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USA 1952
Directed by
Henry Koster
98 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

Journeyman director Henry Koster (real name Hermann Julius Kosterlitz), one of the Jewish émigrés who left Hitler’s Germany for Hollywood in the 1930s, delivers one of his best works in this adaptation by writer-producer Nunnally Johnson of Daphne du Maurier’s novel, well-aided by Joseph LaShelle’s fine black-and-white cinematography and a top drawer 20th Century Fox production team.

Richard Burton plays Philip, heir to the Cornish estate of his wealthy cousin and guardian Ambrose Ashley (John Sutton).  Ambrose dies suddenly in Italy leaving Ambrose convinced that his cousin’s wife, Rachel (Olivia de Havilland), as they say, did him in. But when Rachel turns up at the estate the callow young man is swept off his feet. Rachel however does not return his ardour Philip grows increasingly desperate to possess her.

I haven’t read du Maurier’s novel  but Johnson’s script and Koster’s direction of it nicely offsets Philip’s emotional upheavals as they evolve from contempt to adoration and finally despair with Rachel’s reserved demeanour, which may reflect simply a distant nature or a deadly calculating one, her independence too strange for contemporary English society of the time when women of breeding were entirely dependent on their menfolk. The plot, not altogether fairly suggests one thing now the other but the result is Hollywood Gothic melodrama at its best replete with pounding waves, blasted cliff-face assignations and the whole see-sawing ride enthusiastically amplified by Franz Waxman’s lush score.

Burton, in his first Hollywood film, although a tad too old (he was still remarkably young at 27) does the bulk of the heavy lifting for the film which tells the story from his point of view whilst De Havilland is perfect as the enigmatically still foil to his raging emotions.

There were a couple of plot points I was not clear on. Firstly, why Rachel shows up at Philip’s estate when an earlier scene had Philip’s guardian inviting her to stay at his home (which would also seem more in keeping with the social conventions of the time) and, secondly, the film’s ending which seems to suggest that Philip sent Rachel purposively to her doom although providing no real reason to think so.

FYI: The film was well re-made with more emphasis on Rachel, played by Rachel Weisz, in 2017 




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