To film fans, the clause “Directed by Alfred Hitchcock” has almost become an adjective in and of itself. It has come to mean suspense created by using the viewer’s imagination and mind as a part of the film, first and foremost. These films didn’t have the freedom of CG, and consequently had to invent ways to achieve visual effects (Watch the documentary on Birds or Rear Window for example). Besides the lack of freedom of creation that digital filmmaking now provides, the filmmak…rs had to tip toe around the Hays code, not only restrictive on sex and sexual undertones, but also on content (as we learn in the featurettes here) and gore. The phrase, and the adjective that bears the director’s name, has grown to include a certain quality of characters and meticulous film crafting in every phase of the production. Rebecca, therefore, can rightfully be called “classic Hitchcock.”
While the film’s male lead, a prototypical Hitchcock male in the mold of Thornill and Jeffries minus the charm, is worthy of hours of analysis and discussion on his own, Rebecca as a film really hinges on the three female characters. First, the nameless narrator, “I,” played by Joan Fontaine. She’s young, probably in her early twenties, awkward to the point of clumsiness, even immature at times. Her nerves are on edge, her eyes darting and suspicious, and she actually carries her purse around the house with her (evidence of feeling ‘not at home’). Everything around her makes her seem like a child in a grown up world, from the eye level doorknobs (which we only see “I” use) to her husband actually calling her “a good girl,” “a child,” and “little fool” to her hand-in-the-cookie jar reaction when Danvers finds her in the West Wing. Even camera movements on “I” accentuate her isolation, her ‘diminishing.’
The second, Mrs. Danvers (played by Judith Anderson who must be related to Nora Dunn), is no less fascinating. She immediately despises the new mistress of the house, but shows it only through a palpable coldness in her glance. Though she never commits any overtly hostile acts, or even verbally disparages the narrator, the menace about Mrs. Danvers is undeniable. The way Hitchcock has filmed Danvers, she seems to just materialize in a room rather than enter it, always sending a chill through both the viewers and the narrator. She seems to even control the timid, motherless “I” with her eyes, telling her when to leave rooms or bidding her to come close. She’s on screen for less than half an hour, but every second of those precious minutes the viewer spends waiting for Danvers to act on some unspoken urge.
Once the newlywed de Winters arrive at Manderlay, the third female character is in almost every single frame of film. It’s the titular Rebecca, played by…no one. She’s what truly makes Rebecca a ‘psychological thriller.’ She never appears as a person, not even in a picture, but there’s no denying her presence and impact on all those within Manderlay (the house that becomes a character in itself, secretive and silent). She moves through every cold breeze, she strangles with the shadows of Manderlay’s window (trademark Hitchcock use of visual technique), she can be seen in every inescapable monogram “R” throughout the castle. Through character recollections, we get to know her. She was beautiful, but cold to Maxim. In Manderlay, she was the queen, chaste and proper with her upper class husband, but in the cottage on the beach, she was a harlot, a cheating wife with a not-so-secret love nest where Maxim now tries to stuff her spirit and his bitter memories. It’s where she had multiple affairs, throwing them in the face of her frustrated husband until he could take no more…or could he? In the film, it’s almost ambiguous as to what the true fate of Rebecca was. Where “I” is the body without a name, Rebecca is the name, without a body.
As soon as one hears Beatrice tell “I” that Danvers “simply adored Rebecca,” the tie between Danvers and Rebecca seems to start to clear up. During the bedroom scene, it becomes almost obvious. Thought the Hays code would never permit an obvious overture to be made regarding it, it seems clear that Rebecca wasn’t partial to men in her infidelities. Here’s where the film has to use symbols and carefully chosen and delivered words to avoid the censor’s scissors. Danvers recollects her former mistress with a wistful tone, telling “I” that she’d wait up for Rebecca no matter how late, that she’d comb Rebecca’s hair for twenty minutes. She shows “I” Rebecca’s underwear with only a hint of desirousness, reverently telling her that the panties were specially made by nuns of St. Claire (as a queen’s should be). The scene turns even more sinister when Danvers goes over to the bed, recalling how she made the pillowcase for Rebecca almost lovingly, and taking out of it a delicate, transparent nightgown. It’s classic in that it makes the viewer squirm along with poor “I.”
A complaint that I would imagine people register when watching Rebecca may be the sometimes soporific pacing, particularly those expecting a pure “Hitch” experience. The slight lag at the beginning of the third act of the film, once de Winter’s secret (or lack of one) is revealed, is at least in part due to Selznick’s insistence on including as much from the book as possible. Even with its flaws, Rebecca is still an undeniably great movie. Besides the top-shelf performances out of the three human performers, the film never shows its most powerful character: the ghost of Rebecca herself. It’s haunted house movie without a single special effect, a ghost story without ever showing an apparition. Instead or reducing it to a ‘screaming heroin’ with ‘dastardly villains,’ Rebecca subtly but forcibly makes viewer experience the dread felt by our heroin. The result is a haunting, gothic and tense film, still as effective today as it was sixty years ago.
For a sixty year old, Rebecca looks good, particularly with Criterion’s Notorious still fresh in the memory. The back of the box boasts a new, digitally re-mastered transfer, presented in the ratio of the day, 1.33:1 fullscreen (non-anamorphic of course). The major improvement in the video area is in granularity. Rebecca is free of dirt by comparison, but isn’t exactly what we’d call ‘pristine’ today. Several shots, particularly the Manderlay interiors intended to transmit ‘mystery,’ are filmed intentionally soft, almost shrouded. This affect gives the feeling of being “not quite right,” a feeling that poor “I” can’t ever seem to escape in Manderlay. Color work is well-done, with a wide range of gray tones and true blacks throughout. Menus are subtly and attractively animated and easy to navigate through. I doubt those shopping in the Criterion section of the DVD rack are overly concerned with reference quality video, but Rebecca’s new transfer won’t leave the buyer disappointed.
Seeing as Rebecca is as old as it is, viewers and purchasers shouldn’t be disappointed by the disc’s 2.0 mono track. Though I can’t confirm it, I think the track has been cleaned considerably, as it contains no hisses behind the dialogue. The controlled environment of a “looped” track (used extensively in this production) may or may not contribute to the fidelity in some way. Note that some of this work is not fully synchronized, not deducted because Criterion didn’t actually engineer the sound on the film. Of course there is no directionality or dynamics to speak of given small soundstage. The musical score, by Franz Waxman, is a good one for a suspense film, something Hitchcock always considered extremely important. Criterion has included an isolated music and effects track, the quality exactly the same as the full soundtrack, as a demonstration of music’s ability to tell the story. English subtitles are also included.
Under the heading Dreams, we find an extensive variety of material, text based as well as video footage. Where text is concerned, one can start of with Dreaming of Manderlay, a sixteen page area giving background biographical information on the author and her inspirations. Picturization of a Celebrated Novel should be of particular interest to those who have read the book, as it points out the differences between the written word and the picture (included in its seven pages are excerpts from the book itself). It’s here we encounter the first section of production correspondence, “The Search for ‘I’”. A total of forty pages of text through two letters details the viewpoints of both Selznick and Hitchcock on the eight actresses up for consideration.
Probably the most intriguing of all the production correspondence can be found by selecting the “We Intend to Make Rebecca” section. It consists of three letters totaling forty-six pages, but by far the most entertaining is the last one, dated 7/12/39 from Selznick to Hitchcock. Twenty-eight pages long, I’m fairly certain this letter qualifies as a “tirade.” A theme throughout the multiple production letters is Selznick’s reference to his other big-name adaptation picture Gone With the Wind. He was obsessed with strict adherence to the source novel, wherever the Hays code doesn’t preclude it.
After checking out the thirty-four locations research photos, I arrived at the two video selections. The first was nearly forty minutes of Screen Tests for ‘I’, featuring Anne Baxter, Margaret Sullavan, Loretta Young, Vivian Leigh (whose performance Selznick deemed ‘laughably bad’), and Joan Fontaine. Fontaine ended up getting an Oscar nomination for her performance, so the right choice must have been made. Rounding out “Dreams” is a pair of three minute reels, called lighting, makeup and costume tests, of various actresses looking into the camera and moving slowly. These reels also feature some comments by Leonard J. Leff, author and film scholar.
The second heading, “Fruition,” deals with the film while in production. Once again we encounter a section of production correspondence, all from the desk of David Selznick. This one spreads twenty pages over four different letters, and reveals an almost resentful tone toward Hitchcock and his costly methods of filmmaking. Staying with the textual elements in this section, we can examine the results of a tally of 268 test audience questionnaires for eighteen pages, culled from a preview audience much like today, some even affecting changes in the film. The last text portion is a script excerpt for a deleted scene, “Int. Dining Room Day,” fourteen pages of screenplay format. There’s also another memo from Selznick to Hitchcock, discussing the scene and how he felt it should be shot. Two sections of still photos reside under “Fruition” as well, one set of wardrobe stills (five pictures) and one of set stills (fifty pictures), the latter under the subheading “Picture No. 110: Rebecca.”
The third heading, “Ballyhoo,” deals mainly with material related to either the release of the film or the reaction to the film as time passes. First stop here is a subheading “Passion! Mystery! Frustration!” This is a still gallery, divided into four sections: publicity stills (27 pictures), posters (6), ad slicks (16 print ads extolling theaters playing the film), and interestingly enough, The Most Glamorous Ghost in History (7). The film’s re-issue trailer, from 1950, also resides under “Ballyhoo,” running approximately two minutes, well-cut but obviously not in today’s style. Rounding out the video extras entirely, a ninety second newsreel of the 13th Academy Awards.
Selecting the “Hitchcock on Rebecca” heading brings the viewer to an eight minute excerpt of French director and author Francois Truffaut interviewing (through a translator) Hitchcock in 1962, for his book, Hitchcock. Don’t miss this interview, it’s fantastic. Speaking of interviews, Leonard J. Leff has included two of his own, one of Joan Fontaine (twenty minutes), and one of Judith Anderson (only ten, sadly), conducted in 1986 for Leff’s own book. Much as they did on their other recent Hitchcock release, Criterion has included radio dramatizations of the film. Not content to simply include ONE, they have transferred THREE separate adaptations, one from the Mercury Theater in 1938 with Orson Welles as Maxim and Margaret Sullavan as “I”, with a short phone interview with du Maurier at the very end of the one hour presentation. The other two are from the well-known Lux (a brand of silk stocking care soap and laundry flakes) Radio Theater, one from 1941 and the other from 1950.
Impressed by this extras package yet? We aren’t quite finished: disc one contains a feature length commentary track with Leonard Leff, originally recorded for the 1990 laser disc release. Rather than narrate on-screen action, Leff shows off his obviously extended study of the film, and of Hitchcock, by pointing out subtleties perhaps missed by casual viewers as well as relating behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
In Rebecca, Hitchcock’s first American picture and his only Best Picture, the Criterion Company once again takes on a historic landmark of a film. As we’ve come to expect from this important and fantastic outfit, they’ve done the film’s place in cinematic history the justice it deserves. While the video isn’t perfect, and the audio limited by the age of the source material, as aforementioned the prospective buyer probably won’t let that make up his or her mind. Phenomenal film aside, this two-disc set is well worth the purchase based on the extras alone. I can almost picture the Criterion folks standing in the middle of a board room, turning over an empty treasure chest, shaking it just to make sure they didn’t miss anything. The cupboard must be bare. Rebecca comes with my highest recommendation to fans of Hitchcock, fans of suspense, fans of horror, and even the most faithful fans of du Maurier. Congratulations again, Criterion, and keep up the good work.
Special Features List
- Commentary by film scholar Leonard J. Leff
- Isolated music and effects track
- Rare screen, hair, makeup, and costume tests
- Footage from the 1940 Annual Academy Awards ceremony
- Hundreds of behind-the-scenes photos
- Illustrated essay on Daphne du Maurier
- Hitchcock on Rebecca: excerpts from the director’s conversations with filmmaker Francois Truffaut
- Phone interviews
- Hitchcock’s casting notes
- 1939 test screening questionnaire
- Complete broadcast of the 1938 Campbell Playhouse radio adaptation
- Reissue trailer