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Rebecca Blu-ray Review

Rebecca (1940) movie poster Rebecca

Theatrical Release: March 28, 1940 / Running Time: 131 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), Philip Winter (Robert), Forrester Harvey (Chalcroft)

Buy Rebecca from Amazon.com: Blu-ray • MGM DVD • Criterion Collection DVD (out of print)

After fifteen years of directing movies in his native England, Alfred Hitchcock made his American debut with 1940's Rebecca. And what a debut it was. Hitchcock had signed a seven-year contract with Hollywood power producer David O. Selznick, then riding high on Gone with the Wind, the landmark epic that set long-standing records at both the box office and the Oscars.
As Rebecca's leading man, Hitchcock cast fellow countryman Laurence Olivier, fresh on the heels of his acclaimed U.S. debut, Wuthering Heights, for which he had earned an Academy Award nomination. The film's story also invited interest, for it was an adaptation of the best-selling 1938 novel of the same name by English writer Daphne Du Maurier, whom Hitchcock had previously brought to the screen in Jamaica Inn.

Rebecca would win the Best Picture Academy Award and it holds up today as one of the best films of its time upon which that honor was bestowed. Watching the movie in 2012, it seems preposterous that this was not the first of many awards for Hitchcock, who is responsible for more of cinema's most highly-regarded works than any other filmmaker in history. Shockingly, as revered as thrillers like Rear Window, Vertigo, and Psycho now are, none of those was even nominated for Best Picture. In an unusual split, Hitchcock lost Best Director for Rebecca to The Grapes of Wrath's John Ford and he would lose four more times in that category before having to settle for the honorary Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1968.

In life, Hitchcock may not have gotten the accolades we see he so glaringly deserved. In death, though, he has achieved immortality. He is one of just a handful of directors whose name is known and celebrated practically the entire world over. People either like Hitchcock or they love him; even those who avoid old movies in favor of modern ones can't help but be swept up by the Hitchcock works they are exposed to, works that remain far more captivating than the vast majority of their contemporaries.

Rebecca is considered early Hitchcock, as most of his 29 prior British directing credits remain fairly obscure with the general public. At the moment, it ranks seventh among the director's works by the number of votes cast on IMDb and, as usual, that is indicative of its familiarity among film buffs. Above it stand six films released in the 1950s and early '60s, the peak of Hitch's popularity that also corresponded with his status as a celebrity TV personality. By votes, Rebecca is currently neck and neck with Strangers on a Train, Rope, and Dial M for Murder, movies whose titles and premises are famous, but which many must confess to not having seen. The average user rating also places Rebecca near the top of the Hitchcock canon, while presently ranking it 113th among the 269,175 narrative features indexed there.

You can find many more statistics like these testifying to Rebecca's reputation and cultural significance, but such details might not matter to you if the film did not offer an engaging experience. Fortunately, it does, in a most satisfying fashion. You may or may not care about the craft and techniques on display, the film's place in Hitchcock's filmography, or its influence on 1940s cinema, but when it comes down to it, Rebecca is simply a compelling mystery that thoroughly entertains you from start to finish.

Drenched from the rain, the de Winters (Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine) make their first entrance to Manderley as newlyweds. Longtime head housekeeper Mrs. "Danny" Danvers (Judith Anderson) doesn't exactly ooze warmth.

The film opens in Monte Carlo. A pretty, young working-class woman (Joan Fontaine) is checked in at the Princesse Hotel as the paid companion of the fussy Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates). They encounter the wealthy British widower Maxim de Winter (Olivier), who has not been himself since his wife died a year ago. Despite their class differences, Maxim becomes quite smitten with the recently orphaned doe-eyed naif and he pops a spontaneous proposal before she can accompany Mrs. Van Hopper to New York. With a freshly-inked marriage certificate in hand, the newlyweds return to Maxim's fabled country mansion Manderley.

The vast estate's substantial staff is mostly welcoming towards the bride, with one major exception. The reserved head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) is ice cold to her new mistress. The new Mrs. de Winter is rather overwhelmed by her new residence, as she is referred to activities and consulted on subjects of which she has no knowledge. Her husband is kind enough, except when his temper emerges and clues her in to his apparently dark secrets. The specter of Rebecca hangs over Manderley, her west wing maintained just as it was and never visited, its sea view a painful reminder of her mysterious death.

While believing she can never live up to the memories of her predecessor, an opinion plainly voiced by the conniving Mrs. Danvers, the second Mrs. de Winter starts accumulating facts about Rebecca's death and discovers it did not occur as the official record states. With newly-discovered evidence reopening the investigation, Rebecca's shady "favorite cousin" Jack Favell (George Sanders) casts doubt on Maxim's innocence.

Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) picked the wrong dress with which to surprise Maxim at the estate's costume ball. Smarmy Jack Favell (George Sanders), Rebecca's "favorite cousin", appears outside one of Manderley's windows.

Murder, mystery, and conspiracy are all right up Hitchcock's alley, but Rebecca's approach is different from the suspenseful thrillers for which he is best known. This seems to be cinema's quintessential Gothic melodrama. It isn't conventional horror and there is a bare minimum of action and adventure. Instead, the plot unfolds with dialogue, characters, and one of film's most striking settings. All these elements are as sharp and substantial as you'd like them to be, with many compelling layers to uncover and explore.

The central couple is more than just a study in contrast, a design that runs all the way down to their names; we never get a first name for Fontaine's heroine, while Maxim is revealed to have three: George Fortescu Maximilian. Their scenes together are interesting, with the thoughtful, delicate wife still managing to get the troubled husband to flip out on multiple occasions.
Mrs. Danvers is a fascinating otherworldly presence and perhaps the beginning of screen villains getting recognized in the Academy's supporting actor categories; Anderson, a stage actress who had appeared in just one film seven years earlier, was nominated, but lost to Grapes of Wrath's Ma Joad, Jane Darwell (later the bird woman of Mary Poppins).

The production design and cinematography are extraordinary, the latter the subject of the film's only other Oscar win. The spacious Manderley is practically a character onto itself and Hitchcock maximizes its impact with deft camera moves and big, meaningful mise-en-scθne. With all that goes right, it is easy to forgive a few early fake-looking rear projection shots and an unnatural, invented home movie viewing scene. Franz Waxman's score may seem intrusive by today's standards, jumping in to boldly punctuate every discovery and turn, but it obviously contributes hugely to the film's intoxicating atmosphere.

Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) does not provide her new mistress (Joan Fontaine) with a conventional sense of comfort. At last, Maxim (Laurence Olivier) shares his dark secret with Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine).

The script, credited to two uncollaborative pairs inexplicably but commonly divided between "screenplay" and "adaptation", departs from Du Maurier's novel in one dramatic way and, though it sounds dubious on paper, it works greatly to the film's advantage, fulfilling our hopes as the darker text must not.

A film as prestigious as this was a no-brainer for release in The Criterion Collection. Rebecca received that deluxe treatment on laserdisc in 1990 (with spine #98) and on DVD in 2001 (spine #135). Then it became one of the few Criterion titles to go out of print. Interestingly, the rights to Rebecca and most of Selznick International Pictures (Gone with the Wind excluded) belong to ABC (the Disney-owned television network), which purchased them in the 1960s after Selznick's death. The home video rights are licensed to MGM, though, who last week made Rebecca, Notorious, and Spellbound three of the few Hitchcock titles now available on Blu-ray Disc.

P.S.: How remarkable is it that Joan Fontaine and her sister, Gone with the Wind's Olivia de Havilland, are still alive today at ages 94 and 95, respectively?! Over the past decade or so, we've seen the number of surviving Golden Age actors dwindle. There are barely any movie stars from the 1950s still alive. And yet, here are these two sisters, stars of two of the best movies of the 1930s and '40s, approaching 100. I guess their estrangement has been working out for them. I wish that someone (and the Oscars seems like the most likely venue) could recognize these two Academy Award winners while they are still with us, although I guess a big happy reunion isn't going to happen.

Rebecca Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.37:1 Original Aspect Ratio
2.0 Mono DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Mono 2.0 (Isolated Music and Effects Track)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired
Not Closed Captioned; Extra Not Subtitled
Release Date: January 24, 2012
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $24.99
Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Still available on MGM Premiere Collection DVD ($14.98 SRP; October 14, 2008)
Previously released as Criterion Collection DVD (November 20, 2001)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Though no studio professes as much interest in restoration and remastering as Criterion, they would be hard-pressed to match the dazzling results of MGM's pristine Blu-ray.
Picture quality on the pillarboxed 1.37:1 Academy Ratio transfer is excellent, without us even having to consider that this is a 72-year-old movie. There is tremendous detail and clarity to this presentation, allowing you to marvel at the elegant black and white visuals like never before. On a few rare occasions, you can make out a faint digital line on screen and a couple of shots late in the movie break up with excessive grain. Otherwise, this is flawless, offering sights you wouldn't have thought possible for something of this age.

The soundtrack is presented in monaural 2.0 DTS-HD master audio. There isn't much to say about the mix, but it satisfies as well. It's interesting how even the film's dialogue isn't dated in any way, both technically and in the words uttered (well, "making violent love to you under a palm tree" doesn't mean what it used to, but for a film as full of talking, it has aged surprisingly gracefully). If you aren't as convinced by the aural clarity, you can make use of English SDH subtitles.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

MGM/Fox retains everything from their 2008 Premiere Collection DVD, which happily includes a lot of good bonus features, the videos of which are presented in standard definition.

The extras begin with an audio commentary by film critic Richard Schickel. He speaks about anyone with a connection to the film and dissects the characters. He's more critical than expected and though he has no shortage of information, the track has its fair share of dead air. Some nice notes emerge regarding subtext and departures from the novel, but most will do better with the making-of retrospective.

Next is something of a rare treat: an isolated music and effects soundtrack. It lets you appreciate Franz Waxman's score, the sparse sound design, and the visuals by Hitchcock and cinematographer George Barnes without being distracted by story and dialogue. Since the music greatly outweighs the sound effects and fills nearly the entire film, one could easily put this on and enjoy it like a regular score soundtrack.

Alfred Hitchcock's granddaughter Mary Stone is one of many subjects interviewed in "The Making of 'Rebecca.'" Heroines of cinema's Golden Age Gothic melodramas "Jane Eyre", "Dragonwyck", and "Rebecca" are compared in "The Gothic World of Daphne Du Maurier."

"The Making of Rebecca" (28:08) gives us a fascinating and highly informative account of the film's creation, putting it into context in the careers and tastes of the two foremost authors, Hitchcock and Selznick. Interviews with historians Rudy Behlmer and Drew Casper; Hitchcock authors Jack Sullivan, Lesley Brill, Leonard Leff, Paula Marantz Cohen, and Charlotte Chandler; director Peter Bogdanovich; actor Bruce Dern; and Hitchcock's granddaughter Mary Stone paint a vivid picture of production. They talk about the casting process, the de Havilland sister rivalry, and the director and producer power struggles, with some complementary excerpts from Bogdanovich's 1972 interview with the director.

"The Gothic World of Daphne Du Maurier" (19:02) considers the author of the novel that inspired Rebecca. Authors, historians, professors, and assorted other authorities discuss her writing, her life, and friendships, sharing what they think and what they know. The focus remains largely on the story, adaptation and Gothic genre of Rebecca. It's an interesting piece on a deserving subject.

Margaret Sullavan auditions for "Rebecca", having played the part in Orson Welles' radio play. The second screen test features Vivien Leigh, Oscar-bound for "Gone with the Wind", alongside future husband Laurence Olivier.

Two screen tests are preserved. The first (4:00) offers a close-up of Margaret Sullivan auditioning for the role of the second Mrs. de Winter. The second (5:07) finds Laurence Olivier performing across from his mistress and soon-to-be second wife, Vivien Leigh. Though she was Olivier's first choice and soon to win the Oscar for her dream role of Scarlett O'Hara, Leigh doesn't at all feel right for the part as written.

Three radio plays of Rebecca from around the time of Hitchcock's film are provided. The 1938 Campbell Playhouse Radio Production (59:35) was faithfully adapted from the novel by Orson Welles and John Houseman. It stars Welles, Margaret Sullavan, Mildred Natwick, and Agnes Moorhead, features music by Bernard Herrmann, and includes a rare interview with Daphne Du Maurier. The 1941 Lux Radio Theatre Broadcast (58:31) is closely adapted from the film by writer George Wells, director Sanford Barnett, and presenter Cecil B. DeMille. It stars Ronald Colman, Ida Lupino, and, reprising the Mrs. Danvers role, Judith Anderson. Similarly adapted from the film, Lux Radio's Earl Ebi-directed 1950 version (1:00:22) finds Laurence Olivier reprising the role of Maxim, this time getting his then-wife Vivien Leigh to play his wife. Betty Blythe is Mrs. Danvers.

Unimaginatively, save for brief credits cards, the screen is blank while these play. Listening to them is not terribly different from running the movie without your television on, only condensed and with vintage commercials for Campbell's Soup, Gone with the Wind brooches, and celebrity-endorsed Lux soap flakes, as well as phony actor promotion intact. While the sensibilities are distant, there is absolute historical value to these programs.

Relevant audio excerpts of two interviews with Alfred Hitchcock are provided. Peter Bogdanovich (4:20) talks with the director about the tracking shots, romantic nature, and stars of Rebecca. Then, Hitch talks to legendary French director Franηois Truffaut (9:15) via interpreter (whose French translations are edited out) about casting the film and its style. Again, there is no visual element to accompany the audio.

These short-lived credits are the only visual supplied at the top of each vintage one-hour "Rebecca" radio play broadcast. Daphne Du Maurier's best-selling novel is emphasized in the "Rebecca" 1949 rerelease trailer.

Finally, we get a good theatrical trailer (2:22) for the film's 1949 rerelease, which highlights direct quotations from the book and calls it "the most glamorous motion picture ever made."

A number of supplements from the Criterion DVD still do not surface here. They are: a different historian's audio commentary (Leonard J. Leff, a featurette interview subject here);
text extras, including vehemently disapproving correspondences from producer Selznick to Hitchcock, hilariously superficial casting notes on actresses aspiring to play the second Mrs. de Winter, and amusing test screening audience questionnaire responses; and 1986 phone interviews with Fontaine and Anderson. The Criterion set also held Oscar ceremony footage, additional screen tests, and a thick booklet of notes and essays.

MGM's Blu-ray goes without an insert, a slipcover, and even a menu. The movie starts playing automatically. When it's done, it shows some disclaimer screens and then it repeats playback. Disappointingly, the disc won't resume from where you left off and it won't support bookmarks. Not sure how the studio could forget that it regularly offers those features. The best you'll find are pop-up buttons appearing over playback, which annoyingly employ the studio's usual one listing per screen design.

Maxim (Laurence Olivier) and Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) hold each other in the explosive finale of "Rebecca."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

It's tough to find any faults in Rebecca. Maybe it's not as thrilling as Hitchcock's later works, but nonetheless it's just as rich and riveting as anything he or anyone else has made. MGM's Blu-ray is near perfection as well, boasting splendid picture, good sound, and an outstanding collection of bonus features. A few extras may be missed from Criterion's DVD, but the much more reasonable list price makes up for that. This disc is easy to recommend for anyone who's fond of film.

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Related Reviews:
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock: The Lady Vanishes (Criterion Blu-ray) • North by Northwest (50th Anniversary Edition)
Best Picture Oscar Winners: Wings • Annie Hall • The Godfather • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest • The King's Speech
1940s on Blu-ray: It's a Wonderful Life • Beauty and the Beast • Fantasia • Dumbo • Bambi
George Sanders: The Jungle Book • In Search of the Castaways | Judith Anderson: The Ten Commandments • Salome
Black & White: Island of Lost Souls • Stagecoach • Night Train to Munich • To Kill a Mockingbird

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Reviewed February 3, 2012.



Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1940 Selznick International Pictures and 2012 ABC, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.
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