MGM // 1940 // 131 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski // February 6th, 2012
"Do you think the dead come back and watch the living?" -- Mrs. Danvers
Set in England, but representing Alfred Hitchcock's migration from directing in that country to America, Rebecca doesn't achieve the shock of Psycho or the psychological richness of Vertigo. What does stand out beautifully in Rebecca is mood, as Hitchcock renders the dark cloud that hangs over the country estate of Manderley so well. The film's romantic mystery and grownup haunted house story stand the test of time well, as Rebecca (Blu-ray) makes its debut.
Based on the novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca begins with its unnamed protagonist, whom I'll call Nameless (Joan Fontaine, Suspicion), working as a paid companion to a rich older woman in the south of France. There, she catches the eye of a dashing-but-gloomy widower, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier, Wuthering Heights), who marries her and brings her back to his opulent English manor, Manderley. Just where the fairy tale version of this story would end, Rebecca really begins, as Nameless slowly realizes that Manderley and all its inhabitants are still governed by Maxim's deceased first wife, Rebecca.
Rebecca announces its greatest strength -- atmosphere -- right from the start, as a woman intones, "Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again," and the camera drifts through the woods up an overgrown road. Her narration about a return to this mysterious and emotionally charged place guides us through the trees and the misty, heavy air, as spectral moonlight dapples the path. When we finally arrive at the imposing, gothic structure in question, we know we assume we're in for a ghost story -- and we are, in a way.
Hitchcock and his cast and crew manage to make the dead Rebecca one of the central characters of the story, even though she never graces the screen. Through the way she is talked about, the ubiquitous "R" monograms everywhere in the house, and a foreboding feeling of watchfulness in Manderley that we come to associate with her, Rebecca is a powerful absent presence in the film. In a scene of brilliant cinematography, the camera even "follows" her long-ago movements in a certain space, panning and tilting and tracking along with a character who is no longer there to be seen.
The only living character who can hold a candle to the late Rebecca -- though she wouldn't think so herself -- is the legendary Mrs. Danvers, the head housekeeper for Manderley whose company Nameless finds just a bit unsettling. Played with perfection by the scene-stealing Judith Anderson (Laura), Mrs. Danvers is perfectly poised, notices absolutely everything that goes on in the house, and is unyieldingly fixated on the first Mrs. de Winter at the expense of the second. Mrs. Danvers is the ideal foil for the cripplingly underconfident Nameless, and some of Rebecca's best scenes are those in which the steely older woman casually dominates the young woman who is actually her boss. One of the film's most famous scenes -- of Mrs. Danvers giving Nameless an all-access tour to Rebecca's bedroom -- holds additional historical interest for its lesbian overtones, verboten in 1940 Hollywood because of the Production Code's ban on depictions of or references to homosexuality. By the time this scene ends, you'll forget that poor Joan Fontaine is even still in the room.
Much of the film, though, is about Nameless's relationship with the house itself as a representative of the fearfully wonderful Rebecca. Nameless confronts the daily challenge of living up to her predecessor mainly by trying to be a plausible lady of the house at Manderley. However, Manderley just won't submit, and every detail of the exquisite sets works to externalize Nameless's feeling of smallness and powerlessness within its walls: insanely high doorknobs, huge fireplaces, towering ceilings and windows. Rebecca works best when its characters are within Manderley's walls or traversing its somber grounds; things don't connect as well in the beginning and ending sections of the film that take those characters elsewhere.
I suppose one ought to say a thing or two about the actual protagonists of Rebecca, Maxim and Nameless, rather than just the building they live in and the lady who makes sure their floors are scrubbed. In truth, they and their romance are fine but not outstanding elements of the film. Maxim is handsome and mysterious, but just too much of a condescending jerk to his new bride to garner real sympathy; Nameless is sweet and well-portrayed by Fontaine, but ultimately is a character easier to pity than to identify with or love. If you're looking for a character to really root for, though, Hitchcock does kindly provide a very pretty and endearing pooch who traipses around the house.
Undoubtedly a film worth seeing and owning, Rebecca (Blu-ray) from MGM is similarly worthwhile if you didn't pick up the Criterion Collection DVD before it went out of print a while back. It sounds like that edition had both an excellent transfer and a cornucopia of extras that dwarfs even the generous helping here. MGM's 1.37:1/1080p Blu-ray does look very nice, with a healthy layer of grain appropriate to a 1940 Hitchcock film, good contrasts in the rich B&W image, and a pretty minimal scattering of scratches and flecks. I did notice the light levels flickering in a distracting way at some points in the film, but otherwise have no major complaints. MGM has not chosen to create a surround sound audio track for Rebecca the way Universal did for Psycho's Blu-ray premiere, but there's certainly authenticity in the Mono track they do offer, and the DTS-HD Master Audio presents it well.
Extras are plentiful, even if they don't attain Criterion's heights, and all but the most hardcore fans of Hitchcock or this story will have more than enough to keep them happy. Two well-made featurettes -- "The Making of Rebecca" (28 minutes) and "The Gothic World of Daphne du Maurier" (19 minutes) -- provide an excellent overview of the production and the novel behind it, interviewing a variety of scholars and critics in film and literature, as well as the odd Hitchcock descendent. The first of the two frames the production of Rebecca as a power struggle between Hitchcock and tyrannical American producer David O. Selznick. As the experts tell it, both men wanted Rebecca cast in their own artistic mold, but Hitchcock seems to have edged Selznick out by moving the film away from the slavish "picturization" of the novel Selznick wanted. It sounds like a good thing that Hitchcock came out on top, since Selznick had a downright awful idea for the final scene; I don't want to give the ending away for those who haven't seen the film, but you can hear about the idea in this featurette. Meanwhile, "The Gothic World" concentrates more on the novel's intriguing author, particularly on her sexuality and the way it colored the story. Unfortunately, the commentary track with Time film critic Richard Schickel is less impressive than the featurettes. Schickel has some good insights ("Selznick was a word guy and Hitchcock was not") and funny moments ("I almost don't understand what she sees in him, but hey: it's the movies"), but gives off a slight feeling of apathy or being underprepared, perhaps, and leaves too much dead air for my tastes.
For those who like to just listen, MGM provides an isolated track of music and effects, 13 minutes of excerpts from Hitchcock's interviews with Peter Bogdanovich and François Truffaut, and also three hour-long radio plays based on the novel: one from 1938 with Orson Welles, a Cecil B. DeMille production from 1941, and a version starring Olivier and Vivian Leigh (rejected for the screen role) from 1950. If you're curious about how the Olivier/Leigh dynamic would have worked in the film, there's a screen test of them together, as well as one of Margaret Sullivan auditioning for Nameless. Lastly, we get a theatrical trailer, seemingly from a rerelease of the film.
Nameless laments in her introductory narration, "We can never go back to Manderley again, that much is certain." While the protagonists cannot return, we can, as cinema's particular magic is its ability to restore the lost places and people of the past. Rebecca's Manderley is a fascinating place to go back to, and MGM's new Blu-ray edition of the film provides a great way to get there.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 131 Minutes
Release Year: 1940
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Music/Effects Track
* Screen Tests
* Radio Plays