Studio: Criterion

Sep 05, 2017 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Released in the spring of 1940, Rebecca represents several milestones in the career of director Alfred Hitchcock. It was his first film made in the Hollywood system, following a decade of hits in his native England. It was his first film working under David O. Selznick, whose micromanaging tendencies as a producer would clash with Hitchcock’s auteurist persona. It was also the first and only film of Hitchcock’s to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The second of three Daphne du Maurier adaptations by Hitchcock - preceded by Jamaica Inn in 1939 and followed by The Birds in 1963 - Rebecca is the tale of an unnamed girl of humble origins who is wooed and married by wealthy widower Maxim de Winter, and accompanies him to Manderley, his sprawling estate in the English countryside. There, she struggles to come to terms with her new responsibilities as a lady of means, a domineering housekeeper and the creeping specter of Rebecca, her husband’s former wife, who died under mysterious circumstances. 

Revered for decades as a classic of gothic melodrama, the influence of Rebecca can be felt in everything from the epic television soap operas of the 70s and 80s to Guillermo del Toro’s 2015 gothic ghost story, Crimson Peak. Despite being famed for its air of 19th century chills - creepy old mansions, sinister servants and shadowy corridors abound - Rebecca never becomes a horror film in the traditional sense. The film is, like so many others by Hitchcock, a psychological thriller at its core. No stranger to putting his leading ladies through the ringer - both on and off screen - Hitch’s muse/victim in Rebecca is the fresh-faced Joan Fontaine in the role that would make her a star. Although audiences in 2017 are still laughing at the conceit that dazzlingly beautiful actresses can play mousy, insecure girls with no social skills, Fontaine is pitch perfect in the role and makes her character’s awkwardness and fear believable at every turn. Anyone who’s struggled to make small talk with their crush or felt out of place at a party or business meeting will recognize themselves in her anguished face and coiled posture. Every character, herself included, spends the film gas-lighting her regarding her competence and Fontaine makes you feel every second of it, creating depth and nuance in a protagonist that pointedly goes unnamed.

Much modern analysis of Rebecca is devoted to the film’s gothic trappings as well as the overt lesbian subtext surrounding the character of Mrs. Danvers, the obsessive housekeeper at Manderley. Played with one of the all-time great thousand yard stares by Judith Anderson, Danvers had an unhealthy fixation on the first Mrs. de Winter and begins cultivating a new one regarding the second. The framing of their first meeting features their heads overlapping as though they’re going to awkwardly kiss. In every subsequent scene they share, Anderson looks at Fontaine as though she's trying to decide between kissing her and swallowing her whole. For all the attention rightly paid to this aspect of the film, it often overshadows the film’s fascination with the absurdity of upper class trappings and rituals. Although he cultivated a public persona of fastidious, aristocratic gentleman, Alfred Hitchcock was born and raised in a distinctly middle-class household. His fascination with the charms of high living is present in many of his films, but Rebecca is shot through with a streak of absurd amusement at the world of the one percent. Fontaine’s modest heroine finds herself surrounded by a carnival of caricatured blue bloods, from Florence Bates as her former employer - just one in a long line of vain, yammering old dames throughout Hitch’s filmography - to the delightfully unctuous George Sanders as a scheming social climber who refers to the rich people he envies as having “their own little trade union”. Everything from the dialogue - Fontaine’s in-laws insist that she learn to ride horses since “there’s nothing else to do around here” - to the visual gags - like Fontaine being stalked from room to room by an army of servants desperate to coddle her - frames the rich as a breed of sad obsessives trapped in a prison of their own design. Even the remote, inscrutable Mr. de Winter is played by none other than Laurence Olivier, the very embodiment of the refined British gentleman. The absurd grotesqueness of these people is at the core of both Rebecca as a film and the mystery behind its unseen titular character.

Luckily for the viewer, all this grotesquerie lives on in its gorgeous black-and-white glory thanks to the new 4K digital restoration by the Criterion Collection. The new Blu-ray upgrade of Rebecca contains the usual compliment of commentaries, making-of docs and critical analysis, along with a second disc boasting a treasure trove of special features. Included are production memos by Hitchcock, Selznick and others, three radio adaptations of the story, as well as rare screen tests by Fontaine and several other well-known actresses including Vivian Leigh, Loretta Young and Anne Baxter.


Submit your comment

Name Required

Email Required, will not be published


Remember my personal information
Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

There are no comments for this entry yet.