WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
A young woman (Joan Fontaine) who’s working as a paid companion for an elderly socialite meets and falls in love with the dark, brooding aristocrat Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) - who’s vacationing in Monte Carlo as a way to escape the grief of his late wife, Rebecca’s death. When de Winter surprises her with a marriage proposal, she accepts, and is whisked away to the sprawling de Winter estate, Manderlay. There, she’s greeted by Manderlay’s head housekeeper, Ms. Danvers (Judith Anderson)- who was obsessed with Rebecca, and resents the intrusion of a new Mrs. De Winter. At the same time, Maxim seems to be growing more and more distant, a fact made worse when Rebecca’s body is unearthed from a watery grave, proving her demise may have been anything but accidental.
IS IT A GOOD MOVIE?
Ah REBECCA, like a fine wine, you only get better with age. Alfred Hitchcock is without a doubt one of my all-time favorite directors, and I’ve spent my life watching and re-watching his movies. REBECCA is an interesting addition to his canon, as it was his first American film, done after his British period, which saw the release of such early classics as THE 39 STEPS, THE LADY VANISHES, and more. REBECCA seems like a curious choice for Hitch, as it’s decidedly not a thriller. Rather, it’s a gothic romance in the vein of JANE EYRE. It was a studio assignment from producer David O’Selznick, who was in the process of making GONE WITH THE WIND, when he signed Hitch to a contract. The two started butting heads immediately, with Hitch’s very European style clashing with Selznick’s more crass, commercial instincts. Luckily, Hitch was experienced enough to shoot the film in a way that would have made it impossible to change in post-production, where Selznick had a reputation for tinkering, and it stands as a Hitchcock film through and through- if an atypical one.
Watching REBECCA, I find it curious that Hitch never returned to the gothic romance genre, and he really did a beautiful job telling a story that which lush, and romantic, also integrates romance and a fair bit of humor into the proceedings. It’s an eminently classy, tasteful film- superbly acted by the two leads, Ollvier and Fontaine- who, rumor had it, despised each other off-screen (the extras make it clear that Olivier wanted his wife Vivian Leigh to co-star, but having just launched her with GONE WITH THE WIND, Selznick was looking for a fresh face). Nevertheless, you’d never know it- with Olivier’s worldly, slightly older Maxim whisking Fontaine’s comely (and unnamed) protagonist off her feet early in the film. He’s kind of the perfect, Byronic hero here, with his cold, aloof manner masking a dark secret which only comes to be known later in the film. Based on Daphne DuMaurier’s novel, REBECCA owes more than a little to JANE EYRE (indeed, Fontaine played that role four years later opposite Orson Welles) but REBECCA is a more modern, romantic story- less concerned with punishing characters than allowing them to escape the darkness in their past. Anyone familiar with Hitch’s work, but who hasn’t heard of this entry into his canon, shouldn’t expect a particularly dark or violent climax, as this is a melodrama- not a thriller. The only real villain here is Ms. Danvers, but she’s more someone to be pitied rather than feared- although her last scene in the film is an iconic Hitchcock set-piece.
REBECCA is loaded with some thoughtful, interesting bonus features, starting with an in-depth commentary by critic/ historian Richard Schickel, who’s a pro at delivering commentaries on vintage films such as this. Next up are some screen tests for the title role, which are really interesting, particularly the tests between Vivian Leigh, and husband Olivier. There’s also two audio interviews with Hitch, conducted by Peter Bogdonovich, and an excerpt from the definitive Hitchcock interview Hitchcock/Truffaut, conducted by Francois Truffaut. The old radio play version of REBECCA is also on-hand, which was a common way to adapt feature films to radio in the days before TV, and films being broadcast. There’s an isolated sounds effects and score track , and an interesting featurette about Daphne Du Maurier, to whom Hitchcock returned with THE BIRDS years later. Finally, and most interesting of them all, The Making of Rebecca about the problems Hitch had behind the scenes with O’Selznick, although I wish the old Hitchcock/ Selznick American Masters Documentary was included too.
A gentler tale than many of his later films, REBECCA is still a masterpiece in a filmography full of masterpieces. What’s crazy is that REBECCA, which comes pretty close to being a masterpiece (it actually won the Oscar for best picture in 1940), still isn’t even one of Hitchcock’s best pictures- with it maybe not even scoring in his top 5! Or maybe even his top 10! Just goes to show you what a truly amazing filmography the man had, and one that can’t be touched by anyone working today.