Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense and one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of all time, came to America in the late ‘30s following a string of hits in his native England. The director was leaving Europe before the outbreak of World War II and the opportunity to use all sorts of new and advancing cinematic technology enticed the technical master of cinema. His first American feature would team the larger than life director with another immense figure in cinematic history, the brash and bombastic producer David O. Selznick, who was just coming off one of the biggest movies in history with Gone with the Wind, which netted the producer immense profits and a Best Picture Academy Award.
The two would be collaborating on Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca, a project that Hitchcock had interest in adapting while still in England. The resulting film was an instant classic, acclaimed upon its release and taking home the Oscar for best picture; Rebecca would mark the only time that a film by Alfred Hitchcock would take home the top Oscar, though he would lose out on the Oscar for directing to John Ford and his work on The Grapes of Wrath. (He would never win an Oscar for directing.) Now Hitchcock’s astounding American debut finds itself on Blu-ray with a stunning new edition from the vanguards of cinema, The Criterion Collection. Once again, Criterion has issued a classic film on Blu-ray with a gorgeous transfer that preserves the majestic black and white photography and an array of special features that dive into the film’s place in history, its technical achievements, and the contentious relationship between its producer and its director.
In a lot of ways, Rebecca isn’t the prototypical Hitchcock picture, something the director himself would echo in his famed conversation with François Truffaut in Hitchcock/Truffaut. Rebecca is a ghost story without a ghost, a murder mystery without an explicit act of murder. Instead of crafting a tale of escalating suspense as he would become famous for, Rebecca sees Hitchcock working in the realm of a psychological picture, a melodrama of escalating intrigue.
Joan Fontaine stars as “I,” a character that is never named throughout the 130 minutes of Rebecca. Fontaine’s young woman is a paid companion to Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates). The two are in Monte Carlo and the unnamed woman encounters a distressed Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) as he looks down upon the cliffs contemplating suicide. It’s not long before “I” and Maxim find themselves in a whirlwind romance, the two quickly marrying and the newlywed couple returning to Maxim’s massive estate Manderlay. Within the massive home, “I” encounters the ghost of Rebecca, Maxim’s late wife whose shadow looms over every corner. The new Mrs. de Winter finds herself creeped out by the housekeeper Ms. Danvers (Judith Anderson), whose presents a stern and cold demeanor towards the young woman who, in her mind, pales in comparison to the late Rebecca. The ongoing narrative around Manderlay is that Rebecca was a ravishing beauty and the love between her and Maxim was one for the ages, though it is soon revealed that Maxim didn’t care for his wife who was carrying out an affair with her cousin Jack Favel (George Sanders). Maxim confesses to his bride that he accidentally killed Rebecca after an argument where she revealed that she was pregnant with Jack’s child, and he set her body on a boat and sunk it in the shores off Manderlay.
When the body containing Rebecca’s body crashes on the shore, Maxim must craft a story where he claims to have misidentified the body of his deceased wife. An inquest is opened to find out just what happened, and Jack Favel seems sure that Maxim will go down for the murder of Rebecca except it’s revealed that she had cancer and her death is deemed a suicide. As Maxim and his wife drive back to Manderlay, they see the expansive estate set ablaze. Ms. Danvers stands within the flames of the decaying wreck and the camera zooms in on the embroidered R on a pillow as it’s engulfed in flames and the film ends. Before this most recent revisiting of Rebecca, I never realized what many have suspected in that the conclusion of Hitchcock’s first American picture may have given Orson Welles the inspiration for the Rosebud ending of Citizen Kane, each concluding with the camera zooming into flames incinerating the past.
The contentious relationship between David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock is well-documented in the Criterion edition of Rebecca. Following an essay by David Thomson, the liner notes also contain some of their correspondence where the two debate the extent to which they should be faithful to the novel. This relationship is further documented in a documentary about the making of the film that is one of many excellent special features on this edition of Rebecca. A conversation between Molly Haskel and Patricia White shed even more light on the Hitchcock and O. Selznick feud as does the audio commentary by Leonard J. Leff, but they also shed more light on Rebecca’s place in film history and how it marked the arrival of an iconic filmmaker into the Hollywood system.
Other special features that Criterion has rounded up for Rebecca include screen tests of various famed actresses for the role of “I,” including Viven Leigh, Anne Baxter, Loretta Young, and Margaret Sullavan. There’s also an isolated audio track just containing the film’s score and sound effects, something that’s always illuminating with Hitchcock because it helps viewers understand just how much of the story is conveyed purely though images – many of Hitchcock’s films could work perfectly as silent. Three radio version of Rebecca are also on the Blu-ray, including one by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater. There are also a number of audio and video interviews with the cast and crew, including Joan Fontaine, but the stand out one is an interview with Hitchcock and Tom Snyder from 1973. All in all, the Criterion edition of Rebecca contains even more special features than normally expected from the premiere guardians of cinema history on home video.
Alfred Hitchcock is one of the biggest names in the history of cinema and it took many years for the master of suspense to be hailed as a master. During his heyday in Hollywood, Hitchcock was often written off as nothing more than a commercial filmmaker, a showman, and not the impeccable visual storyteller he’s hail as today. But for a brief period in 1940, Alfred Hitchcock had that acclaim but he had to share it with a man whom he had a difficult working relationship in David O. Selznick. The two did work together three more times after Rebecca – on Spellbound, The Paradine Case, and Under Capricorn – but they never recaptured the magic that is Rebecca. That mysterious unseen woman didn’t just haunt Manderlay, but also haunted the collaboration between two Hollywood icons that struggled to get along.