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"We can never go back to Manderley again"
on March 23, 2004
Joan Fontaine laments as she opens the film, obviously several years removed from her time at the lush, oversized estate, which recalls "Tara" from Gone With the Wind as a residence which is actually also a character in the movie. People remember the houses from these two films almost more than the characters. No coincidence that both films were produced by the ridiculously meticulous David O. Selznick. GWtW was of course the most popular film of all time, so Selznick figured he had the right idea about how to make a film. Details, right down to the last corner.
Alfred Hitchcock had made a career in London making films with complete autonomy. He basically called all the shots. When he got to America, he signed a four movie deal with Selznick. Rebecca is the first and best of the three. (no, not a mistake, I'll explain later) Rebecca was the only film by Hitchcock to win best picture from the Academy, although Hitch did not win best director. The film was basically a tug of war between producer and director. Selznick wanted the book followed religiously, Hitch wanted to take the basic idea of the book and add his own touches. Selznick wouldn't allow it, so Hitch was forced to make the film exactly by the book.
The film stars Fontaine as an unnamed young woman who while working as a paid companion for the unbearable Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates), she meets and falls in love with the brooding Maxim de Winter (Lawrence Olivier). They marry after a quick courtship and go "home" to Manderley, Olivier's mammoth estate. Fontaine is very young and has no idea what she is getting into, especially when it dawns on her that Olivier's late first wife, Rebecca, still dominates the house. Her stationery, napkins, and rituals are still present, and Fontaine feels she has no chance against this woman.
The other problem in the house is the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson),who creeps around the house, showing up at any time to frighten Fontaine. She is still obsessed with Rebecca, still keeps Rebecca's old room the same way, hairbrush at the correct angle on the vanity. She makes Fontaine feel she will never measure up, will never be a great lady of Manderley, something that Mrs. Van Hopper tried to tell her as well. Everyone and everything in the house revolves around this dead Rebecca, so much so that Fontaine almost can't live through it.
Rebecca never appears in the film, yet it is amazing how much of a character she is. When Fontaine tries to dress up for a ball, Danvers suggests a portrait on the wall which is supposed to be a long dead relative of Maxims. Of course, when Fontaine wears the dress, she realizes from Maxim's reaction that the woman and the dress were Rebecca and that she just reminded him of her.
Eventually the film goes into Rebecca's death in some detail. We never know for sure that we know all the details of the death, but it doesn't really matter. By the end of the movie, all the major characters in the film will have been changed. Some will have been destroyed forever.
Criterion has done a great job with this film, giving us a great transfer, as always, along with a superb commentary. The second disc features trailers, interviews with Fontaine and Anderson, making of featurettes, examples of Selznick's letters and his attention to detail, and how maddening it got for the master.
By the way, Selznick got three films out of Hitchcock. They were Rebecca, Spellbound, and The Paradine Case. Well, he really got four, but he gave one of them to RKO studios because he was unhappy with the story and he thought it would interest no one. What was the film Selznick gave away? It was Hitch's best film of all time in my opinion--Notorious. What a waste it would have been had Selznick been allowed to ruin Hitch's masterpiece.