Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Rebecca (1940)
Studio Line: Anchor Bay - The shadow of this woman darkened their love.

Rebecca was named Best Picture of the year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1940, but chances are it could win any year. This brilliant adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's celebrated novel won virtually every accolade imaginable, including two Academy Awards and nine other nominations. Thanks to the masterful direction of Alfred Hitchcock, this all-time cinema classic is as chilling and dramatic today as when it first released.

A timid young ladies companion (Joan Fontaine) is on vacation where she meets the handsome and wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), whose wife Rebecca had recently died in a boating accident. The two fall in love, and once married, the new Mrs. De Winter returns to the Winter estate to find that Rebecca still has a strange hold on everyone there.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, Judith Anderson, Gladys Cooper, Nigel Bruce, Reginald Denny
Academy Awards: Won for Best Picture; Best Cinematography. Nominated for Best Director; Best Actor-Laurence Oliver; Best Actress-Joan Fontaine; Best Supporting Actress-Judith Anderson; Best Screenplay; Best Art Direction; Best Film Editing; Best Original Score-Franz Waxman; Best Special Effects, 1941.
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Stereo; subtitles none; single sided - single layered' 19 chapters; rated NR; 130 min.; $24.98; street date 9/7/99.
Supplements: None.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B-/F

One of the more amazing facts of Academy Award history is that Alfred Hitchcock - possibly the most famous and influential director of all-time - never won an Oscar as Best Director. Five times nominated, he came up empty on each occasion, even the one time that a film of his won Best Picture: 1940's Rebecca; John Ford took home the Best Director prize for The Grapes of Wrath. Moral of the story? Marty Scorsese shouldn't feel so bad - he's in good company.

While my sympathies go to Hitchcock for his consistent slighting at the hands of the Academy, I must admit that I understood their dilemma; both Ford and Hitchcock were amazing directors, and both their films in 1940 were strong pieces of work. Perhaps the split between the two movies was a fair way to honor both films. Boy, that was a tough era for Academy voters, because the competition was so stiff; things lightened up a little after the legendary batch of nominees from 1939, but still stayed tough. (It didn't get much easier the next year, when Citizen Kane lost to How Green Was My Valley, another production from Ford, but a much crummier one.)

Anyway, I won't try to argue which of the two 1940 contenders was the better movie - if just because I haven't seen TGOW in years but I know I really liked it - but Rebecca definitely is a fine film. It's kind of a curious romantic thriller, made odd partially due to the fact we never meet anyone named "Rebecca"; indeed, we discover very early on that she's the dead wife of "Maxim" De Winter (Laurence Olivier), an independently wealthy British manor owner who apparently remains despondent over his wife's demise.

During a visit to Monte Carlo, Maxim hooks up with a young cutie played by Joan Fontaine; she quickly becomes the second Mrs. De Winter and the two return to Manderlay, his rather daunting mansion in England. Unfortunately, the figurative ghost of Rebecca hangs over Fontaine at all times, as the occupants - the De Winters continue to employ a large staff, principally the icy, Rebecca-obsessed Mrs. Danvers - and local residents remain fascinated by all things Rebecca.

Most of the film focusses on Fontaine and shows the apparent obsession over Rebecca maintained by her husband and the others; we see how this ghostly competition weighs upon her and causes various problems. This being Hitchcock, of course, things are not exactly what they seem, and I'll leave it at that so I don't ruin any surprises.

Hitchcock does a wonderful job of pacing the film and building the suspense; we just know something nasty will eventually happen, and the tension-filled moments as we wait for these revelations are delicious. Hitchcock seems to take a misstep part of the way through the movie, as we reach what looks to be the ending yet are stuck with quite a lot of additional film to watch; however, more surprises are yet to come, so don't give up on the story.

The acting seems terrific from top to bottom. Olivier plays a role emotionally similar to Heathcliff in 1939's Wuthering Heights, but I thought he brought a lot more nuance to Maxim. Heathcliff just seemed stiff and petulant, but Maxim appears vaguely warm but haunted; it's easy to understand why he'd look like such a catch.

Fontaine - in a role that cleverly has no name, which helps make her additionally anonymous (and reinforces the dominance of Rebecca) - may come across as overly simpy and meek for some, but her attitudes make sense in the part; a more forceful personality would have overpowered the aura cast by Rebecca, and that would have made the entire storyline collapse, for while we never see her - not even a picture of her - Rebecca really is the main figure in this tale. Fontaine also matures nicely in the part and shows additional growth as the story proceeds. The only objection I have to her casting is that she seems too beautiful; I think we're supposed to believe that the allegedly-stunning Rebecca overshadows old No-name in the looks department, and that might be the case, but Fontaine is way too hot for me to believe that Becky could have been that much sexier.

Possibly the strongest piece of acting in the cast comes from Judith Anderson as the house assistant Danvers. Anderson is truly creepy in the role but she refrains from being so overtly over-the-top that we wouldn't accept her. While all of the residents of Manderlay communicate the allure of Rebecca, she's the one who really has the most impact of Anonymous, and Anderson makes those scenes a sight to behold.

Another wonderful piece of supporting acting comes from George Sanders as another Rebecca-admirer, Jack Favell. Sanders' smarmy insolence initially makes him look like nothing more than a typical country-club gadabout, but we later find a darker side to the character. Sanders takes a small part with throwaway lines and infuses him with snarling malice, something that would serve him well in his best-known role, that of Shere Khan in Disney's The Jungle Book.

Rebecca didn't impress me as much as later Hitchcock films like Psycho or The Birds, but it nonetheless seems to be a strong piece of work. The story of obsession may seem old hat, but Hitchcock's spin on it makes for compelling viewing, especially when complemented by some terrific acting.

The DVD:

Rebecca appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.37:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; as such, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While not without flaws, the picture looks excellent for a 60-year-old film.

Sharpness seems consistently terrific, with images that look crisp and well-defined at almost all points of the film. This seems even more remarkable when one considers how much of the movie occurs in low-light situations; nonetheless, the shots appear clear and fine. The only real exceptions to this rule come with some of the close-ups of Fontaine; Hitchcock always was fond of soft-focusing upon his leading ladies, and while this tendency isn't used as excessively as during later films like Vertigo and The Birds, I still saw it and found it mildly distracting. Nonetheless, the transfer should not be faulted for Hitchcock's technique.

I detected no examples of moiré effects or jagged edges. Print flaws can definitely be found, but even then, they seem pretty minimal for such an old movie. Light grain arrives on occasion, and light speckling occurs throughout much of the film. A few nicks and scratches were also detected, as was some odd "blotchiness" that periodically marred the right side of the frame for the first 30 minutes of the movie; I didn't see this phantom blob after that time, however.

Colors were terrible, unfortunately - I didn't see any at all! What? It's black and white? Oh - that explains it! Anyway, black levels looked great; they consistently seemed deep and rich. Shadow detail also seemed very good, with a nice level of opacity that rarely looked too heavy. Objectively, Rebecca clearly displays some flaws, but subjectively, it's a remarkably strong picture for a movie nearly as old as my father - and let me tell you, that dude's old!

Also surprisingly good is the film's monaural soundtrack. Since there's no soundfield to discuss, the quality of the track is of sole importance, and it seems very strong for a movie of this vintage. Dialogue sounds clear and relatively warm, and I never had any trouble understanding it. Effects are usually clean and fairly realistic, with little evidence of distortion, though a scene that shows a fire sounded a bit harsh. The music appears pretty smooth, though it tends toward the shrill side of the equation; as with most tracks of this era, bass is virtually absent, but the music seemed listenable nonetheless. A mild layer of hiss and noise can be heard throughout the film, though only during quieter scenes, as the rest of the audio usually obscures these flaws. Clearly, the soundtrack isn't a great piece of work by today's standards, but I've heard enough from this era to know that Rebecca sounds pretty good for a film of that period.

The only truly unsatisfying aspect of this DVD comes from its supplements: there ain't none! In fact, the main menu only offers you the choice of "scene selections" or "start (the movie)"; the stupid thing doesn't even provide subtitles! In that regard, the DVD is a very shoddy effort; subtitles really should be a given.

Nonetheless, I rather enjoyed Rebecca. While I don't think it quite compares with Hitchcock's later classics, it nonetheless holds up much better than the vast majority of movies from the 1940s (or 1930s or 1950s or 1960s... oh, you get my point). Both the picture and the sound quality are very good for such an old movie, but the absolute lack of supplemental features is a disappointment. Still, Hitchcock fans will want to give it a look, so it's at least worth a rental, and you won't go wrong if you decide to purchase it instead.

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