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Rebecca (1940)

“Last night I dream of Manderlay again…” The first words spoken in Alfred Hitchcock’s American debut conjure up a dreamworld that could only exist in the imagination, and yet it’s meant to exist. With such a dreamy, fairy tale world placed in front of audiences, it’s surprising to realize this is a Hitchcock movie at all. (I believe it’s author Peter Ackroyd who says Rebecca is the most un-Hitchcockian of the director’s features.) Daphne du Maurier’s story of obsession and unrequited romance leaves audiences swooning in spite of how often horrible people do horrible things to others. Newly released on DVD and Blu-Ray via Criterion, Rebecca comes home to Manderlay – and your home – in the most beautiful means imaginable.

A young companion (Joan Fontaine) to a wealthy woman meets and falls in love with the gruff Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). The two fall into a whirlwind romance and are soon married, with the unnamed woman referred to as “the second Mrs. de Winter.” Why is she the second? Because Maxim’s first wife, the utterly beautiful Rebecca, has died and left quite the void in the de Winter home of Manderlay. As the second Mrs. de Winter tries to acclimate to her new surroundings, the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) seems determined for the new bride to fail.

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Rebecca is a story of the complications in a marriage that are spoken and unspoken, the public and private faces of matrimony. The second Mrs. de Winter and Maxim have an idyllic time falling in love and traveling. They’re so wrapped up in each other that they nearly forget their marriage license, a portent of the struggles that threaten to tear their union apart as well as a desire to escape the legalities of being tied “till death do us part.” Despite being played wonderfully by Laurence Olivier, his Maxim is no Heathcliffe and once the couple gets to Manderlay it seems as if the second Mrs. de Winter can’t do anything to please her new husband. The title of the film is Rebecca but the entire film rests on the steady shoulders of Joan Fontaine, appearing in her first of two movies under the eye of Alfred Hitchcock. As the idealistic second Mrs. de Winter she has the wide eyes and shy smile Fontaine would cultivate in several films. She looks like springtime and makes it impossible for others not to like her, and yet her anxiety is her undoing. Nearly everything is presented as a test for the new bride. Even the nature of picking a sauce for dinner feels like there’s a right and wrong answer. Maxim’s new wife is so eager to please, and aware of how her lowly background as a paid companion makes her look to the people in her husband’s social circle, that by the time she comes down in a costume reminiscent of Rebecca it’s a punch to her heart.

So much of Rebecca thrives on how people present themselves in a marriage. The second Mrs. de Winter wants to make a good first impression on everyone, while Maxim wants his new marriage to work, and hopefully undo the gossip left in his first wife’s wake. Robert E. Sherwood’s deft script creates a world of eggshells, where everyone is walking on them as delicately as they can, saying as much wordlessly as they do verbally. Though Rebecca, the unseen first mistress of Manderlay, is never shown, she is felt in every frame. George Barnes’ cinematography expertly pairs with Howard Bristol and Joseph B. Platt’s interiors, making a beautifully cold house where the new bride feels like an outcast. She is dwarfed by massive paintings, looming doors, and the willowy letter “R” emblazoned on everything, all acting as a reminder that she’ll never fit in.

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With an unseen entity already pushing the new bride to the brink one wouldn’t think you’d need a physical push as well but that comes courtesy of Judith Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers. Anderson silently creeps into every room, using her cold affect to unhing the new Mrs. de Winter. Much has been said about the film’s presentation of the relationship between Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca, pointedly showcased in how Anderson delicately handles Rebecca’s lingerie. Anderson illustrates Mrs. Danvers’ blind adoration of Rebecca so completely that it overshadows the smarmy Jack Favell, Rebecca’s “cousin”/lover played by master of smug, George Sanders. Sanders’ Jack never gets beyond infatuation with Rebecca. He believes he’s in her confidence but that’s all dominated by Mrs. Danvers. The third act involves Maxim being a suspect in Rebecca’s murder, leaving all Rebecca’s lovers to point the finger at each other.

The new Criterion has a perfectly sharp and clear 4K transfer that’s breathtaking on any screen. There’s a fascinating full-length commentary from 1990 with film historian Leonard J. Leff as well as several new interviews and conversations about the film. The disc also includes makeup and costume tests that are lovely and show how the looks were tailored to specific characters.

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Fans of Hitchcock, costume dramas or literary adaptations will definitely want to pick up Rebecca. The two-disc Blu-ray contains a wealth of bonus content not included in the previous Blu release.

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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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