One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most lauded films gets the Criterion treatment

After making his mark in the UK with films such as Sabotage, The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes, Alfred Hitchcock made his first foray into Hollywood with Rebecca back in 1940. The result was a resounding triumph, winning Best Picture and Best Cinematography at the following year’s Academy Awards. More Hitchcock getting the Criterion treatment is always welcome news, and Rebecca is certainly a worthy entry, one that comes with a little controversy, at least in the director’s mind, regarding it’s production.


Romance becomes psychodrama in the elegantly crafted Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock’s first foray into Hollywood filmmaking. A dreamlike adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel, the film stars the enchanting Joan Fontaine as a young woman who believes she has found her heart’s desire when she marries the dashing aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter (played with cunning vulnerability by Laurence Olivier). But upon moving to Manderley — her groom’s baroque ancestral mansion — she soon learns that his deceased wife haunts not only the estate but the temperamental, brooding Maxim as well. The start of Hitchcock’s legendary collaboration with producer David O. Selznick, this elegiac gothic vision, captured in stunning black and white by George Barnes, took home the Academy Awards for best picture and best cinematography.

Those Academy Award wins were somewhat bittersweet for Hitchcock. Rebecca representing something of a battle between the director and his producer David O. Selznick (Gone with the Wind), the latter having control over the script and casting. Rebecca was one of three films Hitchcock adapted from novels by Daphne du Maurier, the other two being Jamaica Inn and The Birds. The author apparently dissatisfied with some of the changes made. Enter studio executive Selznic, who notoriously provided a steadying hand to maintain the authors original vision above Hitchcock’s own. The result is a film that never veers too much into the macabre darkness that Hitchcock is so associated with, but remains cold and unnerving, aided by it’s lack of wry humor that he carefully injected into his other works. There are shots and moments that are undeniably Hitchcockian, imbuing simple objects, or carefully framed moments with weight and danger, the restraint upon him actually serves to showcase his more subtle talents, and as he weaves in his characteristic undertones, his mastery of filmmaking is ever apparent.

The tale and characters of du Maurier’s novel are certainly a fit for Hitch’s style. A suspenseful, psychological film, that deals with an overarching mystery as well as questionable characters and their own motivations. A young, naive woman (Joan Fontaine), brought into the life and home of the brooding widowed Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) makes Rebecca something of a romance, albeit one completely free of it. A connection of the hearts is never truly established, each of the pair have their own anxieties that are exacerbated, haunted by the baggage brought from a past relationship, as well as the expectations and demands of marriage. Hitchcock crafts a film that explores power between a man and a woman, weaving in abuse and dominance, all the while the first Mrs de Winter looms over them both. With the suspense mixed with more melodramatic elements, Rebecca is something of a lovechild between Gone with the Wind (Selznic connections) and later Hitchcock endeavors such as Psycho, Shadow of a Doubt, or Suspicion.

Rebecca oozes prestige, from both sides of the camera, serving as a brilliant reminder of the weighty presence Laurence Olivier brings to the screen. Joan Fontaine treads a delicate balance, one crucial to making the overarching themes of the film work. A naive and gentle soul, hardly strong enough to stand up to the memory of the woman who preceded her, and yet somehow persists. The final component, and one that injects further misery into this newly wed womans life is the maid, Mrs Danvers, portrayed with a chilling malevolence by Judith Anderson. The second of two individuals, deep in mourning, dragging an innocent into their chilling psychological nightmare.

The Package

Criterion’s latest features a 4K scan and restoration of the films from the 35mm nitrate original camera negative. The result is stunning. Detail, depth, and texture are sumptuous. Blacks are deep, grain is natural, giving the film a pleasing richness. Special features are plentiful, requiring a 2-disc release, and include:

  • Audio commentary from 1990 featuring film scholar Leonard J. Leff:
  • Isolated music and effects track:
  • New conversation between film critic and author Molly Haskell and scholar Patricia White: A interesting conversation between the pair, touching largely on Hitchcock’s approach to adapting the work, as well as the feminist themes running through the film
  • New interview with film historian Craig Barron on Rebecca’s visual effects: An insightful look at some of the technical choices Hitchcock made while filming from camera lenses, to set design and location choices
  • Daphne du Maurier: In the Footsteps of “Rebecca,” a 2016 French television documentary: A look at the life of the author whose novel inspired the film. Always welcome to see features of this nature
  • Making-of documentary from 2007: More of a ‘look back’ at the film and it’s impact since release. A nicely put together piece that features interviews and insights from filmmakers, critics, film historians, and even members of the Hitchcock family
  • Footage of screen, hair, makeup, and costume tests for actors Joan Fontaine, Anne Baxter, Vivien Leigh, Margaret Sullivan, and Loretta Young: More a quirky addition than anything really interesting, still welome
  • Casting gallery with notes by director Alfred Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick:
  • Hitchcock interviewed by Tom Snyder on a 1973 episode of NBC’s Tomorrow: It’s always wonderful to hear from Hitchcock himself, and this interview is no different. The director shares details about his life, approach to film-making, views on the film industry, and more
  • Tomorrow interview with Fontaine from 1980 & Audio interviews from 1986 with actor Judith Anderson and Fontaine: Archival interview footage with the star
  • Three radio versions of Rebecca, from 1938, 1941, and 1950, including Orson Welles’s adaptation of the novel for the Mercury Theatre: Three versions each running around 60 minutes
  • Theatrical re-release trailer:
  • PLUS: An essay by critic and Selznick biographer David Thomson and selected Selznick production correspondence, including with Hitchcock: A handsomely put together liner booklet featuring archival images, text, as well as a insightful piece from Thomson

The Bottom Line

While not as distinctly Hitchcockian as his later films, Rebecca is an impressively crafted affair. A study of co-dependency, power, abuse, and ghosts from the past, haunting a pair engaged in a tortuous relationship. The film is given a handsome release by Criterion, with a stunning transfer and a host of extras that enhance appreciation for a classic.

Rebecca is available via Criterion from the 5th September

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