The genesis of Rebecca, the contest of wills between producer extraordinaire David O. Selznick and master director Alfred Hitchcock, is as well-documented as any other production account in movie history. The short version can be inferred from circumstances: Selznick’s time was almost completely taken up by his preparation for the premiere of Gone with the Wind (though it was in the can by November 1939, Rebecca was released not long after Gone with the Wind took an unprecedented eight Academy Awards), but he was, to put it mildly, still a man who liked to be in control of things. Hitchcock was fresh off the boat, but, at the same time, he was anything but. Nearly 20 years in pictures by that point and no fool, Hitchcock also liked to be in charge, and he knew how to man the helm of a project, even better than Selznick knew how to build the ship. While the producer was legendary for his ability to construct environments of incredible richness and detail, to furnish his cast with costumes of the finest cut and cloth, and to marshal an army of technicians and artisans, composers, and cinematographers, Hitchcock knew what he was doing too. He famously cut the movie in-camera, planning wide shots, mediums, and close-ups that were only exactly what he needed, and resorted to on-the-sly methods of achieving results that suited his judgment.
However, Rebecca is a film that belongs to both men—and neither of them. In terms of scale and prestige, it’s Selznick through and through, but in terms of theme, and management of tone, it’s Hitchcock. Conversely, even though it can’t really be said that the two men necessarily had contradictory motives (we can presume they both wanted to make an excellent and entertaining movie), they were clearly working from different pools of inspiration, and the overlay of the two matrices of their personalities, and their geniuses, has a mitigating, at times nullifying, effect. The whole show belongs, perhaps most evidently, to the mad Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), whose incendiary destruction of the Manderlay estate comprises the film’s last moments. Or maybe it belongs to Rebecca, invisible but never not in control, her hands masterfully pulling the strings even before we hear her name uttered on screen, and well after her demise.
Much like Gone with the Wind, only with one director instead of three or four, the potential greatness of Rebecca is hemmed in somewhat by its piecemeal quality; it’s a different movie with every reel, often shifting gears from shot to shot. But whether it’s great or not is really not very important. The story, from Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 bestseller, draws from the deep well of gothic horror-romance that had its roots in the Brontë literary triumphs of the 19th century (Samuel Goldwyn’s Wuthering Heights, also starring Laurence Olivier, was another event picture of 1939), only with a third-act procedural structure that had been one of the cinema’s popular engines for suspense for some time. It’s ultimately a pretty simple enterprise, and its turns are flat and unequivocal; it’s that rare film (though not so strange when it comes to Hitchcock) that actually benefits from the familiar sensation of repeat viewings, as its surprises seem so bluntly overdetermined on first blush.
The heart of the film is the battle of wills between Joan Fontaine’s Mrs. de Winter (her real name is never given—because with a name comes real power) and Mrs. Danvers, the living-dead manifestation of Rebecca’s posthumous, Mabuse-like will, as well as, on another level, almost certainly the only soul who really loved the dead woman. Both performances are visibly engineered—through different means, of course. Anderson was a veteran of the stage, playing Lady Macbeth as far back as the 1920s. Her only prior screen performance was in Rowland Brown’s pre-Code powderkeg Blood Money, but her gift for potent, maternal sensuality was unmistakable even then. Playing Mrs. Danvers, Anderson is a cross between a mourning phantom and an emotionless android. She was encouraged to resist blinking, and she’s almost never seen walking into, or around, a space, only appearing suddenly.
Fontaine, on the other hand, had only a handful of films under her belt, and was only just graduating from the “ingénue” phase of her career. Her nervousness and uncertainty are as plain as day, and Hitchcock exploited her vulnerability with a deliberateness that bordered on malice, playing on her fears of inadequacy, even calling into question her choice in husbands. Fontaine’s face and body are animated in a manner that seems clumsy and graceful at the same time—an impossible contradiction, but one, nevertheless, that allowed the actress, who was told she was the least important, the least qualified person on the set, to fill the movie’s (architectural and screen) space with the emotions of her performance, in this way becoming the film’s third—and final—matriarchal ruler. (If Rebecca has a hidden narrative, it’s about the transfer of power and estate from the dead to the living.) You may question his methods, but Hitchcock extracted from Fontaine the first of many great performances from his Hollywood period.
This imperfect masterpiece, arguably the very least of Hitchcock’s indisputably great movies (his underappreciated Under Capricorn, from 1949, made marked improvements on the same basic story, and was a considerably more controlled work, to boot), Rebecca does not want for extraordinary passages and images: Mrs. Danver’s unforgettable curtain call brought tears to my eyes. It operates at high altitudes for a good four fifths of its running time, where the air is so thin you can giddily forget the production battles, the heavy weight of Selznick’s “spare no expense” prestige, and the film’s ultimately patchwork construction.
An Oscar winner for cinematography, Rebecca is frequently cited as one of the most beautiful black-and-white movies of all time, and George Barnes's work with the camera department is incalculably aided by the exquisite rear projection, optical printing, and matte effects that seamlessly blend together to make Manderlay such an enormous and intimidating piece of real estate, almost entirely through suggestion. Save for a few quibbles (a touch of wear in the opening reel, some greater consistency desired in brightness levels), Fox's Blu-ray of the film is pretty outstanding, an early favorite in what's shaping up to be a busy year for catalog titles. I looked hard for edge enhancement and moire effects, and came up empty. Detail is crystal-clear, and grain is near-perfect. The lossless DTS-HD mono sound mix is equally problem-free; there were moments when dialogue-score conflicts seemed a little cacophonous, but they were rare, and only very slight.
A Rebecca fan's treasure trove. Aside from the expected commentary track (with Richard Schickel) and theatrical trailer, Fox packed a hell of a bag. Among other goodies, there's an isolated music and effects track, a making-of featurette, a profile of Du Maurier, and audio interviews with Hitchcock that were conducted by François Truffaut and Peter Bogdanovich. Best of all are the full-length radio plays of Rebecca, of which there are three (!), each about an hour long, as well as screen tests with Margaret Sullavan and Vivien Leigh. Leigh is mannered, and it's likely she would have suffered Hitchcock's methods for about 10 seconds before telling him what for. Sullavan, a favorite of Frank Borzage, and one of the most ethereal of all American screen actors, was more naturally fragile than Fontaine, and would likely have been a more intuitive choice for the role, but this only goes to demonstrate that the alchemical miracle of Fontaine's performance was partly due to Hitch's inducements and "coaching."
A few tiny scratches short of an early candidate for Blu-ray of the year, Fox's fully stocked HD package for Rebecca is an essential release of an exquisitely mixed-up masterpiece.