others; we see how this ghostly competition weighs upon her and causes various problems. This being Hitchcock, of course, things are not exactly what they seem, and I'll leave it at that so I don't ruin any surprises.
Hitchcock does a wonderful job of pacing the film and building the suspense; we just know something nasty will eventually happen, and he creates a delicious tension as we wait for these revelations. Hitchcock seems to take a misstep part of the way through the movie, as we reach what looks to be the ending yet are stuck with quite a lot of additional film to watch; however, more surprises are yet to come, so don't give up on the story.
The acting seems terrific from top to bottom. Olivier plays a role emotionally similar to Heathcliff in 1939's Wuthering Heights, but I thought he brought a lot more nuance to Maxim. Heathcliff just seemed stiff and petulant, whereas Maxim appears vaguely warm but haunted; it's easy to understand why he'd look like such a catch to the women of the film.
Fontaine - in a role that cleverly has no name, which helps make her additionally anonymous and reinforces the dominance of Rebecca - may come across as overly simpy and meek for some, but her attitudes make sense in the part; a more forceful personality would have overpowered the aura cast by Rebecca, and that would have made the entire storyline collapse. While we never see her - not even via a photo or a painting - Rebecca really is the main figure in this tale. Fontaine also matures nicely in the part and shows additional growth as the story proceeds. The only objection I have to her casting is that she seems too beautiful; I think we're supposed to believe that the allegedly-stunning Rebecca overshadows Old No-name in the looks department, and that might be the case, but Fontaine is way too hot for me to believe that Becky could have been that much sexier.
Possibly the strongest piece of acting in the cast comes from Judith Anderson as the house assistant Danvers. Anderson is truly creepy in the role but she refrains from being so overtly over-the-top that we wouldn't accept her. While all of the residents of Manderley communicate the allure of Rebecca, she's the one who really has the most impact of Anonymous, and Anderson makes those scenes a sight to behold.
Another wonderful piece of supporting acting comes from George Sanders as an intimate Rebecca-admirer, Jack Favell. Sanders' smarmy insolence initially makes him look like nothing more than a typical country-club gadabout, but we later find a darker side to the character. Sanders takes a small part with throwaway lines and infuses him with snarling malice, something that would serve him well in his best-known role, that of Shere Khan in Disney's The Jungle Book.
Rebecca didn't impress me as much as later Hitchcock films like Psycho or The Birds, but it nonetheless seems to be a strong piece of work. The story of obsession may seem old hat, but Hitchcock's spin on it makes for compelling viewing, especially when complemented by some terrific acting.
Rebecca appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; as such, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. I was already quite pleased with the original DVD release of Rebecca. While the Criterion edition moderately improved upon that image, for the most part the two seemed pretty similar in regard to their levels of overall quality.
Sharpness seemed consistently strong, as the film looked crisp and well defined at almost all points of the film. This appeared even more remarkable given how much of the movie occurred in low-light situations; nonetheless, the shots were clear and fine. The only real exceptions to this rule came with some of the close-ups of Fontaine; Hitchcock always was fond of soft-focusing upon his leading ladies, and while this tendency wasn't used as excessively as during later films like Vertigo and The Birds, I still saw it and found it mildly distracting. Nonetheless, the transfer should not be faulted for Hitchcock's technique.
I detected few examples of moiré effects or jagged edges, and edge enhancement displayed no notable concerns. Print flaws remained minimal for such an old movie. Light grain arrived on occasion, and light speckling occurred through parts of the film. However, the picture really did seem quite clean, and this was one area in which the Criterion release topped the old one; the latter was pretty free of defects as well, but the new edition came across as even less problematic in that regard.
Throughout the film, black levels looked consistently great, as they always seemed deep and rich. Shadow detail also appeared very good, with a nice level of opacity that rarely looked too heavy. Objectively, Rebecca clearly displayed some flaws, but subjectively, it was a remarkably strong picture for a movie nearly as old as my father - and let me tell you, that dude's old! Owners of the original DVD of Rebecca won’t regard the Criterion release as a revelation, but it still offered some moderate improvements.
Based on my original observations, I found that the two DVDs offered very similar audio. That isn’t a complaint, as I was fairly pleased with the film's monaural soundtrack. Audio quality seemed quite good for a movie of this vintage. Dialogue sounded clear and relatively warm, and I never had any trouble understanding it. Effects were usually clean and fairly realistic, with little evidence of distortion, though a scene that showed a fire sounded a bit harsh.
The music appeared pretty smooth, but it tended toward the shrill side of the equation at times; as with most tracks of this era, bass was largely absent, but the music seemed clear and listenable nonetheless. A very mild layer of hiss and noise could be heard throughout the film, though only during quieter scenes, as the rest of the audio usually obscured these small flaws. Clearly, the soundtrack wasn't a great piece of work by today's standards, but I've heard enough from this era to know that Rebecca sounded pretty good for a film of that period.
While the prior release of Rebecca included absolutely no extras - or even subtitles - Criterion have come through with an elaborate two-disc special edition. On the first DVD, we start with an audio commentary from film scholar Leonard J. Leff. Recorded in 1990, this piece first accompanied an old Criterion laserdisc release of Rebecca. The track holds up well, as Leff offers a very thorough and engaging discussion of the film.
Leff clearly works from notes, which is to be expected since he’s not relating his own information; it’s not like he was on the set. Nonetheless, he offers a full and detailed history of the production and many other facets as well. We hear of the fights between Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick, problems with the actors, ways that the film altered the book, some interpretation of the story and imagery, and many other areas. Overall Leff gave us a fine look at the film that consistently entertained and enlightened me; it’s definitely worth a listen.
Another special audio program appears on DVD One. We discover an Isolated Music and Effects Track which offers exactly what its name implies. This lets you watch the movie with all of the sound except for dialogue. Some vocal material remains in the form of background hubbub, but none of the lines can be heard. I can’t say this track did a lot for me, but it seems like an interesting addition nonetheless.
As we move on to DVD Two, we encounter the lion’s share of the supplements. These are divided into various subdomains. Dreams starts with "Dreaming of Manderley", a nice text piece that offers biographical details about author Daphne du Maurier and background on Rebecca the novel. From there we go to "Picturization of a Celebrated Novel", which features essentially details some differences between the film and the book.
"The Search for 'I'" discusses the process through which the filmmakers went to find their leading lady. This includes fascinating memos from producer David O. Selznick and director Hitchcock that give us blunt opinions of many different actresses. ”We Intend to Make Rebecca” addresses concerns related to adapting the book into a movie. Story editor Val Lewton’s memo goes over possible concerns with the production code, while Hitchcock’s includes some story ideas. Selznick’s is best of all as he angrily rebuffs Hitchcock’s apparent suggestions to alter the original piece; as we learn, Selznick strongly wanted to remain true to the original novel and didn’t cotton to many changes.
"Locations Research" provides 31 stills of different settings. These are accompanied by identifying text as well. "Screen Tests for 'I'" includes some terrific historical material. We find auditions for five different actresses: Anne Baxter, Margaret Sullavan, Loretta Young, Vivien Leigh, and Joan Fontaine. Baxter appears twice, as does Leigh; in the latter’s second test, she works alongside then-lover Olivier. During Baxter’s first test and those of Sullavan and Fontaine, we see them run through the same scene on two occasions. All of them perform the “China cupid” sequence except for Baxter’s second test; she does the Monte Carlo driving scene for that one. Each of the clips lasts between two minutes and 35 seconds (Baxter’s second test) and nine minutes, 10 seconds (Baxter’s first test) for a total of 41 minutes and 10 seconds of footage.
In addition, we find a little text about the clips. This is all fascinating stuff to see, as it’s great to watch the different takes on the same character. In addition, the “China cupid” piece includes lines not heard in the movie, which adds an extra dimension. These snippets are a great find.
Additional filmed material appears in "Lighting, Makeup and Costume Tests". for “Lighting and Makeup”, we see a three-minute and 10-second piece that starts with shots of Baxter and Sullavan and eventually gets to Leigh. This starts with some comments from Leff, but mostly it remains silent. Baxter’s bit is a the most interesting, as we watch a split-screen comparison of some different looks. The “Costume Tests” focus on Fontaine, as the silent two-minute and 50-second clip shows a variety of different options for “I”. These parts aren’t as compelling as the screen tests, but they’re still a valuable addition to the DVD.
Now we move to the Fruition section of the disc. "Memos from DOS" include additional text written by producer Selznick. As with the prior comments, these are terrific to read, especially when Selznick writes to Hitchcock. Selznick’s notes can be very nit-picky, which makes them all the more fascinating.
"A Curious Slanting Hand" looks at the handwriting of our never-seen title character. It tells us about the desired effect and shows a few screens of test writing. "Wardrobe Stills" offers five shots of stand-ins for Olivier and Fontaine as they model outfits.
In "Set Stills: Picture No. 110, Rebecca" we find 48 images. Most of these show sets for the film, but we also see a few location shots and some production drawings. We get text that informs us about the pictures as well.
Unfortunately, no unused film footage seems to exist, but "Deleted Luncheon Scene" provides the screenplay text of a segment that didn’t make the final cut. It’s not the most fascinating segment, but I’m happy to learn about it anyway. This section also includes another memo from Selznick to Hitchcock.
One of the most compelling pieces appears in ”How Did You Like the Picture?" This area shows us responses from preview screening cards obtained at a December 26, 1939 showing of the film. They’re quite fascinating to see.
The next subdomain receives the title Ballyhoo as it covers post-release actions. "Passion! Frustration! Mystery!" splits into some smaller areas. "Publicity Stills" includes 28 photos, while "Posters" provides seven images. We get 17 "Ad Slicks" as well, most of which focus on a United Artists theater in San Francisco. ”The Most Glamorous Ghost In History” offers eight stills of a window display to promote “Rebecca Mauve” perfume.
Back in the main "Ballyhoo" domain, we find a two-minute and 20-second "re-issue trailer" as well as some snippets from the "13th Annual Academy Awards". This 97-second clip mainly shows footage from the audience, where we see Hitchcock, Fontaine, Judith Anderson and many others, and we also watch a little stage material. Except for some identifying comments from Leff, the clips remain silent. They’re another cool addition, though the lack of audio makes them less useful.
"Hitchcock on Rebecca" includes the first of many audio-only materials we’ll find on DVD Two. It gives us an August 1962 interview between Hitchcock and director Francois Truffaut. The seven-minute and 53-second piece includes some very good comments about the movie.
More of this sort of material appears in "Interviews With Fontaine and Anderson". Leonard Leff spoke with both actresses separately back in January 1986, and the results pop up here. Done by phone, the Fontaine piece lasts for 20 minutes and 10 seconds, while Anderson’s segment runs 10 minutes and 40 seconds. Both add good information about the flick, especially since Fontaine often contradicts Leff’s thoughts!
The final subdomain on DVD Two covers Broadcasts. Here we discover three separate radio versions of Rebecca. The first is "The Mercury Theatre Presents Rebecca". From December 9 1938, this adaptation stars Orson Welles as Maxim and Margaret Sullavan as “I”; it lasts 59 minutes and 50 seconds. Selznick apparently was impressed with this one, for it showed how easily the material could be adjusted to a non-text format. It’s interesting to hear a different take, though I thought Welles was too haughty and simply American in the part.
Next we get a "1941 Lux Radio Theatre" version of the material. From February 3rd of that year, this one stars Ronald Colman as Maxim and Ida Lupino as “I”. Both seem wrong for their roles. Colman is too prissy and patriarchal; he comes across like a Henry Higgins take on the part. Lupino displays little more than breathy innocence, and feels like an addled Snow White. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to listen to this 58-minute and 55-second version, and I can’t wait until I send away for my Gone With the Wind brooch!
Lastly, we find another Lux program. This is the "1950 Lux Radio Theatre" adaptation from November 6. This 60-minute and 30-second broadcast finds Olivier back as Maxim and finally puts Vivien Leigh into the lead as “I” a decade after Olivier first stumped for her. This show again demonstrates how wrong she was for it; she comes across as overly self-assured and mature. Of course, the fact she was 37 at the time, which really did make her too old for the part. As with the others, this is a flawed rendition, but it’s still cool to hear. And if anyone doubts the programs went out live, check out the woman in the crowd who hacks her way through the performance!
In addition to the broadcasts themselves, this area also includes a little additional information. Each program starts with an "Introduction" that gives us some brief text comments about the various shows, and we also find cast listings and a few more notes in "The Players". In another nice touch, each of the radio shows features chapter encoding, so we can skip through them easily.
Speaking of text, this package of Rebecca finishes with various essays inside the disc’s 22-page booklet. This provides two pieces. The shorter one comes from film historian Robin Wood who offers a good overview of some themes and elements of the production. The second is a longer piece that also covers a history of the film, but it does so in more substantial manner. From the late George E. Turner - former editor of American Cinematographer magazine - it nicely relates many aspects of the behind the scenes actions and seems concise and compelling.
While Rebecca may never be one of my favorite Hitchcock flicks, it nonetheless holds up much better than the vast majority of movies from the 1940s (or 1930s or 1950s or 1960s... oh, you get my point). It remains a compelling and haunting experience. In regard to the DVD, both the picture and the sound quality are very good for such an old movie, and Criterion have absolutely packed the set with fine supplements. This is a top-notch package for an older film and should be warmly embraced by Hitchcock fans.