It’s been years since I first saw the 1952 film, My Cousin Rachel, and a rereading on the book written by Daphne du Maurier sent me on a hunt for a copy. Du Maurier is probably best remembered for Rebecca, and while I think the film adaptation of du Maurier’s novel Rebecca is excellent and much glossier, it seems strange that the film should hold such a premier position in film history (there’s even a Criterion version) while its poor relation My Cousin Rachel– has almost disappeared from view. Rebecca starred Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and George Sanders and was directed by Hitchcock. The film won Best Picture and Best Cinematography at the 1941 Academy awards. My Cousin Rachel, directed by Henry Koster, racked up a number of Academy Award nominations in 1953 but no wins. One of the Oscar nominations went to Richard Burton for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, but he lost to Anthony Quinn for his role in Viva Zapata (Burton won a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year). My Cousin Rachel was Richard Burton’s first American film, and the film’s salacious trailer calls him a “newcomer.” Burton is young here and doesn’t yet have the screen presence to dominate–but then again perhaps it’s because the character he plays, Philip Ashley, is a very confused young man whose judgement is clouded by sexual desire.
My Cousin Rachel is set on Daphne du Maurier’s beloved Cornwall coast, and most of the action takes place there with just a short sidetrip to Florence. The story opens (as does the book) with Ambrose Ashley (John Sutton) taking his small orphaned cousin and ward, Philip to see the corpse of a hanged man swinging in the wind. Ambrose admonishes Philip that the dead man’s fate is the result of out-of-control passion–a dire and prophetic warning as it turns out.
Fast forward to Ambrose now a middle-aged man and Philip (Richard Burton) in his twenties. Ambrose’s health necessitates a winter abroad, and the two men part–somewhat reluctantly. Ambrose’s winter abroad extends into the spring and the summer along with the news that he’s made the acquaintance of a distant cousin–a widow named Rachel Sangalleti. This is shortly followed by the astonishing news that Ashley, a confirmed bachelor, has married the widow. Some months later, Philip begins to receive strange incoherent letters from his cousin which indicate not only that he is seriously ill but also that he suspects Rachel of poisoning him.
Alarmed, Philip rushes off to Florence, but he’s too late. Ambrose is dead, and with a new will unsigned, all of Ambrose’s property falls to Philip….
Then some time later, Rachel arrives in Cornwall at Philip’s estate ostensibly for a short visit. When she first arrives, Philip is primed to accuse her of murder, but he’s immediately stunned by her sweet pliant nature and he’s soon won over by Rachel’s persistent, gentle charm.
The premise of both the film and the book is whether or not Rachel killed Ambrose. There are certainly clues that argue both points–although I think that ultimately the book was far more ambiguous. This is due, no doubt, to du Maurier’s skill as a writer, but perhaps the visual aspects of the film and some of the facial expressions caught by the camera add a dimension that is, of course, absent from the book. Gothic film frequently explores the vulnerability of women and the predatory nature of men, and this film cleverly plays with that idea, so as the drama unfolds, we see both Rachel and Philip as predator and victim depending on our view of the events. Olivia de Havilland is perfect as Rachel–at times she appears youthful and innocent, but at other times a flicker of an expression passes across her features, and we wonder–as Philip does–just what she is capable of. Meanwhile neighbour and now guardian Nicholas Kendall (Ronald Squire ) and his daughter Louise (Audrey Dalton) are reluctant onlookers and have no doubt that Rachel’s conduct is questionable at best.
There’s no small amount of sexual manipulation afoot, but all those involved have some degree of self-interest, so when Kendall tries to warn Philip about Rachel, is he perhaps unhappy to see his daughter, Louise (Audrey Dalton) cast aside for Rachel?
Camera shots make great use of shadow to enhance the drama and unexpressed fear of the characters, and some of the action set against the back drop of the wild Cornish coast emphasizes the depths of hidden, explosive and destructive passion. One of ideas implicit in the film is that Rachel’s somewhat unconventional behaviour (she continually invites Philip into her boudoir) is due to her ‘Italian ways,’ and indeed her open and easy affectionate manner with Philip sets his head spinning. Underneath this sexual tension, however, is the idea that Philip’s repression, once unleashed, will lead to destruction. Anyway, I know where I stand on the subject of Rachel’s innocence or guilt, and for those interested in the book or Gothic drama, the film really is a marvellous little gem and well-worth catching.