To see Richard Burton in “My Cousin Rachel” (20th Century Fox, 1952) is to understand why, for so many years, he was one of the most famous men on the planet. After “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Burton made a series of depressingly terrible pictures, and was often as bad as or worse than the bum material he appeared in. But his Hollywood career began auspiciously in 1952, when he starred as Philip Ashley opposite Olivia de Havilland (as Cousin Rachel) in this Cornish gothic mystery. He’s superb in “My Cousin Rachel” — it’s a real star-making performance. And he certainly never looked better.
The picture is based on Daphne du Maurier’s best-selling novel and is in every way superior to “Rebecca,” with which it has much in common. Both stories are full of ambiguity and miscommunications, and both are set on the blustery coast of Cornwall. But “My Cousin Rachel” is murkier, more mysterious and has a greater sense of mounting dread, doubt, suspense and episodes of delirium (what used, in Russian novels, to be translated as “brain fever”). Brain fever is what “My Cousin Rachel” is all about.
In “Rebecca,” suspense and mystery are created by withholding essential pieces of information from the audience until the end. Were that information known in advance, the story would lose most (though certainly not all) of its interest. “My Cousin Rachel” is different: when Cousin Rachel enters the life of the high-strung young Philip Ashley, he believes she is responsible for the death of his beloved guardian, Cousin Ambrose; for the rest of the story, we must try to determine whether she’s a cunning villainess or the near-saint that she appears to be . . . Whether this question can be answered remains for the viewer to decide, but whatever the answer is, the mystery remains full of ambiguity and dark corners.
Here’s how the picture opens. These first few minutes should give you a clear sense of what the rest of the picture is like.
As a character, Rachel is full of surprises — alternately loving and peremptory, compliant and steely. De Havilland navigates the contradictions with ease and skill. She’s not a particularly exciting actress, but there’s real pleasure in watching her handle difficult material so gracefully and intelligently.
The screenplay is by Nunnally Johnson; it’s one of his best scripts and is notably faithful to the novel. Johnson was an extremely prolific writer and producer, so his work is very uneven. Much of what he did is not much better than hack work, but I’m a fan of his, partly because he was known to be a very witty fellow, which goes a long, long way with me. The novelist Frederic Wakeman (“The Hucksters”) was in Johnson’s office one day when Johnson’s secretary buzzed to say that legendary Broadway producer/son of a bitch Jed Harris was on the wire. “Shall I say you’re in?” she asked. Johnson considered the matter for a long time. “Well,” he said slowly, “if I take the call, he’ll invite himself to dinner. At dinner he’ll insult Alice, and I’ll order him out of the house. But he’ll go into the kitchen where Alice is crying and turn her against me. So the real problem is, Do I want to divorce Alice?” After another pause, he answered, “Tell him I’m out of town.”