Blu-Ray Review: Rebecca (1940, Hitchcock)

Originally posted on Criterion Cast March 1st, 2012

Rebecca represents a major turning point in Alfred Hitchcock’s career. It was his first American-made film, allowing him to capitalize on the hopes and dreams of working with a bigger budget and more equipment, furthering the masterful technical control so central to his style.

Looming large over the entire picture is the involvement of that sleepless memo maniac David O. Selznick. With Gone with the Wind inching towards release, he moved forward on an adaptation, or as he put it ‘picturization’, of Daphne du Maurier’s much-loved classic Rebecca. Selznick was as intrusive as a producer gets, managing to stay on top of the production even through the Gone with the Wind preparation which took up almost all of his time. It is easy to under-appreciate what Selznick contributed to Rebecca, even though Hitchcock purists may see the final product as damaged goods. This new Blu-Ray reminds us of the singular combination of Selznick’s prestige, Hitchcock’s recurring themes and embedded psychology and du Maurier’s sumptuously enticing exploration of the Gothic.

Revisiting the film, in more pristine shape than ever before, allows us to take in Rebecca in all its glory, and even its limitations. Selznick had an unrelenting sense of grandeur and a lavishness with which he strove to do justice to a book he near-worshiped. This comes to serve Rebecca well, most prominently with Manderlay. The mansion is so imposing in its physical representation of the suffocating spirit of the deceased Rebecca that it becomes a central character. The  first Mrs. De Winter and Selznick are united in their paralleled enduring influence that seeps into every scene.

As contradictory as Hitchcock and Selznick’s agendas seem, they inadvertently coalesce to create something mostly harmonious. As far as Hitchcock goes, he also had a strong connection to the book, wanting to buy the rights earlier but not having the money to do so. Here, he gets to astonish with his lusciously multi-layered compositions. The lighting in particular is something to behold, alone begging repeat viewings with its majesty.

The mogul’s insistence on a conventionally faithful adaptation provides a basis for Hitchcock to wield his inquiring camera into what is going on underneath it all. Selznick’s top-of-the-line template doesn’t hurt either. He pokes and pries, peeling back the layers as Joan Fontaine treks into the nightmare world of Manderlay. Again, Rebecca solidifies Hitchcock’s unmatched control, all the more impressive for working on a production as big as this.

The performances remain a varied bunch, from Laurence Olivier’s constantly brooding and callous Maxim to the ever-reliable character actors Nigel Bruce, Reginald Denny and Florence Bates. Joan Fontaine is aware of herself every moment in her first starring role and Hitchcock uses that to showcase the character’s vulnerability and at times frustrating naiveté. She is a fragile stranger in a strange land, both on and off screen, and it appropriately looks like she could crumble any minute. All apprehensive eyebrows and second-guessing, Fontaine shines because she natural exudes a quality that she herself seems unaware of.

It is of course Judith Anderson whose performance has more than held up over the decades. Her Mrs. Danvers is one of mostly passive and increasingly apparent insanity. She exists entirely in her own world, a heightened past broken up with patches of lucid denial and resentment. Anderson’s spacy passion makes for a justifiably iconic villain. There is the moment when Rebecca realizes that Mrs. Danvers is not completely sane. The camera stays with the horrified unnamed protagonist as she moves away to deal with said realization, leaving Mrs. Danvers in the background, carrying on in her own world.That scene and moment express all, remaining as creepy as ever.

The final twenty minutes is largely where Rebecca falters. We see the baggage lifted between Maxim and our The Second Mrs. De Winter, and they are allowed to connect freely, banding together against Rebecca’s hold on posthumous hold on them. This is all well and fine, but at this point the story itself becomes laborious. Hitchcock can only do so much to alleviate the shortcomings found here. Thankfully, George Sanders’ slimy presence is always a welcome treat.

The extras on Rebecca carry over from a previous DVD edition and are more than satisfying in their abundant quantity, largely supporting a contextual view of the film via the Hitchcock and Selznick collaboration. Richard Schickel’s commentary is pretty basic and his views of the film appear to be largely lukewarm. ‘The Making of Rebecca’ and ‘The Gothic World of Daphne du Maurier’ further expand on adding contextualization. Also included are radio plays of the story, an isolated music and effects track, interviews with Hitchcock and, my personal favorite, original screen tests with Margaret Sullavan and Vivien Leigh.

Rebecca may not be a ‘pure’ Hitchcock film, lacking in his trademark acidic humor, and balancing out the expectations of another formidable force. Yet it remains one of my favorite Hitchcock films (indeed I far prefer it over Notorious) for its Gothic psychological thriller that seamlessly weaves in and out of an amalgam of other genres; the woman’s picture, melodrama, romance, mystery and horror, to name some. The Blu-Ray offers a stellar picture with very little grain and minimal kinks; it is a more than worthy purchase to make for one of the master’s largely exemplary works.


Worst Blu-Ray Covers: Case File #2 – The Hunt for Red October

A continuing commentary on my Top 25 Worst Blu-Ray Covers list from April of this year.

Let’s get this going again. Covering the worst in desecration against iconic posterdom in favor for tacky photoshop splatter for the ages, we turn our attention to 1990’s The Hunt for Red October. It continues to boggle the mind how decisions like this are made. Do the distributors actually think that changing 20-year old poster cover art is going to make more people buy their product? Usually the worst Blu-Ray covers work on two levels. First, they abruptly move away from imagery that has over the years become eternally entwined with the work itself. Second, they always replace this icongraphy with something ghastly. Case in point; The Hunt for Red October, which features a poster that one could instantly recognize from across the room:

I think we can all agree on that point. Now, look what at the end result of the Blu-Ray cover art:

The primary reason I can think for doing this is Alec Baldwin’s fame in pop-culture as of late. The original poster does not allow his omnipresence to extend forth. I cannot help but think a lot of these cover-art transformations are change for the sake of it. You know what this reminds me of…..?

There may be differences in what is taking place in the bottom half, but it immediately brought this drivel to mind and for that, it’s got another point against it. What do you think? Bad, but maybe not one of the worst? Okay with the change? Share your thoughts!

List: Top 25 Worst Blu-ray Covers

Anybody else notice that the emergence of Blu-ray has coincided with the emergence of outrageously awful cover art? Well, I have. I am in no way suggesting that DVD cover art has been consistent; it hasn’t. However, many films previously available on DVD receiving a Blu-ray upgrade have completely reworked covers for no apparent reason. Posters and DVD covers that we all know quite well have in some cases been replaced by what looks like the kind of cover art commonly found on a bootleg. Major photoshop work has been done with often times poor, amateurish and downright embarrassing results. Another common thread on this list is a blatant attempt to market the film to coincide with a current trend, thereby misrepresenting the film entirely. Other reasons will pop up throughout. The rules for this list are that the Blu-ray cover could not be the same as any promotional poster and that it had to be different from the original DVD cover if the film if there had been a previous DVD release. If there are any glaring omissions, or if you want to share your own picks, I encourage you to do so! I would love to see them!

25. The Peacemaker
Much of the time, marketing films is a matter of exploiting star power; I get that. What I do not get is Nicole Kidman staring confusedly at a couple of helicopters; that is what I do not get.

24. Pleasantville
Here is another example of many that, again, exploit star power. The problem with this is that Pleasantville has a wonderful poster that was also used for the DVD cover. Getting rid of that for this lackluster effort is just sad. And something that must be pointed out; ALL OF THESE COVERS LOOK WORSE IN PERSON. Trust me on this one. Next time you go into a store selling Blu-rays; keep an eye out.

23. Wanted
Let us put aside the fact that about half of the space is taken up by blurred background (because the action is all happening so fast!). Look at James McAvoy’s face. The poor man looks like he is falling asleep. Either that, or he is drunk. I really just do not know. The point is, that if new cover art was going to be chosen, they could have at least picked a picture of McAvoy that looks like he is a functional person.

22. Buried
The main reason this was chosen was not because it is lazy, which it is, but because Buried had such a strong poster campaign, making it even more upsetting that this cheap image was chosen. It does get points for not featuring any discernible photoshop work.  I understand the film did very poorly in box office returns and they desperately need to feature Ryan Reynolds’ involvement to get anyone interested. It’s still a horrid cover.

21. …And Justice For All
The original DVD cover for this film was nothing to write home about. In its own way it was bad. Let me take a second to point out what has been done to Pacino. They took Pacino’s head from the DVD cover and plastered it onto another body. This looks like an elementary school student’s cut-and-paste project. Look at that head! Look at it I say!!

20. Lost in Translation
What’s wrong with this? It’s the same poster and DVD cover; is it not? No it is not. For no reason whatsoever, the Blu-ray cover is a zoomed in version of the poster. Why? I have no answer for you. It may look like a minor and acceptable change now, but just take a gander at this one in the stores and tell me how you feel then. Finally, his head is poking out through the white banner, a change that is not visible in any previous incarnation of the poster.

19. L.A Confidential
L.A Confidential has a very recognizable poster. There must have been a reason to change it. Yet I cannot for the life of me figure out why this was done. Most of the other films may have terrible covers, but to some degree from a marketing standpoint, I understand why the decisions were made. This has stumped me mainly because the structure of the original poster is very similar. Kim Basinger takes up the majority of the space in both. Each have Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey and Guy Pearce making minor appearances. Here though, in addition to the bad photoshop work (which goes without saying for almost all of these (even though I’ll keep saying it), Spacey, Crowe and Pearce look like footnotes and even Basinger’s ‘boobs’ are on better display on the original poster. Then we have that reflection which makes no logical sense. Why was this done? It is a mystery.

18. National Lampoon’s Vacation
On its own, this is a moderately bad cover. What makes it terrible is the idea of it replacing the somewhat iconic cover art that preceded it.

17. Full Metal Jacket
This makes the list because it in no way represents the feeling of Kubrick’s film. Outside of the “Born to Kill” helmet, which is obviously not on Matthew Modine like it should be, nothing about this looks like or feels like Full Metal Jacket to me.

16. Secretary
Hmm…I did not know Secretary was a sitcom, but judging from James Spader’s whackadoo face, apparently it is. Also, this cover makes it seem like Spader is drawn into Gyllenhaal’s sexual inclinations when really it is the opposite; so it is also very misleading in its goofiness.

15. Primal Fear
The packaging for this is so corny. “Hard Evidence Edition”? Really? The one thing about this I do like is that it has the date on it. A nice touch; the only nice touch. “Warning: serves up twist after twist”. Yikes. The worst though, has to be the red EVIDENCE stripe across the top.

14. sex, lies and videotape
A cover of any kind featuring only Andie MacDowell’s face is, quite simply, not a good thing. Harsh I know, but I’m not a MacDowell fan (even though I will admit she is fantastic in this, her only standout role in my opinion). That aside, zooming in on this picture, makes everything about this look very cheap and hand-me-down.

13. The Resident
I present the first cover art on this list that made me burst out laughing. The original posters for this were also bad, but nothing reached quite this level. The image of Swank from the original poster has been taken and Jeffrey Dean Morgan has been pasted behind her. That’s it; that’s the poster. There is too much face here, making everything feel crammed in. Oh, and Christopher Lee is in it too, in case you didn’t know.

12. The Machinist
Another case of ‘why change the cover’? I liked the original cover art quite a bit. What they have done is taken a still from the film, reworked it a bit and pasted some truly bad font on to top it all off. Why? Why? Why?

11. Excalibur
I take issue with this because of the blatant aim to exploit a current trend in filmmaking. The original DVD cover is technically the same image. Here though, the image has been zoomed in and tinted with that grey visual trope that been be found in super serious films like Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood and others. Problem is, none of it looks natural and it is obvious what has been done and why it has been done. Also; terrible font.

10. Poltergeist II
This cover looks worse in person than most of the others. The effect is it looks like someone printed this cover on paper with a printer that was running out of ink (and also malfunctioning), folded it up and placed it in as the Blu-ray cover. That is how bad this looks.

9. True Grit
I don’t think this needs much explanation. The release of this Blu-ray coincided with the theatrical release of the Coen Brothers’ remake. It was taken a step further as the cover art is meant to evoke the remake, and not the original, taking away the identity of the Wayne version completely.

8. My Cousin Vinny
Jarringly different from the VHS and DVD cover, My Cousin Vinny has been photoshopped to death. From here on out, the reason will likely be terrible photoshop work. I really don’t know what to say about this.

7. The New World
This Blu-ray cover coincides with the release of the Extended Cut DVD and Blu-ray. There was a previous DVD cover before this one. Who in their right mind would look at this image, knowing nothing about the film mind you, and want to buy/rent/see it? Look at Colin Farrell’s face. Just look at it.

6. The Omen
I cannot describe how shitty this looks in stores. We are getting into speechless territory here, where nothing can even be said; the image speaks for itself.

5. I Saw the Devil
For the record, I appreciate the thought that was put into this cover. The concept is very clear here, and for that, I am grateful. I am not grateful however, to the botched execution, which is aesthetically unpleasing to say the least.  All I could do is shake my head in disappointment when I saw this. For a film that I hope to own one day, the idea of having cover art like this in my collection is just depressing to me. How dare they disrupt the beauty of Lee Byung-hun’s perfect face!

4. Never Let Me Go
What is with the red-yellow hues all over the place? The original poster did not highlight the “it” star power, so they took Knightley, who is in a supporting role here, and plastered her in the foremost spot. Then they threw in Mulligan and Garfield for good measure. Finally, we are painfully reminded of the beauty of the original poster as it is unfairly crunched it in the corner to remind us that the image is not the Blu-ray cover art. For shame. One of my favorite films from last year, if I saw this in stores knowing nothing about it, I would not give it a second thought.

3. Groundhog Day
So I’ll just come right out and say it; Bill Murray looks like a bloated hamster here. He also looks like Joey Gladstone. A bloated hamster and Joey Gladstone. This is an atrocity. Seriously; what am I looking at? Those are not Bill Murray’s hands. That’s barely Bill Murray’s face. More work has been done to that face than I have seen on a Blu-ray cover. Then we have Andie MacDowell, (and you know how I feel about her) taking up way more space than she should, but at least her face looks somewhat acceptable. Murray’s does not. It’s actually slightly terrifying.

2. Minority Report
I ask this question yet again: what was the problem with the old cover? Tom Cruise has been airbrushed into oblivion. I feel like I am looking at a cover for a Russian war submarine film or something; something that is not science-fiction. What is with that font? Cruise’s face has taken over completely. Plus, there is no way his hand, which looks like a baby’s hand by the way, would line up that way.

1. Near Dark
Without a doubt, Near Dark is the worst Blu-ray cover in existence. The reasons are blatantly obvious. Kathryn Bigelow’s masterful horror film has been reconfigured for the Twilight trend. This is a film about vampires that never says the word ‘vampire’. Anyone who has seen it knows the two couldn’t be less related; in fact, even comparing them feels wrong. They are completely different beasts. This is the only cover that outright offends me. I won’t buy the Blu-ray because of it. It also helps that the 2-disc DVD edition has awesome packaging and converts so well on a Blu-ray player that buying this edition is unnecessary.