BR: My Cousin Rachel (1952)

September 28, 2011 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer: Very Good

Extras: Very Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: January 23, 2018

Genre: Gothic Romance / Drama / Suspense

Synopsis: A young man sets out to unmask his cousin’s widow as a gold digger, only to find a tea-making Oedipal sweetheart… or is she merely teasing him for the family fortune?

Special Features: Isolated Mono Music Track / 1953 Lux Radio drama starring Olivia de Havilland and Ron Randell (47 mins.) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 and available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and Twilight Time.




Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel contains the same combination of gothic terror a character experiences as levels of trust are tested, and idylls are shattered by a character once regarded as benign, if not simply wonderful in the eyes of a naïve central character.

In the film version of du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn (1939), the dramatic shift had a young wench discovering the benevolent older man she trusted was in fact a murderer who soon includes her (quite forcibly) on his hasty escape from the law, whereas in Rebecca (1940), the theme of distrust broadens as a young and foolishly naïve woman discovers a fascinating widower harbors a secret that may include the murder of his perfect (or not?) wife.

Both films were directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and as a director who liked repeating certain themes in his work (with the aid of obsessive-compulsive producer David O. Selznick during the forties), it wasn’t unusual for Hitchcock to direct the film adaptation of Francis Iles’ (er, Anthony Berkeley) novel Before the Fact. In that film, rebranded Suspicion (1941), the story deals with a woman’s mounting suspicion that her shiny, charismatic husband may have poisoned his last wife, and may be responsible for her own dwindling health using a glass of toxic, neon milk.

Whereas Hitchcock was forced to wimp-out and tack on a happier (and idiotic) ‘everlasting love’ ending due to producer and studio tampering, Rachel doesn’t skip any beats, and the filmmakers boldly leave the audience in a quandary, weighing all of the paranoia and flip-flops between love and hatred, but as tends to be the case with most gothic dramas, the emphasis is on mood rather than plot, and the final resolution isn’t always the most cathartic for audiences.

Rebecca, produced by Selznick and released by RKO, may be the grand dame of gothic dramas, but Fox produced its own share of high-profile shockers in which women were attracted to charismatic, mysterious men who may have locked away more than a few monsters in several dank, concrete walled closets.

The studio’s best known genre entries include Jane Eyre (1943) and Dragonwyck (1946), and Rachel fits in with their glossy productions steeped in ornate interior décor, castle-like manors, and brooding soundtracks, but Rachel is unique for flipping the gender roles where a man falls for a charismatic, mysterious older woman, and his ongoing torment is told entirely from his blinkered perspective.

According to Julie Kirgo’s liner notes for Twilight Time’s 2011 DVD and new 2018 Blu-ray, screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath, We’re Not Married!, Night People) was quite faithful to the novel and he didn’t wimp out, which ensured all the novel’s subterfuge and paranoia remained consistent with the film’s ending, rather than the botched flip-flop in Suspicion.

In Rachel, the mystery is also much deeper, and on a tighter personal note: after his cousin Ambrose (John Sutton, playing a very nice man after excelling as a sadistic shit in Captain from Castile) dies in Italy, 24 year old Philip (Richard Burton, making his U.S. debut at age 26) travels to the olive-tipped boot in search of the woman (Olivia de Havilland) his cousin believed may have poisoned him in the hope of acquiring the family estate in Cornwall after their hasty marriage.

Philip also meets the woman’s “friend” Guido (George Dolenz, father of Monkee Micky), who point blank explains his cousin didn’t live long enough to sign the alternate will that had been drafted. Convinced she’s a murderous gold-digger, Philip retains a hidden agenda to one day confront the vixen, and in another unexpected turn, he gets his chance when she shows up at the family doorstep in Cornwall.

Philip is filled with hatred, but his defenses erode when he can’t reconcile the monster in his mind with the benevolent figure who charms the family, his own friends, and eventually himself. On the eve of his 25th birthday, Philip signs over his share of the family property to Rachel and presumes they’re to be wed after one hot & bothered night which she plays as an affirmation of their mutual love, but when she spurns him at the day after’s dinner, he becomes enraged, and soon mysteriously as ill… just like his cousin Ambrose.

Beyond Philip’s lone throttling of Rachel (which gives her the perfect excuse to refuse both marriage, affection, and any further change of sex), there are no further physical actions, but it is fascinating to see a green-eared yet virile soon-to-be little lord fall flat on his face, and nearly go mad. Director Henry Koster (who would direct Burton a year later in Fox’s first CinemaScope production, The Robe), always restricts views and impressions of Rachel from Philip’s vantage – a daring move considering star de Havilland doesn’t appear in the film until the 25 minute mark.

By the film’s end, it’s immaterial as to whether Rachel did poison Ambrose and took a poke at young Philip, because it’s kind of fun to watch Burton (who’s surprisingly good) and de Havilland play an unsubtle Oedipal relationship where both characters seem to be genuinely struggling with internal goals; one suspects Philip hates himself for giving in to extremes of hate and love, and Rachel seems to genuinely care for the boy even if she may well be compelled to poison him. What may lessen her potential guilt is that with wealth in her hands and a puppy dog admirer, she has no reason to off him.

Koster’s direction doesn’t miss a beat of nuances, which extend from the performances, innuendo, and mood, whereas cinematographer Joseph LaShelle (Laura, Hangover Square, The Chase) and the films set designer and art directors ensure every image is perfectly composed. Whether the camera is static, glides down a hallway, or follows an actor as he stands, wanders, and sits at a different angle, every frame is packed with striking detail. The film’s look is an exquisite example of how to design a film where no single shot wastes any space within the frame.

Equally notable is a tricky dream sequence where Philip weaves in and out of a conscious state, and the audience is equally confused by the blurring of what is a pure nightmare and fuzzily rendered reality. The clever montage begins with the bedroom’s background suddenly dropping into a mist, characters emerging from the opaque nothingness, and poor Philip revisiting this state as least twice, imagining a halcyon wedding ceremony and the distant tormented voice of cousin Ambrose.

Rachel’s connection with the Hitchcock films is no coincidence, and while one could argue the film was merely a logical packaging of elements for another genre entry by a rival studio, it is amusing to note several additional parallels: both Rebecca and Suspicion co-starred Joan Fontaine (de Havilland’s actual sister, who also appeared in the underrated adaptation of Du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek); and the two films were scored by Franz Waxman, who also composed the music for Rachel using themes and motifs close to Rebecca (as well as The Bride of Frankenstein, which one suspects may have been a cheeky in-joke by the composer, with young Philip being the little Frankenstein). John Sutton, in turn, had a supporting role in Fox’s Jane Eyre – a coincidence perhaps best branded as Six Degrees of Twentieth Century-Fox.

Kirgo notes that when du Maurier was asked about Rachel’s guilt, she replied “I really don’t know,” which could also be read as ‘I really don’t’ care,’ because the story is about mood and emotional stress. Rachel isn’t for all tastes (and it would be curious to know whether the film was a bit of a dud in cinemas during its original run), but as a mood piece, it is fascinating.

TT’s prior DVD was affected by an usually low volume level which has been fixed in the new BR, and although the HD is sharp and crisp, there is palpable evidence of Fox’s DNR, which creates faint rays of grey instead of clean gradations in softer lit moments, as in Philip’s first dream sequence.

The isolated mono music track has been retained, and new extra is the Sept. 7, 1953 Lux Radio show version of du Maurier’s tale that borrows a bit from the book and the film.

De Havilland reprised her role (and comes into the drama much sooner), while Ron Randell plays little lord Philip. Unique to the radio version are compacted intro scenes, less obsessive recurrences of Rachel pouring her lethal tisana (herbal tea) blend for Philip, and Philip using his guardian to send a letter to Rachel, summoning her to England, instead of her showing up at the estate of her own volition as in Dunne’s screenplay. (George Cukor was reportedly hired to direct the film, but walked due to ‘creative differences’ when the script couldn’t be licked, or reportedly drifted too far from du Maurier’s novel.)

Amusing within the radio show are the ad blocks that trumpet the positive anti-Commie work being done by the United Nation’s Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Each block brings more news of good changes, including a U.S. soldier raising kids of former Chinese and Japanese enemies, and a funny scolding of the Soviets who in divided Berlin ‘have ruined’ their quarter compared to the ‘miraculous advances’ done in the American Sector.

The show closes with a head’s up for Fox’s new theatrical caper film The Steel Trap (1952), starring Joseph Cotton and Teresa Wright (both of whom co-starred in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt in 1943), and directed by Andrew L. Stone (The Night Holds Terror, Cry Terror! and The Last Voyage).

Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel was expanded into a 4 part BBC mini-series with Geraldine Chaplin in 1983, and for the big screen with Rachel Weisz in 2017.



© 2011; revised 2018 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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