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Rebecca: The Criterion Collection

By the late 1930s, Alfred Hitchcock was not only the most successful filmmaker in Britain, with such popular hits as The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes to his credit, but he also had earned the reputation in Hollywood as the most talented of all foreign directors. As such, it was inevitable that Tinseltown came calling. Most major studios and producers had made overtures — clear or implied — to Hitch in the years leading up to 1939, but in the end Hitch decided to sign a contract with high-powered producer David O. Selznick (Gone With The Wind), and for a simple reason: Selznick had a lot of clout. The fact was that, while Hitch never really was fascinated with Hollywood, he had little fondness for the British film industry, with its small studios and limited production budgets, and even less regard for the elitist British press, which did not consider the cinema an art form to be taken seriously. Selznick offered Hitch a modern studio and deep pockets, in addition to high-profile projects. Believe it or not, the very first project Selznick had in mind for his new British talent was to be a Titanic movie, but eventually Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca was chosen — a film that would go on to win an Oscar for Best Picture and get Hitchcock his first Best Director nomination. Du Maurier's moody, gothic novel Rebecca has often been compared to the works of Charlotte Bronte, in particular for its investigation of feminine identity. Joan Fontaine stars in the 1940 film adaptation as the heroine (a character who never is explicitly named), a meek young girl who earns her living as a "paid companion" to a boorish American socialite (Florence Bates). But on a trip to Monte Carlo she unexpectedly crosses paths with the mysterious, abrupt Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), a widower with a shady past. A whirlwind romance has the pair married in short order, after which they return to Maxim's English estate, Manderley — a house that seems to have as much personality, and as many secrets, as the characters themselves. Maxim's bride is aware that the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca, died in a tragic boating accident, but what she can't be prepared for is Manderley's head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), a servant who joined the staff when Rebecca married Maxim, and who has become the intractable caretaker of Rebecca's memory. The conflict between the new Mrs. de Winter and Mrs. Danvers simmers nearly to the boiling point, until a shipwreck reveals hidden secrets about Rebecca's death — and the secrets Maxim has been hiding all along.

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Despite Rebecca's success at the Academy Awards, it was a film Hitchcock tended to downplay in interviews. "It's not really a Hitchcock picture," the director told François Truffaut many years later. "The story is old-fashioned; there was a whole school of feminine literature at the period, and though I'm not against it, the fact is that the story is lacking in humor." It's true that strains of dark comedy inform Hitch's most popular films, but Rebecca holds a greater place in the director's oeuvre than he was willing to suggest. In part, the picture is a perfect transition piece for Hitch, forming a bridge between his British and American careers with American production qualities but a predominantly English cast. Additionally, while most of the typically Hitchcockian humor is confined to the first third of the film and the bourgeoisie-American Mrs. Van Hopper, the remainder concerns one of Hitch's favorite themes — the idea of how the dead can influence the living, often with chaotic or tragic results. Such ideas are not to be found in Hitch's British films, which tended to be lively adventures, but after Rebecca he would go on to make Spellbound, Vertigo, Psycho, and Marnie, all of which contain variations on Rebecca's ghostly motifs. A showcase for Laurence Olivier's austere acting style, the film also proved to be Joan Fontaine's breakout hit, and both earned Oscar nominations. However, the most unforgettable character is the foreboding Mrs. Danvers, and Judith Anderson's trance-like performance has since been embedded in Hitchcockian lore (helped in part by Hitch's decision to shoot her mostly in stasis — she rarely is seen entering or leaving a room and seems to glide on air when she walks). And Rebecca's fans may have included none other than Orson Welles, who played Maxim de Winter on radio in 1938. In a matter of months the young director was shooting his first film, Citizen Kane, which also concerns an investigation of the dead, a desolate old mansion, and how one's deepest secrets can be concealed — or cleansed — by fire. Criterion's two-disc DVD release of Rebecca replaces the previous Anchor Bay disc, and with several improvements. Anchor Bay's disc is a bare-bones affair, but far from worthless, as the source-print is pleasant and the audio is clear in monaural DD 2.0. However, Criterion's transfer offers a new digital restoration, and some of the collateral wear found on Anchor Bay's disc (particularly around reel-changes) has been cleaned up, while audio is placed firmly in the center-channel as DD 1.0 — this version probably looks and sounds as good as the original film on opening night. The wide array of supplements includes a commentary by Hitchcock/Selznick scholar Leonard J. Leff (recorded for the 1990 Laserdisc) as well as an isolated music and effects track on Disc One, while Disc Two features a vast array of notes and still photos on the production process; three complete radio broadcasts featuring Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater, Ronald Coleman and Ida Lupino, and Olivier and Vivian Leigh; original screen-tests with actresses Fontaine, Vivian Leigh, Anne Baxter, Loretta Young, and Margaret Sullavan; costume tests with Fontaine; correspondence between Hitch, Selznick, and the Hays Office; additional memos from Selznick; a look at the creation of Rebecca's distinctive handwriting; the script for a deleted scene; an audio excerpt from Hitchcock's Truffaut interviews; audio interviews with Fontaine and Judith Anderson; the re-issue trailer; publicity materials; and footage from the 1940 Academy Awards (Hitch mercilessly upstages Fontaine for the camera). An enclosed 22-page booklet features liner notes by Hitchcock scholar Robin Wood. Dual-DVD keep-case.
—Robert Wederquist

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