Appellate Judge Tom Becker does not consider his cousins "marriage material."
What one moment of passion can bring on a man.
Philip Ashley (Richard Burton, Cleopatra) was raised by his loving cousin Ambrose in the 19th Century English countryside. When Philip is in his early 20s, Ambrose moves to Italy and marries a widow, Rachel.
Ambrose takes ill, and Philip starts receiving letters from his cousin that suggest Rachel might be causing him harm. When Philip goes to Italy to see Ambrose, he learns his cousin has just died and Rachel has left; however, there is a will that leaves everything to Philip.
Philip blames Rachel for Ambrose's death, despite Ambrose's Italian lawyer providing evidence of a brain tumor. When Rachel comes to visit Philip at the estate in England, Philip is prepared to cause her grief.
But when Philip meets his cousin Rachel (Olivia de Havilland, Gone With the Wind), he forgets his plans for revenge and finds himself in love with her—not merely a romantic love, but an all-consuming passion, an obsession, a madness.
Rachel seems thrilled by Philip's attentions and returns his love…but then, her attitude toward him changes. And then, Philip finds himself becoming ill…
Based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel is a sumptuous gothic romance/mystery with a heaping dose of psychological-horror stylishly directed by Henry Koster (The Robe), and perfectly acted by Burton and de Havilland.
Like the book, the film is told from Philip's perspective; we only see Rachel as Philip sees her. One minute, she's a warm, devoted companion; the next, a self-centered temptress out for the family fortune. This skewed perspective makes this far more challenging and provocative than the standard gothic tale.
Complicating matters is the fact that she does not conduct herself as a "proper" British woman. She is independent and forward—including sexually forward, heady stuff for the sheltered young man, and likely heady stuff for 1952 audiences.
My Cousin Rachel isn't a film of great shocks and stunning revelations; it's insidious, the kind of film that creeps up on you and stays long after the end credits have finished. Nunnally Johnson (The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit), who also produced, adapted Du Maurier's story faithfully—save for the ending, an odd decision, as it retains the basics and omits a single, though significant, detail.
The film also holds up well when compared to Alfred Hitchcock's Du Maurier adaptation of Rebecca, which starred de Havilland's sister, Joan Fontaine. If My Cousin Rachel isn't quite the masterpiece that Rebecca was, it's a darker, and in some ways, more disturbing, vision that eschews the earlier film's neat wrap up for something far more ambiguous. The film is awash with atmosphere, like a fever dream—in fact, one striking sequence actually features a fever dream, a haunting and terrible thing.
This was Burton's first role in an American film, and he gives a fascinating star turn in a largely unsympathetic role. He received his first Oscar nomination for this, as Best Supporting Actor. De Havilland, never more beautiful and enigmatic, is wholly believable as the slightly older woman who becomes object of his desires.
The disc is a limited edition from Fox's Twilight Time series, and it's a pretty impressive package. The full-frame image looks very nice, and the mono audio track is strong and clear. For supplements, we get an isolated music track that showcases Franz Waxman's score, and a terrific essay by film writer Julie Kirgo. The whole package seems like one of the lower-priced single discs Criterion was putting out a few years ago; considering the shameful way most studios deal with catalogue titles, this is a very welcome and respectful release.
An engrossing, mature, and twisted classic, My Cousin Rachel is a revelation. Fox's Twilight Time disc is a fine release of a film that's worthy of rediscovery.
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