Since evolved from a romantic horror genre to a more complex emotional battleground, Gothic arts take pleasure in allowing audiences to take part in their characters’ suffering; it’s the defining feature. The Germans have a word for the positive-extreme version: schadenfreude, or taking pleasure in someone else’s pain. It’s a mostly strange oddity of the human condition to relish in this emotion: it’s a private condition that’s always better left hushed. Hitchcock was a master of the Gothic, perhaps none more mesmerizing than Rebecca.
Alfred Hitchcock is known for his archetype defining tropes, many of which involve manipulating an audience to suffer–however slightly–for his own pleasure. Hitchcock’s use of schadenfreude remains classic, if not overlooked.His sound and visual cues were likely the first to signal a psychological trauma incoming (Psycho, The Birds), or the first to use first-person to treat the audience as a a voyeuristic character (Rear Window). But these tropes came from somewhere, and they likely were fully formed for Rebecca.
Rebecca‘s strongest feature is pacing, which seems to turn on a dime, starting and stuttering, purposefully designed to keep the audience intentionally off-balance. It’s written in such a way — likely in the source material, too — that we’re not supposed to know who to root for or against at any given time. The de Winters, alive oscillate between pitiable and crass. We want this man, Maxim de Winter, to find love again, then he’s a rube, and then he’s a murderer. His second wife, never given a name, is cloyingly Pollyannaish and bright-eyed, until she’s convinced to jump to her death. Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife, is revered, until it’s revealed shes the smarmiest of them lot, conniving as ever. These people are all terrible, and it’s Hitchcock’s pacing that let’s his audience figure this out on our own, without need to tell. Hitchcock was a master of show.
But Mrs. Danvers is the most Gothic character and sets a stage for Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho 20 years later. She has an obsession with Rebecca de Winter bordering on violent delusion, and takes offense to Maxim remarrying, soon after Rebecca’s death but likely ever. She relishes misleading Maxim’s second wife into dark corners, stirring trouble. We’re supposed to hate her, and empathize with Danvers’ prey as an object of evil affection. Mrs. Danvers is obviously mentally ill, but 1940s America sees her as evil and crazy. If Hitchcock understood this about his audience, he made a perfect character. If he didn’t, he shot a great character, accidentally.
Rebecca‘s strangest feature is also its pacing. Instead of leaning into the finality of its characters’ madness, this movie retreated into a court procedural for its final act. A back-and-forth, low standards-of-evidence trial sort of washed away any mystery this movie had and brought whatever plot this movie had sharply into focus. Whatever Gothic whimsy Rebecca set up in the first two acts, the only piece left was Danvers’ unexpected and wildly in-character self-immolation. It’s supposed to feel good to watch her burn.
Rebecca won best picture in 1940, making it the only winner in Alfred Hitchcock’s storied career–one of Oscar’s quirks that sounds made up. But it certainly holds some esteem, beating storied favorites like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and the forever-romantic The Philadelphia Story. 1940 saw the beginning of a shift in mood and tone for Hollywood pictures. With a strict moral code in effect, masters like Hitchcock had to find creatives ways to arouse the senses and please the millions that were beginning to fall in love with his work.