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Rebecca (1940)

The Criterion Collection

Cast: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson.

Rating: PG

Run time: 126 mins..

Genre: Drama

Verdict: Brilliant (see rating system)

The Oscar for Best Picture of 1940 (and Best Cinematography, too) - not a bad American debut for British director Alfred Hitchcock.

Indeed, Rebecca has stood the test of time, full of atmosphere and imaginative touches that still make it compelling today.

Hitchcock was a "pure" movie maker - the pictures and action told everything, dialogue was the secondary consideration. When Gone With The Wind producer David O. Selznick saw the early British films of Hitchcock (The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes) he recognized a special talent Hollywood could use.

Selznick brought Hitchcock to the U.S. in 1939 to make a movie about the Titanic disaster, but instead the two collaborated on Daphne Du Maurier's novel Rebecca.

The opening of the movie sets the tone for what is essentially a ghost story. Fog swirls around the ruins of a once-great English country house in the 1930s as a woman speaks: “Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”

The voice belongs to the second Mrs. Max de Winter (Joan Fontaine), who traces how she came to be married to Max (Laurence Olivier) and what happened to the house called Manderley.

The story proper begins in the south of France some years earlier as a young woman (Fontaine) sees Max on the edge of a cliff and fears he might fall. When she calls out, he is obviously annoyed, but reassures her he is alright and sends her away.

The pair later meet again in the elegant hotel where Fontaine (her character has no name!) is a paid travelling companion and assistant to Mrs Van Hopper (Florence Bates), a pompous social climber who thinks she has a chance of snaring de Winter, whose wife recently died. However, de Winter has his eyes on the companion, a young naive girl years younger than he.

A tentative romance begins while Mrs. Van Hopper is in bed nursing a slight illness and to everyone's astonishment, de Winter and the girl marry.

It's when de Winter gets his new wife back to Manderley that the plot thickens, as they say. The essence of the first Mrs. de Winter - the Rebecca of the title - haunts the place. Her room, her letters, her desk are just as they were the day she died, lovingly preserved by the scary housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) - who obviously dislikes the second wife.

Fontaine is superb as the young wife who tries to banish the brooding atmosphere of the house and the growing feeling that Max is still in love with Rebecca. The film`s turning point never fails to send shivers down my spine!

Beautifully staged, Rebecca is full of suspense and eerie touches - for example, Rebecca`s dog faithfully waiting outside her bedroom door.

The cast is terrific - Anderson especially so as the manipulative, obsessed Mrs Danvers.

The Criterion Collection has done wonders with the film, giving it a superb digital restoration and packing a two-disc edition with great extra features on the making of the movie, screen tests and more.

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