I’m not sure which of Alfred Hitchcock’s films is his best, but I have no problem choosing which is the most beautiful. That would be Rebecca, a 1940 release combining British elegance with the kind of production values American money can buy. Rebecca may also be Hitchcock’s most twisted film, and that’s saying something for a man who also directed Vertigo, Marnie, and Frenzy.
Rebecca is based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier and, thanks to the insistence of producer David O. Selznick, the plot of the film sticks pretty close to the novel’s. At one level, Rebecca is a modern gothic romance about an orphaned young woman (a nameless character played by Joan Fontaine) rescued from her dreary existence as a paid companion to the wealthy Edythe Van Hopper (played with great gusto and wit by Florence Bates) and swept off to a beautiful castle called Manderley by a handsome young prince named Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). The castle is haunted by a wicked stepmother named Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) who tries to drive the happy couple apart, but thanks to the young woman’s purity and goodness of heart, both she and Maxim survive while the wicked stepmother goes down, literally, in flames.
Rebecca can also be viewed as a psychological fable about an innocent young woman spirited away from the ordinary, daylight world into a dark universe of shadows, where evil lurks at every turn and the smiling faces often hide wicked intentions. This world is haunted by a phantom named Rebecca who is never seen but whose name is constantly on everyone’s lips and whose presence is felt everywhere. Our heroine must learn to navigate this nether world, and she makes some nearly fatal blunders in the beginning, but like any true hero on a journey she persists and returns to the normal world a changed but better person, having shed her childhood innocence and assumed the mantle of a mature woman who can face life. While most of us would prefer to live in the daylight world, we’re also fascinated by the world of shadows, and it takes a masterful director like Hitchcock to take us there and back.
When I first watched Rebecca many years ago, I couldn’t get over my dislike of the female lead. She seemed to me the worst stereotype of a passive woman who is willing to absorb practically any abuse anyone choses to deliver to her, because she doesn’t think she deserves anything better, and whose helpless suffering is positively painful to watch. With the wisdom accumulated through several decades of barking my own shins on the rough corners of the world, however, I’ve come to realize that Fontaine’s character is the sanest person in the film.
Maxim, by contrast, is a grown man who wants a child for a wife because he tried living with a grown-up woman once and failed miserably. Mrs. Danvers, the head of the servants, is thoroughly obsessed with her former mistress (the scene in which she shows Rebecca’s underwear drawer to our young heroine bristles with suppressed desire) and absolutely ruthless in her efforts to eliminate the usurper and maintain Rebecca’s ghostly hold over Manderley. Other characters may be thoughtless, like Maxim’s sister (Gladys Cooper) and brother-in-law (Nigel Bruce), rude like Mrs. Van Hopper, or bad in thoroughly conventional ways, like Jack Favell (George Saunders), but no one has ever portrayed pure, unadulterated evil more deliciously than Judith Anderson does as Mrs. Danvers.
Rebecca is a visual masterpiece, thanks to George Barnes’ cinematography, which was rightly awarded an Oscar in 1941 (the film’s only other win was Best Film, although it received an additional nine nominations). A great deal of visual trickery went into creating this film, which was shot in California yet perfectly suggests both Monte Carlo and the English countryside. The exterior views of Manderley, for example, were created through miniatures and matte shots, but you’d never guess you weren’t seeing a real English country estate.
There are also so many great little moments throughout the film that exemplify Hitchcock’s refusal to shoot anything in the obvious, conventional way. When we first enter Manderley, for example, all the servants are lined up as if for inspection, except for their boss, Mrs. Danvers. Then, suddenly, she is in the shot, as if she drifted in, ghostlike, while the camera was turned away, or, like Jack Nicholson in
The Shining — she is always there, whether we see her or not.
The Criterion release of Rebecca, available as a two-disc set on Blu-Ray or DVD, presents a digital 4K resolution transfer accompanied by a remastered soundtrack. The first disc includes a commentary track by film scholar Leonard J. Leff, a 2017 conversation between film scholars Molly Haskell and Patricia White (24 min.), a “making of” featurette (28 min.), and the theatrical release trailer. The second disc includes a discussion of Rebecca by visual effects expert Craig Barron (17 min.), a French television documentary about Daphne du Maurier (55 min.), materials (including casting portraits and screen, costume, and lighting and makeup tests) from the casting process, audio interviews with Joan Fontaine (20 min.) and Judith Anderson (11 min.), a 1980 television appearance by Joan Fontaine (17 min.), a 1973 television interview with Alfred Hitchcock (44 min.), and three radio versions of Rebecca. Also included is an illustrated booklet including an essay by film scholar David Thomson and a selection of correspondence related to the production of Rebecca.