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Is It Ever a Good Idea to Remake Hitchcock?

Netflix’s new take on ‘Rebecca’ is not the first film to be overshadowed by the original work of the Master of Suspense

Getty Images/Netflix/Ringer illustration

A ghost haunts Rebecca, the new film by Ben Wheatley premiering on Netflix this week. An adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 bestseller, it’s the story of an unnamed protagonist (Lily James) who marries wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) and moves to Manderley, de Winter’s sprawling Cornish estate. The protagonist finds the place filled with reminders of de Winter’s first wife, the Rebecca of the title, and overseen by the unyielding housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), who reminds the new arrival of all the ways she fails to measure up to her predecessor. The movie’s not bad but, like the Second Mrs. de Winter, it can’t shake the specter of what came before. It turns those who’ve seen Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 adaptation of the same book into an audience of Mrs. Danverses.

Rebecca isn’t technically a remake of the Best Picture–winning Hitchcock film; the opening credits to the 2020 version describe it as a “picturization of Daphne du Maurier’s celebrated novel.” It’s a new adaptation of the same book. But the first adaptation casts an inescapable shadow over this new version, which unavoidably invites comparison to the original. Sometimes Wheatley’s version even seems to encourage it. Like Hitchcock’s, his Rebecca opens with the protagonist recounting a dream of returning to Manderley as the camera creeps onto the grounds of the now-overgrown property. Wheatley paces it a little more quickly, however, and employs CGI-assisted visuals in place of Hitchcock’s miniatures. There’s nothing wrong with the scene, but also nothing that makes it feel necessary.

The opening sets the tone for the movie, which re-creates familiar moments to lesser effect and with a cast that has to work in the shadow of Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, and Judith Anderson, all of whom earned Oscar nominations for their work. Hitchcock’s first film after leaving England for Hollywood, Rebecca was born of a struggle between the director and powerful producer David O. Selznick, but however unpleasant their clash, a great film emerged from the process. Wheatley’s, by contrast, plays like the work of a director exploring territory already claimed by somebody else’s battle. There’s no way to watch it without being reminded you could be watching Hitchcock’s version instead.

Maybe that’s why Hitchcock remakes are relatively rare: There’s just no good reason to try to top the work of a filmmaker dubbed the Master of Suspense. Even Hitchcock struggled to remake Hitchcock. Sensing room for improvement in his 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much (which he later described as the work of “a talented amateur”), he loosely remade the film in 1956. The result, though pretty good, is one of the lesser efforts made during Hitchock’s Hollywood golden age, losing the punchiness of the original for a more leisurely thriller that features Doris Day singing “Que Sera Sera” a few times too many.

Hitchcock’s 1930s films—tight, clever, fast thrillers made in Britain and filled with dark humor and pre-War dread—have attracted the most Hitchcock remakes. A largely forgotten, and now hard to track down, remake of 1935’s The 39 Steps followed Hitchcock’s second pass at The Man Who in 1959, but otherwise filmmakers seemed to lose their nerve until the end of the ’70s, shortly after the Master himself had bowed out of filmmaking with Family Plot in 1976. But if there are good reasons to remake a Hitchcock film, they can’t be found in a second remake of The 39 Steps, released in 1978, and the remake of Hitchcock’s 1938 thriller The Lady Vanishes that appeared the following year.

The rights to both films belonged to the Rank Organization, a venerable British production company that had scaled back its film ambitions in the early ’70s. That changed with the success of Bugsy Malone in 1976, an Alan Parker–directed musical that paid homage to classic Hollywood gangster films with an all-kid cast. Making his feature debut after years of directing innovative commercials, Parker took a weird idea and applied a glossy, forward-looking style that would prove influential in the years that followed. But Rank took the wrong lessons away from the film, concluding that what contemporary viewers really wanted was to escape to the past. “You have to go back in time to tell a story that doesn’t have to face ’70s problems,” Rank’s head of production, Tony Williams, told The Guardian in 1978. “What people are nostalgic for isn’t necessarily any particular period but the happier values that are missing today.”

Whatever happier values Rank’s The 39 Steps might have promoted, it lacks most of the qualities that make Hitchcock’s original so memorable. Directed by Hammer Films veteran Don Sharp, it’s again technically not a remake but another adaptation of the novel by John Buchan. Sharp’s version stays slightly truer to the source material than Hitchcock’s, but it otherwise tries, and fails, to match Hitchcock, first with a scene inspired by the crop duster attack in North by Northwest, then with a climax set at Big Ben reminiscent of Hitchcock finales featuring national monuments like Mount Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty. (The scene also borrows from Safety Last! and the lesser-known British comedy My Learned Friend in the process.) It’s a well-staged moment but the film takes a long time to get there. Along the way it feels a lot like the sort of visually dull British TV procedurals that would pop up on PBS throughout the 1980s. (Star Robert Powell even revisited the central character for a short-lived series 10 years later.)

At least Sharp’s film approached the material with a little more humility. Discussing his update of The Lady Vanishes, screenwriter George Axelrod treated the original film like an old jalopy that couldn’t compete with the slick new roadsters of the modern era. “What we’re competing with here,” he told The Guardian, “is not the real picture but people’s memory of it. Hitchcock’s film had some brilliant things in it, but as a whole picture you have to admit it’s pretty creaky.” It’s the 1979 version that looks pretty creaky now, however. Wearing a dress inspired by Marilyn Monroe’s costume in The Seven Year Itch (a better Axelrod-penned film), Cybill Shepherd makes a game but futile attempt at imitating a classic screwball heroine while costar Elliott Gould mostly looks slightly annoyed to be there. And instead of a Hitchcockian finale, director Anthony Page delivers a pedestrian shoot-out. Unlike the original, it left behind few memories, fond or otherwise.

Rather than attempt to best Hitchcock, Gus Van Sant’s (almost) shot-for-shot remake of Psycho aspires to do nothing more than imitate him as closely as possible. Released in 1998, it’s more a fascinating art installation than a functional movie, casting Anne Heche as the doomed Marion Crane (originally played by Janet Leigh) and Vince Vaughn as her eventual murderer Norman Bates (a role made famous by Anthony Perkins). Van Sant had been kicking the idea around for years, hoping the contrast between the original material and the cast’s modern acting style and other contemporary touches would provide a compelling contrast. He got the green light after the success of Good Will Hunting, but moviegoers largely stayed away and most critics expressed frustration. “I felt oddly as if I were watching a provincial stock company doing the best it could without the Broadway cast,” Roger Ebert wrote in his one-and-a-half-star review. Years later, Van Sant would call it a “weird science experiment” that “didn’t work.”

By contrast, the year’s other Hitchcock remake essentially threw out all but the most basic elements of its inspiration, including its title. Written by Patrick Smith Kelly and directed by Andrew Davis (The Fugitive), A Perfect Murder borrows the basic setup of Dial M for Murder, an adaptation of a Frederick Knott play, and grafts it onto a high-’90s thriller of betrayal and tastefully filmed simulated sex scenes. Michael Douglas (of course) stars as Steven, an overextended Wall Street titan who learns of his wealthy wife Emily’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) infidelity—then hires her own lover (Viggo Mortensen) to kill her. Though the film occasionally makes it impossible to wonder what Hitchcock, with his fondness for icy blonds, might have done with Paltrow—who’s quite good as a woman who can almost hide her secrets—it’s otherwise a stylish thriller that uses Hitchcock’s original as a jumping-off point rather than as an antique in need of refurbishing.

And maybe that’s the secret to drawing on Hitchcock: It’s better to refine and expand than to imitate. Sometimes dismissed as a mere rip-off artist early in his career, Brian De Palma has never tried to hide Hitch’s influence, but he’s also treated it as raw material he could rework to suit his own ends (it’s no accident that Dressed to Kill begins with a shower scene, then expands from there). Makers of Italian giallos—lurid thrillers named for the yellow paper used to print cheap paperbacks—created a whole genre out of reworking Hitchcockian ideas. The Mario Bava film that kicked off the movement was even called The Girl Who Knew Too Much (in every country except the United States).

A film like Wheatley’s Rebecca is mostly harmless, or would be if it weren’t currently so difficult to see the original. In the pre–home video era, studios behind remakes would often take original films out of circulation to avoid unfavorable comparisons. The 1966 version of Stagecoach, for instance, became the version of Stagecoach for a few years, with 20th Century Fox even threatening legal action against those who would screen the original. That Hitchcock’s Rebecca currently can’t be streamed legally anywhere is almost surely a coincidence, but that coincidence makes the remake the only version of Rebecca within easy access of most viewers. (Criterion released a typically excellent Blu-ray version in 2017, however.) The crime is that Hitchcock’s movie is really worth seeking out. As the remake proves, there’s really nothing else like it.

Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.