MY COUSIN RACHEL: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1952) Twilight Time
Richard Burton marked a stunning American debut in Henry Koster’s My Cousin Rachel (1952), personally supervised by 2oth Century-Fox chief, Darryl F. Zanuck and weighing – at times – rather heavily on the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Oscar-winning Rebecca (1940), Samuel Goldwyn’s 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights, but also, Fox’s 1943 adaptation of Jane Eyre. Indeed, Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel are owed other connective tissues; Brit-born literary giant, Daphne du Maurier the author of both works, and composer, Franz Waxman having penned the film score for each. In hindsight, it’s Waxman, borrowing from himself, that lends ‘Rachel’ a sort of ‘hand-me-down’ quality; the otherwise outstanding production infused with many fine performances, and, John DeCuir and Lyle Wheeler’s gloomy art direction, perfectly photographed by master cinematographer, Joseph LaShelle. Those with keener eyes will recognize remnants of set design stolen outright from both the aforementioned Jane Eyre and 1943’s gothic romantic/thriller, Dragonwyck; the great halls of the fictional Ambrose Ashley’s Cornish ancestral home a fascinating amalgam of all this Tudor bric-a-brac on display in another Fox film: 1947’s Forever Amber. To add even more of an air of authenticity, Zanuck had a second unit fly to England to shoot process plates in and around the Cornwall coastline; later, effectively matted into DeCuir and Wheeler’s production design.
My Cousin Rachel went through a rather fascinating incubation. Du Maurier’s literary agent had rejected virtually every offer put forth by a Hollywood film studio, hoping to sell off the rights for a cool $100,000 and 5% of the international gross. He was to settle for $80,000 instead (nice work if you can get it!) after Zanuck negotiated the deal in Sept. 1951. And while du Maurier was pleased with the payout she was far less enthusiastic after seeing an early draft of the screenplay she referenced as ‘quite desperate’. Zanuck’s first choice for director, George Cukor agreed. It was abysmal. And thus, Cukor would never see the inside of a sound stage; the project assigned to Henry Koster instead. Ironically, Nunnelly Johnson’s shooting script stayed very close to its source material, jettisoning several comedic vignettes earlier written in that both Cukor and du Maurier felt had weakened the overall taut and terrifying gloom of the piece. In later years, rumors abounded Cukor had planned to woo Greta Garbo from retirement to play the title role. At some point, Vivien Leigh’s name was also mentioned in the running. Ultimately, Leigh’s Gone With the Wind co-star, Olivia de Havilland would assume the part and emerge triumphant; the picture marking de Havilland’s big ‘return’ to the screen after 1949’s The Heiress. In the interim, the actress had departed Hollywood to concentrate on a successful stage career.
At the writing of this review, Miss de Havilland is 101 years young, and still very much a vital and iconic grand dame from Hollywood’s golden age; thriving in her adopted country – France. We have to give it to Olivia de Havilland; feisty and fearless. For here is an actress who, for better or worse, helped foster a life-long animosity with her own sister, Joan Fontaine (the two never spoke after 1950), turned down a marriage proposal from the likes of screen mega-heartthrob, Errol Flynn, and, successfully sued her alma mater, Warner Bros. in 1944 over unfair work practices, resulting in The De Havilland Decree; whereupon the practice of ‘extending’ an actor’s contractual obligations via suspension for failing to partake in any assigned project was effectively overturned. If only for this, de Havilland would be deserving of a place in Hollywood history. But what of her legendary career; a star of the first quality and magnitude with enough Oscar-nominations (if hardly, statuettes) to recommend some truly inspired performances throughout her 60+ years in front of the camera. De Havilland’s performance as the eponymous Rachel is among these.
As Du Maurier’s novel never entirely reveals whether or not the widow, Contessa Rachel Sangalletti is, in fact, an enterprising murderess, de Havilland’s superb rendering of the character achieves a deliriously wicked tone of congeniality; in tandem, ringing with pious sincerity and faux incredulity as a devious viper. De Havilland’s sustained suspiciousness is peerlessly reconciled against Richard Burton’s towering intensity as the hot-blooded, romantically-stricken heir-apparent. The supporting cast, including George Sutton (as Ambrose Ashley), Audrey Dalton (Philip’s long-suffering betrothed, Louise Kendall), Ronald Squire (her father and Philip’s godfather, Nicholas) and finally, George Dolenz (as slick consiglieri, Guido Rainaldi) are uniformly excellent. My Cousin Rachel remains a superior entertainment because the cast comes together as few do, bringing the very best to their game. Quite simply, there is not a false note among them. Still, the picture is anchored by the steadfast sobriety of Olivia de Havilland’s poker-faced and, at times matronly widow, steadily gaining ground without seemingly sacrificing an ounce of personal integrity, and also, by Burton’s fiery and inconsolable fop, hoodwinked in love, mislead by his passion.
Immediately following the Fox fanfare, My Cousin Rachel opens with a rather morbid prologue: young Philip (Nicholas Koster), age 10, taken to the crossroads near the Cornish country estate owned by his guardian, Ambrose; shown the remains of a ‘good man’ turned to murder, and lifelessly dangling from a gibbet because he allowed the dictates of lust to dominate his reason. We fade into the main titles and Franz Waxman’s very ‘Rebecca-esque’ melodic strains; broodingly romantic, but with an undercurrent of disturbing menace. Life at the great house is resplendently assured. As Philip matures through his teenage years (briefly played by Hamilton Camp), his devotion to Ambrose develops a homoerotic underlay. Hence, their yearly separation to preserve Ambrose’s fragile health is a torturous ordeal for Philip; comforted only by his benevolent godfather, Nicholas, who sincerely hopes to marry off his daughter to this master of the great house. To stave off the effects of England’s damp and drafty winters, Ambrose elects to take his latest sojourn abroad in Italy. Alas, he will not return.
Economically, Koster’s direction and Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay make short shrift of what follows: Ambrose, seemingly in love, and wed to the - as yet unseen - Contessa Sangalletti. In marriage, Ambrose’s regular correspondences to Philip become more sporadic – then, erratic; and cryptic – Ambrose suggesting his new bride has become a destructive influence, conspiring with her consiglieri, Guido Rainaldi against him. Gravely concerned, Philip departs for Florence immediately, arriving too late at the shuttered Villa Sangalletti where he is informed by its kindly groundskeeper (Mario Siletti) the widow has since departed for parts unknown after the death of her husband. Overwrought with emotion, Philip visits Ambrose’s grave and vows to put to torture the woman he now suspects of hastening his guardian’s death. Philip journeys into town and confronts Rainaldi, whom he cannot abide even at a glance. The solicitor is gracious, but also a tad too accommodating and congenial for Philip’s bitterness to tolerate.
Returning home to Cornwall, Philip discusses the contents of Ambrose’s final correspondence with Nicholas and also his suspicions regarding the unseen Rachel. Reluctantly, Nicholas reveals to Philip that Ambrose’s death certificate reveals he died of a brain tumor – a hereditary condition that afflicted and claimed the life of Ambrose’s late father. Nicholas also informs Philip that upon his 25th birthday he will inherit Ambrose’s ancestral home, since no provisions were ever made in Ambrose’s Will to accommodate Rachel. Philip is stunned. It certainly places his scenario – that Rachel murdered Ambrose for his money – in jeopardy. Two weeks later, Nicholas receives a letter from Rachel. She has arrived by boat in Plymouth and desires an audience with Philip. Directly, Philip invites Rachel to remain at his house, plotting to use the occasion to confront, humiliate and condemn her into a confession of murder. Instead, and almost immediately, Philip falls under Rachel’s spell. She is uncharacteristically quite the opposite of what he expected to find: hardly the wanton spendthrift Ambrose alluded to in his later letters.
Pressed by his own conscience, Philip does confront Rachel with Ambrose’s letters. But almost immediately he is ashamed of his actions, tearing at the proof and casting its crumpled pieces into the fire. Philip begs Rachel’s forgiveness. This, she willingly offers and the two develop ‘an understanding’ that, at least for Philip, blossoms into love. An intimacy is inferred, rather than revealed outright; Philip, using the occasion of his 25th birthday – when he has officially inherited Ambrose’s estate, to make the announcement he intends to wed Rachel at the earliest possible convenience. Nicholas is hardly surprised. Naturally, Louise is heart-stricken. But perhaps the most startling reaction comes from Rachel who questions whether the wine has gone to Philip’s head. She rejects his proposal outright. As she is ‘much older’ than Philip, Rachel’s admonishment wreaks havoc on Philip with an almost maternal spank of disquieting frigidness. That evening, Philip makes Rachel a present of the deeds and of the family’s jewels. His love is undiluted. He wants Rachel to possess what rightfully ought to have been hers through marriage to Ambrose.
The widow resists…or is she merely feigning bewilderment? Accepting Philip’s trousseau, Rachel still refuses to be wed to him. Philip’s mood is further soured when he discovers Rainaldi has followed Rachel to England. The two periodically are seen together and, although only in public, Philip begins to suspect perhaps Ambrose was right: Rachel and Rainaldi did conspire to destroy him. At the same time, Philip becomes aware Rachel has given the gardener instructions to relocate a tree on the property, yielding curious bean-like fruit that is quite toxic if ingested. Nightly, Rachel plies Philip with a special herbal tea she brews from local berries and leaves. Not long thereafter, Philip falls ill and hallucinates in tandem he and Rachel have been married, and, Rainaldi and Rachel are scheming to see him dead. Days pass and Philip awakens from his stupor to discover Rachel nursing him back to health. Confused about what has transpired since his illness, Rachel makes it quite clear to Philip his delusion of their marriage was simply that; no such ceremony has taken place.
Again, Philip begins to speculate Rachel may be plotting to put an end to him and thus be free to marry Rainaldi; the two living off the estate she now lays claim to officially. Prior to his illness, Philip had given commands for a terraced garden to be completed. Now, the workers have also begun to toil on a sunken garden overlooking the sea. The foreman explains to Philip the rather crooked bridge high overhead will not bear any weight. Philip keeps this discovery to himself and waits for Rachel to leave the manor house before encouraging Louise to help him search for evidence proving Rachel has been slowly poisoning him with her steeped and highly toxic tea made of berries from the tree in his own backyard. Louise is skeptical, but obliges Philip in his search of Rachel’s room while she is out. Alas, they discover nothing to incriminate Rachel. Indeed, even Philip begins to doubt himself. Realizing Rachel is bound for the footbridge, Philip races to prevent her from going over the edge. He is too late, discovering her unconscious remains at the bottom of a very steep cliff and frantically climbing down a trellis of vines in an attempt to rescue her. Rachel briefly awakens in his arms, questioning “Why did you do it?” before expiring in his arms. In the movie’s epilogue we witness Philip in the movie’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ moment; trapped as Heathcliff in his twinkling of despair; in voice-over, revealing his doubts about Rachel’s innocence or guilt. In death, she will likely forever haunt his brain as a ghostly refrain to wretched love vanished.
My Cousin Rachel is deceptively romantic; book-ended by a mournful homage to men of honor whose moral character is torn asunder by their unquenchable amorous appetites. Disastrously, this is manifested as a corruption of the soul; willful, ominous and self-destructive. And Richard Burton – in his American debut – reveals with startling clarity the machinations and enigma of the male mind, derailed by hormonal lust. As we see ‘his’ cousin, Rachel only through Philip’s wounded and, earlier dagger-filled eyes, our perceptions of her virtue and moral integrity are already tainted before de Havilland’s arrival on the screen, some twenty minutes into the story. Reputation is a curious thing, and Rachel’s has been rather obnoxiously stained by Philip’s ‘rush to judgment’ estimation of her perverted wiles, gleaned solely from the final letters in Ambrose’s unravelling and mysterious inferences. Did Rachel poison her first husband, the Count, and later Ambrose too? If so, she might have done the same to Philip as he lay ill at home. Instead, she nursed him back to health. Or did she merely fear a coincidence too obvious for keener and more critical minds from her social caste, eager to condemn without first analyzing the truth? As in du Maurier’s novel, Henry Koster’s direction isn’t telling; and neither is Rachel, who dies either most unfortunately of all, virtually innocent of her reputation, or, on the flipside, guilty as sin and to satisfy Hollywood’s censorship code of the day that insisted all murderers pay the price for their wickedness. My Cousin Rachel ingeniously refuses to surrender a verdict. And thus, we – along with Philip – are left to ponder the gravity of a man truly remorseful. Has Philip sinned against the woman he supposedly loved? If so, he now faces the Arctic desolation of his own contempt and a rebuke from love itself, denied him for all time.
My Cousin Rachel arrives on Blu-ray via Twilight Time and looking absolutely stunning, thanks to a new 4K remastered offering in 1080p from Fox Home Video. The B&W image is a sumptuous feast for the eye, evoking a modicum of film grain looking very indigenous to its source. Contrast is uniformly excellent and fine details abound in background information throughout. You are going to love – LOVE – the way this disc looks. It’s that simple. Age-related artifacts are nonexistent. The image is clean, smooth and perfectly balanced. We sincerely wish all Fox deep catalog titles were afforded as much consideration. The 2.0 DTS mono is well-balanced. Regrettably, Twilight Time’s only extra is an isolated score track. No audio commentary. My Cousin Rachel is certainly deserving of one. We would have also wished for Biography Specials on Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland. Several TT and Kino Lorber Fox catalog releases have, in fact, included Biography Specials as part of their ‘extras’ content. But no – nothing but the movie and a well-worn theatrical trailer. Bottom line: My Cousin Rachel looks ravishing in hi-def. We highly recommend this disc for both content and transfer. It is as perfect as you would want it to be.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)