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Not being into supermarket literature, I normally avoid stories with male heroes named Ashley. But Daphne Du Maurier's My Cousin Rachel can be listed as a superior example of the gothic romantic mystery genre. This Fox picture might be listed as a classic if screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and director Henry Koster had overcome a basic problem with stories that wish to maintain an aura of ambiguity. As a general rule, onscreen events either happen or don't happen, but they can't do both. Even the excellent ghost story The Innocents suffers from the necessity of attaching concrete images to what Henry James left as a perceptual mystery. Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland give impressive performances in what for 1952 was a daring tale of passion among the landed gentry of 1830s Cornwall, but the story conflicts sometimes seem less ambiguous than inconsistent.
Richard Burton plays Philip Ashley, a brooding type taken to staring at the waves that crash on the rocks below the ancestral Ashley mansion. Somewhat sheltered by his guardian cousin Ambrose (John Sutton), Philip is shocked to receive letters from Naples that indicate that Ambrose's new wife Rachel Sangalletti (Olivia de Havilland) may be poisoning him. To his surprise, Philip and not Rachel inherits everything upon Ambrose's death. When Rachel comes to visit he's prepared to accuse her of murder. He instead discovers a sweet, loving woman who wants none of her husband's money. Rachel is also very affectionate, and forward in a manner interpreted by Cornwall natives as continental. Philip falls head over heels for Rachel and orders that she be given a handsome allowance. Against the wishes of his financial advisor and friend Nick Kendall (Ronald Squire), Philip lavishes family heirlooms on his new love. When his inheritance becomes final he prepares to give Rachel everything -- the fortune, the lands, the house -- on the principle that it all should really be hers anyway. He then announces their pending marriage, only to find that he's done things in the wrong order: although they've been lovers, Rachel coldly states that she has no intention of marrying him.
My Cousin Rachel has all the ingredients to hold fans of this kind of fiction in rapt attention. The stars are beautiful and the situation entirely believable. Nunnally Johnson's script retains the delicate observation that some people have a talent for passive-aggressive manipulation of those around them. There's also some forbidden sex involved, as we see Rachel seemingly seducing Philip with gestures that in the period context can only be taken as very forward. She kisses him impulsively in one of their many scenes of harmonious understanding. Rachel encourages Philip to go much further, with no strings attached.
In 1952, after ten years of female perfidy in films noir, we're primed to take all this as proof that Rachel is playing Philip like a fool to get her hands on the money denied her in her husband's will. Philip too quickly abandons his suspicion that Rachel is a murderess -- the prejudices of the time see Italians as Machiavellian schemers and every ambitious widow as a budding poisoner, a la Lucrecia Borgia. Rachel stays mum on the subject of romance, allowing Philip to form his own happy fantasy for the future. Once she has what she wants her manner changes completely. The feminine shyness about ownership dissolves; she's now the boss.
But My Cousin Rachel doesn't stop there. Young Philip is seemingly incapable of holding a strong conviction in his head. He's also reckless with his possessions -- it's possible that Rachel is a better protector of the family fortune. Philip is convinced one moment that Rachel is a conniving killer, and the next is rushing to give her everything he owns. He's worse than Hamlet because Hamlet didn't have half as much hard evidence. Philip burns some suspicious letters and ignores the idea of investigating seed-pods from a tree that, in a tea, may be the cause of his long fever and not its cure. His adviser's beautiful daughter Louise (luscious Audrey Dalton) spells out the obvious facts about Rachel, but Philip is too much of a lovesick idiot to act in a rational way. He is very much like the governess character in The Turn of the Screw.
Screenwriter Johnson salts the story with conflicting clues suggesting that Rachel may actually be sincere and telling the truth; the movie is too sophisticated to identify 'bad' characters by their manners or diction. The finale leaves Philip in a terrible state of doubt. Has he really been wrong all along, or just in a few details? We're less troubled than we are confused. Did we see Rachel do all those manipulative and venal things, or didn't we?
Fox applied quality resources to My Cousin Rachel, loading it with ominous gothic qualities. Joseph LaShelle's camerawork keeps the Ashley mansion, a regulation stone monument atop a sea cliff, shrouded in mysterious shadows. If the movie is being presented through Philip's warped point of view (as suggested by Twilight Time's essayist Julie Kirgo) then the images are doing their job, along with the surging music of Franz Waxman. Henry Koster's fine contribution as director works heavily against the principles of auteurship in the movies. Koster, Robert Stevenson and Joseph L. Mankiewicz made Fox's most lush B&W gothics (Jane Eyre, Dragonwyck, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir), all visually "impersonal" yet excellent jobs of direction. The linking factor must be the Fox house style.
Richard Burton of course made a huge impression in this his first American movie. He does extremely well considering how tiresome a fool is Philip Ashley. Olivia de Havilland has the key role, which plays beautifully off her established persona of Melanie in GWTW; whenever Rachel's motives are in question, we feel almost rude for doubting her sincerity. We also think of Ms. de Havilland's previous "love or money" dramatic ordeal, The Heiress.
As an adaptation problem My Cousin Rachel is very much like The Innocents, with Richard Burton a neurotic to match Deborah Kerr's sexual hysteric. In Philip Ashley's case we're even given a causal childhood trauma, the sight of a hanged man at the crossroads. A crossroads is where one must make a decision which way to turn, and Philip Ashley is incapable of making a firm decision.
Twilight Time's DVD of My Cousin Rachel is a good transfer of this polished B&W production -- if you saw the trailer on an earlier disc, ignore its quality. The audio is strong and flawless save for a couple of pops that might have been cleaned off the track. Twilight Time includes the trailer as well as the expected Isolated Score track that makes their releases of special interest to soundtrack collectors and Hollywood composer buffs.
I know this will date the review, but word on the street is that Twilight Time's disc for January 2012 will be the terrific, criminally overlooked CinemaScope production The Roots of Heaven, from 1958, I think. The uncompromising story of an eco-criminal's attempts to save African elephants from poachers, the Darryl Zanuck production is a personal favorite.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
My Cousin Rachel rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.