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Rebecca (1940) movie poster Rebecca

Theatrical Release: March 28, 1940 / Running Time: 116 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Alfred Hitchcock / Writers: Daphne Du Maurier (novel); Philip MacDonald, Michael Hogan (adaptation); Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison (screenplay)

Cast: Laurence Olivier (Maxim de Winter), Joan Fontaine (The Second Mrs. de Winter), George Sanders (Jack Favell), Judith Anderson (Mrs. Danvers), Nigel Bruce (Major Giles Lacy), Reginald Denny (Frank Crawley), C. Aubrey Smith (Colonel Julyan), Gladys Cooper (Beatrice Lacy), Florence Bates (Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper), Melville Cooper (Coroner), Leo G. Carroll (Dr. Baker), Leonard Carey (Ben), Lumsden Hare (Tabbs), Edward Fielding (Frith), Forrester Harvey (Chalcroft), Philip Winter (Robert)

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- Viewed March 24-25, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the biggest names in film history. And yet he wasn't the biggest name promoted on Rebecca, his only Best Picture winner and first of two nominees. No, the name most touted was David O. Selznick, the producer hot off the success of his ambitious Best Picture-winning blockbuster Gone With the Wind.

Like Hitchcock's previous film, Jamaica Inn, the last he'd make in the United Kingdom for some time, the director's first American production was adapted from a recent novel by Daphne du Maurier. The titular Rebecca is a character we never see, but one whose presence looms over this dramatic thriller.

The increasingly concerned second Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) has her hair brushed while a photographed Larry Olivier watches. Maxim (Laurence Olivier) is less than happy with his new wife's party dress choice.

In England as the personal assistant of a rich socialite, a young woman whose name we never learn (played by Joan Fontaine) makes the acquaintance of wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier).
Before you know it, the woman becomes the second Mrs. de Winter, trading in the working life for the comforts of aristocracy. Those comforts seem a bit overwhelming, as the new bride gets used to living in the stately mansion Manderley and having a staff of more than a dozen hired hands.

Mrs. de Winter quickly begins to feel inadequate, as mere mentions of the late Rebecca stoke deep emotions in Max and it's clear that ice-cold housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) was too fond of the first Mrs. de Winter to give this one a chance. The film doesn't spell out the entire situation, instead inviting us to posit and guess based on what we're shown. It is a terrific design and one that finds us utterly engaged in decoding the mystery.

Eventually, we do learn why Rebecca seems to haunt Manderley and its quick-tempered owner. The truth doesn't align with viewer expectations and it's also no cheap fake-out. But, tied with a startling discovery, it produces an engrossing final act that takes Hitchcock into territory he would come to love, one marked by death, deceit, guilt, and the rich suspense of dramatic irony.

Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) is not the warmest or most welcoming of housekeepers. Jack Favell (George Sanders), Rebecca's "favorite cousin", is introduced outside this window.

Rebecca isn't as showy or inventive as later Hitchcock thrillers, but this gothic drama wields as strong a story as any of the ones the director would come to tell. Like much of the Hitchcock canon, this early film has aged remarkably better than its contemporaries. While other filmmakers of the time ventured to go big with epic, generational tales of families and war, Hitchcock rightfully prefers the non-perishable subject matter of human behavior and palpable conflict. Not that the film is lacking in opulence; the primary setting and lifestyle are compellingly photographed, but depicted with darkness and discontent, this is neither glamorous fantasy nor lurid, mindless sensationalism.

This film is one that modern viewers will watch and feel that the Academy definitely did right by honoring. Rebecca defeated nine other Best Picture nominees, including such well-regarded works as The Philadelphia Story, The Grapes of Wrath, and Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. Two of the 1940 films most highly regarded today presumably weren't even seriously considered for the top prize: this year saw Walt Disney issue his second and third feature films in the wonderful Pinocchio and imaginative Fantasia. Pinocchio, which won Oscars for original song and score, is as strong as any Walt-era cartoon. Yet, as one of that film's biggest believers, I can't mind Rebecca earning Best Picture, even overlooking the Academy's implicit disregard for animation.

Besides the Best Picture win, Rebecca's only other victory was for cinematography. But it did rack up an impressive eleven nominations, earning recognition for Hitchcock (his first of five Best Director losses preceding a 1968 honorary award) and actors Olivier, Fontaine, and Anderson. With fields as wide as ever, Rebecca competed in almost every category it could, even special effects (of which the film boasts precious few). Its remaining nominations -- for art direction, original score, editing, and screenplay -- are more understandable.

Strange Manderley cottage resident Ben (Leonard Carey) has apparently seen some traumatizing things in the sea. Mr. and Mrs. de Winter (Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine) embrace in the climactic commotion at Manderley.

To comply with Hollywood's production code, Hitchcock's Rebecca alters a single but critical plot point from du Maurier's novel. Having never read the book, nothing inside me condemns the alteration. In fact, while I can recognize that it's a bit of a necessary cheat, I truly appreciate the sympathy it generates for the film's leads.
I deeply like and care for these protagonists and while they're not without flaws and misjudgments, none of these are severe enough to keep me from desperately hoping the de Winters come out of this unscathed.

Did you know that Joan Fontaine is the younger sister of Gone With the Wind's Olivia de Havilland? Both received their first Oscar nominations for performances in their respective Best Picture winners. Their second nominations came a year after Rebecca, pitting them against each other in the Best Actress category, with Fontaine's turn in Hitchcock's Suspicion defeating de Havilland's Hold Back the Dawn work. de Havilland would win two Best Actress Academy Awards in the years to come. The sisters are both still alive today, making them two of the most prominent living actors from Hollywood's Golden Age. Olivia will turn 94 in July, while Joan will be 93 in October. While the girls sadly never enjoyed a close friendship, they have been completely estranged since 1975.

Rebecca has gotten more DVD releases than your typical 70-year-old flick. The first came in 1999 from Anchor Bay. It was replaced in 2001 by a two-disc Criterion Collection set, branded the 135th title in that unique, prestigious series. Criterion's DVD was considered a benchmark for a classic film package. Sadly, it went out of print. But it was supplanted in 2008 by a new Fox-distributed MGM release (who still holds some of the library of original distributor United Artists). Also released in a set with fellow early Hitchcock films of the '20s through '40s, the MGM "Premiere Collection" DVD is a single-disc release. Retaining many but not all of the Criterion bonus features, it will certainly set you back less than a mint condition copy of the Criterion set will.

Available on both the Criterion and MGM DVDs are an isolated music & effects soundtrack, a trailer, some short audio Hitchcock interviews (by filmmakers Francois Truffaut and Peter Bogdanovich), a trio of hour-long radio broadcasts (one by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre, another pairing Olivier with then-wife Vivien Leigh). Both releases have an audio commentary, Criterion's by Rebecca historian Leonard J. Leff, MGM's by critic Richard Schickel (I listened to neither). The Criterion DVD supplies much more in the way of text extras, including vehemently disapproving correspondences from producer Selznick to Hitch, hilariously superficial casting notes on actresses aspiring to play the second Mrs. de Winter, and amusing test screening audience questionnaire responses. The MGM disc contains a couple of exclusive new featurettes, the half-hour "The Making of Rebecca" and 20-minute author profile "The Gothic World of Daphne du Maurier." The Criterion bonus disc has far more expansive galleries, than MGM's short, sweet collection. Exclusive to Criterion are 1986 phone interviews with Fontaine and Anderson. The Criterion set originally had a thick booklet of notes and essays, but this was missing from my library's copy. Criterion has some brief footage from the Oscar ceremony. Finally, both DVDs feature screen tests by a number of notable actresses including Vivien Leigh; Criterion holds quite a bit more of them. All things considered, most should be satisfied by the MGM disc and its new features are of worth, but there are many interesting Criterion inclusions that are missed. If you're looking to own this movie (and I plan on doing so one day), the MGM DVD will be cheaper and easier to find. Although I hope (and slightly suspect, catalog sales slowdown notwithstanding) a definitive multi-disc Rebecca collection is released someday.

Rebecca rating: 9 out of 10 - Buy from Amazon.com, Buy Complete Premiere Collection, Buy Criterion Collection DVD

Previous: Gone With the Wind / Next: How Green Was My Valley

Related Reviews:
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock: North by Northwest (50th Anniversary Edition)
1940: Pinocchio (Platinum Edition) Fantasia (The Fantasia Anthology with Fantasia 2000)

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Published May 23, 2010.



Text copyright 2010 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1940 United Artists and 2008 MGM/Fox Home Entertainment.