Written by Brian Ludovico
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 filmmakers 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 deWinters arrive at Mandalay, 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 Mandalay (the house that becomes a character in itself, secretive and silent). She moves through every cold breeze, she strangles with the shadows of Mandalay’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 Mandalay, 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 deWinter’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 heroine’ 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 over sixty years ago.
Rebecca is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at a solid and consistent 38mbps. For a sixty year old film, Rebecca looks quite good. 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 Mandalay 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 Mandalay. Color work is well-done, with a wide range of gray tones and true blacks throughout.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is another step up for the film. 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 dialog. The controlled environment of a “looped” track (used extensively in this production) may or may not contribute to the fidelity in some way. The musical score, by Franz Waxman, is a good one for a suspense film, something Hitchcock always considered extremely important. There is 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.
Oddly, there is no top menu here. The disc merely goes into the film. That’s not uncommon, particularly on these MGM catalogue titles, but usually there is still a top menu you can get to. Not so here. Still, there is a generous collection of extras included.
The Making Of Rebecca: (28:01) The piece includes plenty of filmmakers, historians, professors, and family members to talk about Hitch and Selznick and their relationship. The film is covered quite well.
The Gothic World Of Daphne Du Maurier: (19:02) This piece looks closely at the original writer.
Screen Tests For Margaret Sullivan and Vivien Leigh who tested for “I” but did not get the part.
Radio Plays and Hitch Audio Interviews plus a Trailer round out the extras.
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.
Parts of this review were written by Gino Sassani