Versatile director Henry Koster gets strong performances from the stars Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton in this ambiguous tale of romance and suspicion.
The Production: 3.5/5
Twentieth Century Fox’s 1952 production of My Cousin Rachel was always meant to be a prestige picture. Based on the novel by Daphne de Maurier, whose writing had previously been translated to the screen by Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick (Rebecca), the picture was originally intended to be directed by George Cukor. However, when the studio, de Maurier and Cukor could not agree on a script, Cukor left the production, but not before Richard Burton was cast in his first starring role in an American film. Olivia de Havilland signed on as the title character, her first film role in about three years after spending that time dedicated to stage work. Fox ultimately tapped Henry Koster to direct.
Henry Koster is perhaps an under-appreciated director today, but his impressively diverse career had room for many types of film, from some of James Stewart’s quintessential roles (including Harvey, No Highway In The Sky and others) to the first CinemaScope production (The Robe), a genuine Christmas classic (The Bishop’s Wife) and even a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (Flower Drum Song). If his subject matter varied from project to project, his skill with actors, staging and pacing remained consistent. In lesser hands, My Cousin Rachel could have wound up as a disposable melodrama, a poor Hitchcock ripoff, or unintentional comedy, but Koster achieves just the right balance of suspicion, lust and frenzy in his telling of the story.
Richard Burton stars as Philip Ashley, a young orphan who had been raised by his wealthy cousin Ambrose (John Sutton) and godfather Nick (Ronald Squire) in Cornwall, England. When Ambrose’s health takes a turn for the worse, he’s advised to seek a warmer climate, and heads for Florence, leaving Philip behind. While in Florence, Ambrose meets and marries his cousin Rachel (Olivia de Havilland), and then begins sending disturbing letters back to Philip in Cornwall. Written in an unsteady hand, the letters from Ambrose lead Philip to believe that Ambrose is being poisoned by his new wife. Nick is less sure, revealing a family history of brain tumors, suggesting that Ambrose may simply be ill. Not taking any chances, Philip heads to Florence, only to find that Ambrose has died and that Rachel has left. He meets a man there named Guido Rainaldi (George Dolenz), who confirms that Ambrose has died of a brain tumor, and reveals that Ambrose has left his entire estate not to the new wife, but to Philip. Returning to Cornwall, Philip can’t let go of the idea that it’s Rachel, and not a brain tumor, that was responsible for Ambrose’s death.
All of that setup is covered quickly and efficiently, so that when de Havilland first enters the picture around twenty-six minutes in, she gets to enter like a star, and we the audience are as surprised by her as Burton’s Philip is. Philip has prepared for this confrontation, expecting to confront her about his suspicions of Ambrose’s death. But when Philip finally lays eyes on her, he instead finds himself face to face with a beautiful and kind woman for whom he instantly develops feelings. Just as Philip was sure before meeting Rachel that she was a villain, he’s equally sure afterwards that Rachel is the woman for him. He becomes infatuated with her, almost immediately pledging to turn over his inheritance to her. For Philip, it’s love at first sight, but Rachel seems more flattered than smitten. Though Philip’s feelings won’t be deterred, the more he learns about Rachel, the more his suspicions return. Before long, Burton is trapped between his feelings for Rachel and his intuition that she might be responsible for his cousin’s death.
Though Burton was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, he’s really the lead here, and the film is told from his perspective. Because the viewer only sees things from Philip’s perspective, there is a great deal of ambiguity surrounding the events of the story. Though the lack of clarity may prove frustrating for some, the storytelling allows the viewer to experience Philip’s emotional rollercoaster ride. Burton hits the right balance of infatuation, obliviousness and suspicion, selling his character’s hopes and fears. de Havilland has the nearly impossible task of portraying a character whose every action can and will be viewed in both the best and worst lights, while making it plausible that her motivation could be from either side. Koster keeps the pace quick, so that the film moves as fast as Philip’s mood swings.
3D Rating: NA
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 from a master provided by Fox, the transfer on this Twilight Time disc appears flawless. It’s an absolutely gorgeous presentation with great clarity, and not a hint of age-related damage or wear. Blacks are crisp, and shadow detail is beautifully rendered, making it easy to see why the cinematography had been nominated for an Academy Award in its original release. The movie has been divided into 25 chapters.
The DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono lossless track (incorrectly listed as 1.0 on the packaging) is every bit the equal of the video presentation. Dialogue is well recorded, and Franz Waxman’s effective score is perfectly mixed. Every line of dialogue lands as it should, and every music cue enhances the emotion of the scene it plays in. Optional English SDH subtitles are also available.
Special Features: 2.5/5
Isolated Score Track – Presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo, Franz Waxman’s score can be appreciated in its entirety here.
My Cousin Rachel Vintage Radio Show – An hour-long broadcast by the Lux Radio Theater from September 7th, 1953. Olivia de Havilland reprises her role as Rachel, while actor Ron Randell takes over the Burton part. The radio production hits the same story beats as the movie, but loses something with the lack of both Burton and the visual majesty of the film production.
Original Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2:49) – The trailer promotes Olivia de Havilland’s return to the screen after a multi-year absence, while calling Richard Burton “a bright new star.” The clips emphasize Burton’s character’s suspicion and obsession, perhaps making it appear a more open-and-shut case than the one the actual film delivered.
Six Page Booklet – Julie Kirgo’s enthusiastic liner notes shed light on the production of the film, offering praise for and insight into the work of stars de Havilland and Burton and director Koster. Her writing is complemented by production stills and a reproduction of the film’s original poster art.
With My Cousin Rachel, director Henry Koster delivers another solid film in a career notable for consistency and craft. Richard Burton is great in the lead role of a man torn by his infatuation with a woman he suspects the worst of. Olivia de Havilland demonstrates her star power with a performance that allows both Burton and the viewer to believe both the very best and very worst about her character. Though the disc is light on supplements, the first rate technical presentation and quality filmmaking contained within make this release worth a look, particularly for fans of gothic romance.
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