Thursday, May 22, 2014

My Cousin Rachel: Is Olivia de Havilland a Murderer?

Can you name two real-life sisters who each starred in a Hollywood adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier novel? The answer, as you may have known, is Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland. Joan naturally starred in Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Oscar-winner. Olivia portrayed the title role in 1952’s lesser-known, but equally compelling, My Cousin Rachel. It’s not surprising that Rebecca was the bigger hit of the two, given its all-star cast and the collaboration of Hitchcock and David O. Selznick. Also, it boasted a happy ending. But while I admire Rebecca, I find the intentionally ambiguous My Cousin Rachel to be the more intriguing film.

Richard Burton (in his first major screen role) plays Philip Ashley, a young man raised by his older cousin Ambrose on an isolated estate along the Cornish coast. The two men have a close relationship, as evidenced by Philip’s description of Ambrose as “father, brother, friend--everything in the world to me.” Thus, Philip is surprised when his cousin departs for an indefinite holiday in Italy for health reasons. That surprise only grows when he receives a letter from Ambrose announcing his marriage to Rachel Sangalletti, a widowed distant cousin. Weeks later, Philip receives a series of disturbing letters in which Ambrose accuses Rachel of trying to kill him. Philip rushes to Florence to see his cousin, only to learn that Ambrose has died and Rachel has vanished.

Philip confronts his cousin's widow.
Shortly after Philip’s return to Cornwall, Rachel (Olivia de Havilland) appears on an apparent pretense to deliver some of her late husband’s possessions. Philip wants to accuse her of Ambrose’s murder, even though there is medical evidence that a brain tumor may have caused his cousin’s paranoid behavior. However, Philip—like everyone else—finds Rachel to be completely charming. In fact, he begins to fall in love with her, despite rumors of questionable behavior on her part.

Philip searches for murder evidence.
There have been numerous films built around the “did they or didn’t they” premise (Suspicion, anyone?). But I can’t think of a movie that plays on that premise more skillfully than My Cousin Rachel. At various points during the film, the viewer is equally convinced that Rachel is a clever, money-grubbing murderer or an innocent woman coping with conflicting emotions. Her actions ensure that she remains a enigma. Rachel appears to return Philip’s affections, but she coldly turns down his marriage proposal. She nurses him when he is gravely ill, but rejects him again when he recovers. She announces her departure from Cornwall, but confides to a friend her strong feelings for Philip. We’re never sure if she’s wrestling with her emotions or just very devious.

As for Philip, there is no doubt that he is naïve and prone to quick decisions. He ignores sound financial advice from his solicitor. He rejects all criticism and acts peevish when he doesn’t get his way. One explanation for his behavior may be his desire to replace Ambrose with Rachel, as if the thought of being alone is more than he can bear. He dismisses any romantic interest in Louisa, his pretty neighbor and long-time friend. It’s as if only Rachel can fill the lonely void left by Ambrose.

Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland excel at playing these complex characters. Daphne Du Maurier recommended Burton for the part. It’s not a subtle performance, perhaps because the stage-trained actor was still adjusting to the medium of film. However, his tendency to sometimes overplay works to his advantage, imbuing Philip with an almost manic personality. Burton earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Richard Burton at age 27.
Some sources claim that Burton and de Havilland did not get along well. In his biography Richard Burton: Prince of Players, Michael Munn quotes de Havilland: “(Burton is) a coarse-grained man with a coarse-grained charm and a talent not completely developed.” However, in an interview with Irene Kahn Atkins, My Cousin Rachel’s director Henry Koster claimed there was no friction between his two stars. In reference to the young Burton, he stated: “Without him, this picture wouldn't have been what it was.”

Olivia de Havilland as Rachel.
For her part, Olivia de Havilland gives one of her best performances. She had not made a film in three years, but was still basking in the glow of critical acclaim for The Snake Pit (1948) and The Heiress (1949). Still, she was not the first choice for the title role in My Cousin Rachel. George Cukor considered directing the film at one time, with the goal of bringing Greta Garbo out of retirement to play Rachel. Vivien Leigh was also a candidate for the role before Olivia de Havilland was cast.

From a production standpoint, My Cousin Rachel looks impressive and believably recreates the Cornish coast (although some footage was shot in Cornwall). It’s no surprise that the film’s crew earned Oscar nominations for art direction, costume design, and cinematography (black & white).

Daphne Du Maurier’s novel was remade as a four-part British miniseries in 1983 with Geraldine Chaplin as Rachel and Christopher Guard as Philip. Alas, I’ve never seen it so I cannot make a comparison. It would have to be very good, though, to rank with the splendid 1952 version.

This review is part of the CMBA's Fabulous Films of the 1950s Blogathon. Click here to check out this wonderful blogathon's complete schedule.


  1. Too many years since I've seen this one, but it's one of those experiences that send one immediately off to read the book, if the book hadn't been read first. De Havilland, as you note, at the top of her game here. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. I really like this film. I love Cornwall, Daphne Du Maurier, and Olivia de Havilland. Richard Burton is very dramatic and waffles so easily between hate and love. He makes many poor choices and is a character study for why one should never make rash decisions. I hope your post will inspire others who have never seen this classic to pursue it. "My Cousin Rachel" will not disappoint.

  3. This is an enjoyable gothic romance, and your fine assessment highlights its strengths very nicely. I will eventually revisit this one.

  4. This is one that I still need to catch up on. You mention how Burton's performance is not a subtle one. He did manage to adjust later as he gave some superb performances during his film career. That said, I think he wasted his talent doing too many Liz/Dick films with the exception (Virginia Woolf) now and then.

  5. How did I miss this film? For some reason, every time I heard the title I thought the movie was a Robert Mitchum film set on a farm. This sounds great. Who can resist these dramatic Gothic films? Thanks for the review!

  6. Compelling write-up, Rick. I agree with you that this is one of Olivia's best performances and I too like this film more than I do Rebecca. Who'd'a thunk you and I had so much in common? ;-)

    Anyway, I'm not normally a fan of Burton as an actor believing his performances worked only occasionally because they remained too broad for film. However, this is one of the instances in which it/he worked quite well.


  7. When I first saw this film I didn't think Burton and de Havilland have a lot of chemistry. However, after a few viewings and reconsidering the plot, I have slightly changed my opinion. Still, I have never been a big fan of Burton--he always seems to think he's on the stage, where he surely excelled.

  8. Wow, you sure make me want to see this movie, Rick! Excellen write-up.

  9. Excellent review, Rick. I really like this film, too - mainly because of de Havilland. Can you imagine her Rachel and Clift's Morris of The Heiress getting together? Hmmm......

  10. I saw this film many years ago and remember de Haviland's performance, as coming across as sweet but with a certain touch of distance, as if you were never meant to really get close to her character, which is also how she comes across in the novel. Fascinating to think what Garbo might have been like in the role - certainly one of the great might-have-beens.

  11. I've not seen this version, but I can only imagine how fabulous it is – especially with all those Oscar nominations.

    So glad you reviewed this film. I'm going to watch for it.

  12. I have to admit that I have only vague memories of certain scenes from "My Cousin Rachel," Rick. It's been a long time...but your great write-up has put the film squarely at the top of my "must see again soon" list.

    I remember reading that Richard Burton said that when he first worked with Elizabeth Taylor on "Cleopatra" he thought she was a terrible actress, that she didn't seem to be doing anything in the scene. Then he watched the rushes and realized she knew how to act in front of a camera - and he didn't. While I'd never put Taylor in the same league with Burton as an actor, I'll give her credit for teaching him a valuable lesson.

  13. I've been wanting to see this one for a while since I've always loved Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel has such a great, mysterious hook. It's rare for a Hollywood movie not to give a square answer to the question of whether or not a character is a murderer. As for Richard Burton, yeah, it took him a while to learn screen acting. Have to say though, he sure was handsome at this stage in his career.

  14. Rick,
    I was thrilled when you picked My Cousin Rachel as I haven't seen it. Interesting fact about Joan and Olivia as Rebecca is my favorite film of all time. All more reason to seek out this little gem.

    The screen shot and the description of the Cornish Coast even reminds me of a couple scenes in Rebecca.

    Another informative review and one that makes me add another movie to my must see list.
    See you soon!

  15. I can definitely see the proper Miss de Havilland forming a very negative opinion of the brash young Welshman. And it wouldn't necessarily have resulted in dust-ups on the set. Thanks to professionalism, it sounds like Du Maurier's novel got a very good treatment! I'm going to keep an eye out for this one...

  16. Such interesting comments about a movie forgotten by most. Movie memories linger unlike novels.