Classic Film Talk: ‘My Cousin Rachel’ (1952)

Today we reminisce about

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

Directed by Henry Koster

Starring: Olivia de Havilland & Richard Burton

* Published specifically for the Regaling About Richard Burton Blogathon hosted by Gill at Reelweegiemidget’s Reviews *

Some of my most beloved films are screen adaptations of Daphne du Maurier’s novels and short stories. She had a great talent for writing dramatic mysteries that were also heavy on romance, adding to that an unmistakable ambiance that both compliments and isolates du Maurier’s adopted Cornwall region. The crisp black and white photography dazzles beyond any colour treatment, highlighting the characters while taking nothing away from their surroundings. Her stories seemed to have made a happy marriage with cinema, drawing in some of the most respected names in the business to help them come to life.

Though I have seen several films based on du Maurier’s work, there is one in particular that immediately comes to mind whenever I see or hear her name. That is film is 1940’s Rebecca, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Perfectly cast and beautifully made, it is also undoubtedly her best known adaptation as well as literary work. Having appreciated Rebecca so much made it easy for me to fall in love with My Cousin Rachel, a very different film from the other yet one that shares similar qualities. Before I get into that, however, let us get more familiarised with the premise of My Cousin Rachel.

“Death is the price for murder.”

The story begins in 1824, when Philip Ashley (Burton) was just a boy. He has been raised in Cornwall by his cousin Ambrose since the untimely death of his parents when he was just a few months old. They live on a sprawling estate right next to the sea, in a huge century-old mansion which also houses the grounds’ staff. Fourteen years later in 1838, Philip is now 24 years old and has grown quite close to his cousin, for whom he holds the utmost respect. Ambrose has spent many of the previous years travelling closer to the Mediterranean during the winter months for health reasons and this year, he chooses to go to Florence, Italy. While there, he meets a distant cousin named Rachel (de Havilland) who was married to an Italian Count but who has since become widowed. The two rather quickly marry and Ambrose decides to remain in Italy indefinitely. This change of usual plans does not sit well with Philip who is lonely and also a bit suspicious of Ambrose’s unusually abrupt conduct. Not long after, Philip receives two disturbing letters from Ambrose asking for help as if he is being held against his will. He shares them with his godfather, Nick, who suggests that Philip not take the letters too seriously. Although the content is disturbing and Ambrose’s handwriting shockingly erratic, it is the same type of behaviour that Nick witnessed with Ambrose’s father who had died of a brain tumour. Nonetheless, Philip decides to set off for Florence. Alas, Philip has arrived too late. Ambrose died three weeks prior after suffering from a high fever, spurring episodes of madness and violence. According to the Italian doctor who was following him, Ambrose died of a brain tumour and it the cause of death listed on the death certificate. Despite this evidence, Philip is convinced that his cousin has been murdered and immediately suspects his widow, Rachel, who had conveniently left Florence the day before his arrival. He promises to avenge Ambrose’s death, promising vengeance upon his cousin Rachel.

When Philip returns from his trip, Nick notifies him that Ambrose’s Will went unchanged after his marriage and that he is set to inherit the entire estate upon his 25th birthday. Until then, Nick will continue to act as his guardian and oversee any financial matters. One of his suggestions to Philip is to grant a stipend to Rachel considering that she is a widow and was not provided for in the Testament. Philip refuses and when Rachel arrives in Plymouth practically penniless, he only invites her to stay in the mansion after having been pushed to do so by Nick. When they finally meet, Philips is shocked to discover that his cousin Rachel is youthful, beautiful, and kind natured; hardly like the monster he imagined her to be. Her pleasantness and charm grow on him and they become close, spending a great deal of time together. One evening, he admits to her the real reason for which he invited her to stay with him: He was going to accuse her of killing Ambrose and had the letters as proof. His confession upsets her, causing Philip to throw the letters in the fire and embrace Rachel. Soon after, he instructs Nick to pay for £5,000 a year starting from the date of Ambrose’s death. (This sum equates to £535,000 or $681,522+ in today’s money.) By the time Christmas rolls around and approximately 3 months from his 25th birthday, Philip and Rachel have become each other’s darlings. This is when more trouble begins.

The generous financial allotment proves to be insufficient for Rachel’s spending habits and she has soon overdrawn her account by several hundred pounds, not the first time she has done so since her payments from Philip started. This does not matter to Philip and he orders Nick to take care of her overdraft and to allow her to have some of the family jewels. When his 25th birthday arrives, Philip has the most wonderful present for Rachel – the deed to the estate. At that same moment he asks her to marry him and though she does not outright accept, Philip believes her to be in agreement. The next day, however, Rachel’s attitude towards him completely changes. She publicly dismisses his affections for her, comparing them a schoolboy crush and admitting that she only pretended to act that way to get the money and the jewels. Crushed, Philip becomes enraged, almost obsessed with marrying her. After drinking one of her herbal tisanes, Philips quickly becomes unwell with a fever and starts hallucinating. In one of his vivid dreams, he imagines a wedding ceremony between him and Rachel and later believes them to really be married. However, this was only one of many visions that he would have while remaining unconscious over a three week period. Having dismissed his initial suspicions of Rachel killing Ambrose, Philip grows once again leery of her and believes that she is now out to kill him so that she can have full power over the estate and the money. It becomes dire for Philip to find out if she is guilty of these crimes and, moreover, how to stop her.

My Cousin Rachel was beautifully filmed and despite the entirety of filming having taken place on the studio backlots of 20th Century Fox, gave a believable impression of it having been filmed on location in south-western England. The mise en scène was perfect without being too over decorative; its bareness reflecting the early 19th century setting. A good part of the attraction also has to do with the ambiance which was often set at night allowing for windy, chilly meteorological conditions and darkness that works as a literal metaphor for not being able to foresee events and behaviours. Seeing Philip wander at night feeling that something is wrong yet not being able to recognise danger makes you uneasy, especially when he seems to be blinded about Rachel’s true intentions. One thing I really like about these winter and/or nocturnal environment is the feeling of wanting to be warm and safe inside the house with candles burning and a fire alit. You get the impression that Philip likes that too and inadvertently uses this comfort to help mature his sentiments for Rachel. When you think about it, they do not spend a great deal of time outside of the house, usually convening late at night when the servants have gone to bed and when they can truly feel as if they are alone. When Rachel refuses Philip’s proposal of marriage and he becomes angry, it is clear that the house has turned into more of a haunted house than resembling the happy abode it once was.

All of these environmental factors helped in reminding me of the beautiful manor Rebecca called Manderley. Most of that film was also set in Cornwall with the exception of the first part of the film that is set in Monte Carlo, ironically on the Mediterranean Coast. Both Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel give prominence in their titles to the main women of the stories who are akin to being femme fatales. Rebecca de Winter, though never seen and only talked about in a posthumous fashion, was a difficult person who tended to be very conniving to get what she wanted. Rachel is built-up to the same kind of person though turns out to be very different until she starts showing her true colours, which is a complete lack of consideration for anything but riches and social power. We do not discover Rebecca’s true nature until the second half of the film and more towards the end, so we spend a great deal of time thinking that she was the perfect wife, not to mention a most physically desirable woman. As for Rachel, we are introduced to her thinking she is bad, then she shows herself as good until she starts showing her bad side again. In the finale, we are not sure what to think of Rachel and her true intentions, an ambiguous conclusion that can either drive you mad with suspense or give you inspiration to try to seek out more clues during future viewings.

Interestingly enough, both Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel cast two well-known sisters in the leading roles. Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland were not just famous because of their great talent but also, especially in later years, because of their sibling rivalry. The two women purportedly were estranged for a good part of their lives and did not reconcile before Joan’s passing in 2013. Joan was nominated for her role as the Second Mrs. De Winter in 1940 and while Olivia was not nominated for her role as Rachel, she did get her hands and feet imprinted at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre that very same year. Some critics and audiences, including du Maurier herself, panned de Havilland’s casting and believed that she was miscast. I could not disagree more with this notion. She nurtured the concept of Rachel’s intentions being obscure, playing it for the audience as seriously as she did for Philip, even when he was not looking. Perhaps she was not accustomed to working with rigidly formatted dialogue, which can be seen in at least once scene where she flubs her lines without breaking the rhythm of the scene.

“You shall never leave me! Understand?!”

As for the man who deserves a heap of praise and admiration for his amazing career on-stage and on-screen, Richard Burton was simply magnificent in this film. His role as Philip Ashley was Burton’s first major screen role though you would not guess it from his ease in front of the camera. Shooting a film is a vastly different than starring in a play and I thought that Burton handled everything brilliantly. He was 26 and was initially not interested in the role, thinking he was too old even though he was only 1-2 years older than Philip. Burton is truly the star of the film despite getting second billing behind de Havilland, giving the story a wonderful appeal and setting a new standard in film performances. He had a beautiful, commanding voice and an intense stare that made him impossible to ignore. I was surprised to learn that he and de Havilland reportedly did not get along during filming because they worked well together and really brought a lot of justice to their characters.

There is no surprise to me why this was one of Fox’s top earning films of the year. It is a worthy film with high quality performances that is most definitely worth your time.

Filming the wedding scene from Philip’s dream sequence.


3 thoughts on “Classic Film Talk: ‘My Cousin Rachel’ (1952)

  1. Lovely review, Erica. I hope you get to read the book if you haven’t, I think you’d really enjoy it. What I find fascinating about the characters of Rachel and Rebecca are their intense ambiguity. Are they really terrible women, or are they women who want to be independent in a male dominated society, and therefore seem evil? Really enjoyed reading your thoughts as usual 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Gabriela! 😊 You are so right about both women being utterly ambiguous. I think I would have to watch this film quite a few more times to be able to fully pick-up on de Havilland’s behaviours. I just could no take a side after the first viewing, very much like Philip in fact. I would love to get both novels from Du Maurier. Perhaps I can make some time this Spring. 🌷

      Liked by 1 person

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