Monday, October 17, 2011

Rebecca (1940): Not your average haunted house movie...

Rebecca is a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, based upon the novel by Daphne du Maurier. The plot of the film concerns a decidedly average woman (Joan Fontaine), who falls in love with troubled millionaire and widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). After a fleeting yet wondrous several weeks in Monte Carlo, the two marry. He brings his new bride back to his estate, a place called "Manderley", where she discovers that the last Mrs. de Winter (the Rebecca of the title) never lost her influence on the house, even after death...

This "haunted house" aspect of the story is brilliantly handled, and not even vaguely supernatural: no floating apparitions or disembodied voices to be witnessed. Everything we know and experience about Rebecca is either told to us by the characters, or shown by the way she lived within the house. The sets and miniature exteriors of Manderley are well-designed, and it was not until delving into the special features on the Criterion two-disc edition of the film (more on that later) that I discovered no actual house had been used for the production. The score by Franz Waxman is beautiful and creepy, and the sound design is as effective in its absence as it is when present. The leading actors (Fontaine and Olivier) are quite good, but the show is absolutely stolen by the unforgettable Judith Anderson as the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. This performance is, in my opinion, what elevates the film to greatness. It is through her that we feel the most direct connection to Rebecca, and she can make even the most civil conversation seem more unsettling than an upfront death threat. Also in the cast is the always great George Sanders (love that guy!) as Rebecca's cousin Jack.

I highly recommend this film to everyone. It's got a chilling atmosphere, in addition to great performances, black-&-white cinematography, and music.

The best home video edition of the film has got to be the Criterion two-disc release, which contains a ton of great special features, including:

- Rare screen tests featuring multiple actresses considered for the role of the second Mrs. de Winter
- Interviews with Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson, and Alfred Hitchcock.
- Vintage footage from the 1940 Academy Awards ceremony
- 3 different radio adaptations of Rebecca
- Some fantastic archive materials including notes by the filmmakers, behind the scenes photos chronicling the production, and more
- Profiles on the bevy of actresses considered for the lead role, with text commentary by Alfred Hitchcock
- An essay on Rebecca author Daphne de Maurier
- Correspondence between Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick, chronicling the behind the scenes clashes between the two during production
- A wonderful 22-page booklet
- ...and much more

Yeah, there's a lot of special features here, and let me tell you, they are a joy to go through.
Disc 1

Disc 2

Sadly, this edition is out of print, and fetching collector's prices online. However, if you poke around a bit, good deals can be found. If you are just interesting in the movie, the film has been rereleased by MGM in an edition with most of the extras sadly absent.

Regardless of what home video release of the film you pick, this is definitely a movie worth seeking out, and its creepy atmosphere and memorable performance by Judith Anderson make it a fun film to pop in around this time of year.

2 comments:

  1. While Maxim and his bride are walking back to the mansion after she recovers the runaway dog Jaspar, ans after she had visited the cottage, and encountered the mentally ill man, they stop on the path and Maxim hugs her and touches her the same way he would touch and pet a dog.
    That is the one scene I hated.
    Was this in the script or is this how Laurence Olivier considered Joan Fontaine?
    Yes Vivien Leigh was very pretty but so was Joan Fontaine.
    That one supposedly tender love scene really messed up the love story for me.

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  2. If anyone doesn't believe me let them watch the movie and pay close attention to that one scene on that beaten path way from the cottage back to the mansion.
    Alfred Hitchcock directed this movie, and it's hard to believe that he didn't catch that or that was his direction.
    Oh well nobody's perfect.

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