Alfred Hitchcock essentially spent the 1930s having his star rise in his native England, quickly becoming the most lauded director in the British film industry. In 1939 American producer David O. Selznick signed Hitchcock to a seven-year contract, bringing Britain’s famed director to American shores—where he would spend the rest of his career—becoming “The Master of Suspense” and the most celebrated film director to have ever lived. Hitchcock’s first assignment for Selznick was an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel “Rebecca.”
Rebecca” stands as a hallmark of Hitchcock’s career for several reasons, outside of it being what brought him to Hollywood. Rebecca was a massive success upon release, earning several Academy Award nominations and taking home the Oscars for Best Cinematography and Best Picture–the only film in Hitchcock’s filmography to do so. Joan Fontaine stars as a young woman, never given a name, who falls madly in love after a chance encounter with Maxim de Winter—an English gentleman from a long family line with a bank account just as long.
Quickly after their honeymoon, Maxim takes the new Mrs. de Winter home to his family’s sprawling mansion Manderley. The new Mrs. de Winter is the second Mrs. de Winter. Maxim was married once before, to Rebecca, his first wife who died in a boating accident. What the second Mrs. de Winter finds upon entering Manderley is that Rebecca’s memory very much haunts the place. Everywhere she looks she finds traces of Rebecca, her monogrammed personal effects, and the housekeeper of Manderley, Mrs. Danvers, a cold and stoic woman who was and is obsessively devoted to Rebecca. Constantly reminding the new Mrs. de Winter that she could never match up to what Rebecca was.
Manderley is a house that is haunted, not by a ghost but by a memory. The second Mrs. de Winter is in a psychological mind game with Danvers—who expresses nothing but resentment towards her. Danvers obsessions with Rebecca shows a theme that appears in many of Hitchcock’s work, but Hitchcock was reigned in a bit during production by Selznick, who wanted a screen version as book faithful as anything that had ever been produced. “Rebecca” is very much a Hitchcock film, but it’s not quite as “Hitchcockian” as his later work. Still, it’s an incredible film and shows what would later come as the director gained more creative control over his work.
The Criterion Collection has released “Rebecca” as two disc collection on blu-ray, it’s not the first time the film has been available on the format, but it is without question the finest edition of the film produced to date. The 1080p image was made in 16-bit 4K resolution from the original 35mm nitrate camera negative. Simply put, the results are stunning. I have never seen “Rebecca” look this good, and rarely have I seen a film of this vintage took this stunning in HD. Criterion has created a transfer that is a knockout!
Criterion has also knocked it out in terms of bonus material. A few examples are: An audio commentary from scholar Leonard J. Left, recorded for Criterion’s original 1990 Laserdisc edition of the film, an isolated music and effects track, correspondence between Hitchcock and producer Selznick, a conversation between film critic Molly Haskell and scholar Patrica White on the film, making of documentaries, radio adaptations and many more.
The highlight of the bonus material, for me anyway, is an entire episode of Tom Snyder’s NBC series “Tomorrow” from 1973, in which Alfred Hitchcock appeared as a guest. I had seen the conversational interview before years ago when it was floating around YouTube in rough shape, but to have the whole interview included here from a studio master copy is a real highlight. It’s a wonderful interview, right up there with Hitchcock’s memorable appearance on “The Dick Caveat Show” from around the same time.
As great as Criterion is with their regular releases, what they have done with “Rebecca” is create, without question, the definitive home video release of the film. “Rebecca” has never looked as good as it has here, perhaps only being topped by an original nitrate release print that would have been screened in 1940. This is a must own for Hitchcock fans, and comes highly, HIGHLY recommended by yours truly. A breathing release of a landmark film from The Master of Suspense’s career. See you next week.