Rebecca (1940)
Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson

Arguably one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films, his 1940 take on Daphne DuMarier’s novel "Rebecca" doesn’t find half as much mention as some of his later films. Undeservedly it always stands in the shadow of films like "Psycho", "Vertigo" or "Rear Window", easily overlooked and often forgotten. As part of their "Alfred Hitchcock" line, Anchor Bay Entertainment has now released this classic masterpiece on DVD together with the other Hitchcock classics "Notorious", "The Paradine Case" and "Spellbound". I was eager to see all these films, especially because I had already noticed Anchor Bay’s excellent VHS releases of these films a few months ago, anticipating a release on DVD just as well, but it was "Rebecca" I was looking for the most.

A naïve and somewhat simple young woman (Joan Fontaine), is working as a hired travel companion for decadent, rich ladies. On one of her assignments she ends up in Monte Carlo at the French Riviera where she gets to meet the handsome Maxim DeWinter (Laurence Olivier), a wealthy and respectable widower. DeWinter is quickly attracted to the young and insecure woman and decides to marry her improptu. The two return to DeWinter’s residence, Manderley, a castle-like estate that seems to come right out of a fairy-tale.

But a chilly wind is greeting the new Mrs. DeWinter when they arrive at the estate in the form of Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) who never leaves a hint of a doubt about her dislike of the new Mrs. DeWinter and her adoration of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife. Completely intimidated by Mrs. Danvers’ attitude, the timid young wife, is completely overpowered by the shadow of the former lady of the house, and when Mrs. Danvers cleverly starts playing her cards, it seems even Maxim is starting to turn his back on her. Then, she makes an incredible discovery…

"Rebecca" is a romantic thriller that manages to build a chilling, eerie atmosphere keeping you on the edge all the way to the film’s last seconds. What starts out as a snobby upper-class love story quickly turns into a nightmarish travel into the abyss of peoples’ souls where fanaticism and idolatrous worship creates almost inhuman people.

Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine are brilliant in their performances as both lovers, and individual personalities, each with its own knack. Olivier’s outbreaks of anguish are remarkable and leave a lasting impression in viewers’ minds, while Fontaine’s innocent and fragile looks and portrayal are creating a perfectly intimidated and weak personality for her character. It is Judith Anderson’s figuration of the sinister character Mrs. Danvers however that will have chills running down your spine. Her looks, her stare, the way she moves and talks, it all adds immensely to build the omnipresent evil aura surrounding this character. Ultimately the entire story hinges upon her, and the way Mrs. Danvers is coming to life on the screen has made an unforgettable impact on this kind of character portrayal throughout movie history.

The film carries Alfred Hitchcock’s signature all over and is, as I mentioned before, one of his most atmospheric romantic thrillers.
The foreboding visuals, the smooth transitions, the constant use of the camera as an observing eye, and the atmospheric, soaring music, it all adds to the director’s work and helps create this immensely tight tale of love and death. Combined with impressive landscape shots of the cliffed English coastal line, and a very gothic flair throughout, Hitchcock manages skillfully to create a film that is both gorgeous, and ominous. The highly effective lighting and camera angles, as well as the great production design that is evident especially throughout Manderley, enhance this feeling, sometimes turning even brightly lit rooms in daylight into almost brooding locations.

Anchor Bay Entertainment has released "Rebecca", a black and white film, in a newly restored version on this DVD in its original <$PS,fullscreen> aspect ratio. The image is very clean for the most part, although some film artifacts are evident in a handful of scenes. It seems that certain parts of the film have aged better than others, and some of the damages in the film print seem beyond repair unless different reels can be found. Fortunately for the most part the film looks very good though, and the image is clean without noticeable noise or grain. The compression has been done very well, creating a stable picture with deep blacks and good highlights. Overall the image quality is balanced with lots of detail and a good distribution of gray scales. After all this time it is surprising how well the film actually held up, and I remember seeing transfers that exhibited a lot more speckles, scratches and dust. Anchor Bay must have spend quite some time and money cleaning up this transfer for use on its releases.

The disc contains a 2.0 channel monaural <$DD,Dolby Digital> soundtrack. The soundtrack has been well preserved and is well restored on this DVD. Although subtle noise is evident throughout most of the film, it almost adds to the movie’s overall atmosphere, because as a result all of the ambient sound effects are left intact. As a purist I usually prefer this approach to soundtracks that are overly noise-reduced and as a result lose most of their vibrant vitality, and I am glad the Anchor Bay made this decision in order to leave as much of the original intact as possible. The soundtrack sounds expectedly thin in certain parts and slight signs of distortion in the source material is evident at times, but like the noise, it never becomes distracting and lends a sense of authenticity to the overall presentation. No subtitles are supplied on this release, but a nice replica of the original movie poster can be found inside the stylish golden DVD case.

Since the first time I saw "Rebecca", some of the images have never escaped my mind’s eye. There is a very strong visual quality about the film that makes it remarkable and memorable. It may in part be reason why it won two Academy Awards in 1940. Anchor Bay’s release of the film on this DVD is beautiful. Despite some of the flaws of the source material the disc looks and sounds great and conjures up the dreadful story about the mystery surrounding Manderley. For fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s work, this release is a must, but also for all other DVD owners who want to see a classic thriller at its best, "Rebecca" is a disc that should not be missed.