Based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel contains the same combination of gothic terror a character experiences as levels of trust are tested, and idylls are shattered by a character once regarded as benign, if not simply wonderful in the eyes of a naïve central character.
In the film version of Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn (1939), the dramatic shift had a young wench discovering the benevolent older man she trusted was in fact a murderer who soon includes her (quite forcibly) on his hasty escape from the law, whereas in Rebecca (1940), the theme of distrust broadens as a young and foolishly naïve woman discovers a fascinating widower harbors a secret that may include the murder of his perfect (or not?) wife.
Both films were directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and as a director who liked repeating certain themes in his work (with the aid of obsessive-compulsive producer David O. Selznick during the forties), it wasn’t unusual for Hitchcock to direct the film adaptation of Francis Iles’ (er, Anthony Berkeley) novel Before the Fact. In that film, rebranded Suspicion (1941), the story deals with a woman’s mounting suspicion that her shiny, charismatic husband may have poisoned his last wife, and may be responsible for her own dwindling health using a glass of toxic, neon milk.
Whereas Hitchcock was forced to wimp-out and tack on a happier (and idiotic) ‘everlasting love’ ending due to producer and studio tampering, Rachel doesn’t skip any beats, and the filmmakers boldly leave the audience in a quandary, weighing all of the paranoia and flip-flops between love and hatred, but as tends to be the case with most gothic dramas, the emphasis is on mood rather than plot, and the final resolution isn’t always the most cathartic for audiences.
Rebecca, produced by Selznick and released by RKO, may be the grand dame of gothic dramas, but Fox produced its own share of high-profile shockers in which women were attracted to charismatic, mysterious men who may have locked away more than a few monsters in several dank, concrete walled closets.
The studio’s best known genre entries include Jane Eyre (1943) and Dragonwyck (1946), and Rachel fits in with their glossy productions steeped in ornate interior décor, castle-like manors, and brooding soundtracks, but Rachel is unique for flipping the gender roles where a man falls for a charismatic, mysterious woman, and his ongoing torment is told entirely from his blinkered perspective.
According to Julie Kirgo’s liner notes for Twilight Time’s DVD, screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath, We’re Not Married!, Night People) was quite faithful to the novel and he didn’t wimp out, which ensured all the novel’s subterfuge and paranoia remained consistent with the film’s ending, rather than the botched flip-flop in Suspicion.
In Rachel, the mystery is also much deeper, and on a tighter personal note: after his cousin Ambrose (John Sutton, playing a very nice man after excelling as a sadistic shit in Captain from Castile) dies in Italy, 24 year old Philip (Richard Burton, making his U.S. debut) travels to the big boot in search of the woman (Olivia de Havilland) his cousin believed may have poisoned him in the hope of acquiring the family estate in Cornwall after their hasty marriage.
Philip also meets the woman’s “friend” Guido (George Dolenz, father of Monkee Micky), who point blank explains his cousin didn’t live long enough to sign the alternate will that had been drafted.
Convinced she’s a murderous gold-digger, Philip retains a hidden agenda to one day confront the vixen, and in another unexpected turn, he gets his chance when she shows up at the family doorstep in Cornwall.
Philip is filled with hatred, but his defenses erode when he can’t reconcile the monster in his mind with the benevolent figure who charms the family, his own friends, and eventually himself. On the eve of his 25th birthday, Philip signs over his share of the family property to Rachel and presumes they’re to be wed after one hot & bothered night, but when she spurns him, he mysteriously becomes as ill… just like his cousin Ambrose.
Not much actually happens in the film, but it is fascinating to see a green-eared yet virile soon-to-be lord fall flat on his face, and nearly go mad. Director Henry Koster (who would direct Burton a year later in Fox’s first CinemaScope production, The Robe), always restricts views and impressions of Rachel from Philip’s vantage – a daring move considering star de Havilland doesn’t appear in the film until the 25 minute mark.
By the film’s end, it’s immaterial as to whether Rachel did poison Ambrose and took a poke at young Philip, because it’s kind of fun to watch Burton (who’s surprisingly good) and de Havilland play an unsubtle Oedipal relationship where both characters seem to be genuinely struggling with internal goals; one suspects Philip hates himself for giving in to extremes of hate and love, and Rachel seems to genuinely care for the boy even if she may well be compelled to poison him. What may lessen her potential guilt is that with wealth in her hands and a puppy dog admirer, she has no reason to off him.
Koster’s direction doesn’t miss a beat of nuances, which extend from the performances, innuendo, and mood, whereas cinematographer Joseph LaShelle (Laura, Hangover Square, The Chase [M]) and the films set designer and art directors ensure every image is perfectly composed. Whether the camera is static, glides down a hallway, or follows an actor as he stands, wanders, and sits at a different angle, every frame is packed with striking detail. The film’s look is an exquisite example of how to design a film where no single shot wastes any space within the frame.
Equally notable is a tricky dream sequence where Philip weaves in and out of a conscious state, and the audience is equally confused by the blurring of what is a pure nightmare and fuzzily rendered reality. The clever montage begins with the bedroom’s background suddenly dropping into a mist, and characters emerge from the opaque nothingness, and poor Philip revisits this state as least twice, imagining a halcyon wedding ceremony.
Rachel’s connection with the Hitchcock films is no coincidence, and while one could argue the film was merely a logical packaging of elements for another genre entry by a rival studio, it is amusing to note several additional parallels: both Rebecca and Suspicion co-starred Joan Fontaine (de Havilland’s actual sister, who also appeared in the underrated adaptation of Du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek); and the two films were scored by Franz Waxman, who also composed the music for Rachel using themes and motifs close to Rebecca (as well as The Bride of Frankenstein, which one suspects may have been a cheeky in-joke by the composer, with young Philip being the little Frankenstein). John Sutton, in turn, had a supporting role in Fox’s Jane Eyre - a coincidence perhaps best branded Six Degrees of Twentieth Century-Fox.
Kirgo notes that when Du Maurier was asked about Rachel’s guilt, she replied “I really don’t know,” which could also be read as ‘I really don’t’ care,’ because the story is about mood and emotional stress. Rachel isn’t for all tastes (and it would be curious to know whether the film was a bit of a dud in cinemas during its original run), but as a mood piece, it is fascinating.
Twilight Time’s DVD features a crisp transfer of a decent print, although the mono sound mix is unusually low – an issue also present on the label’s Kremlin Letter [M] disc. As with all DVDs in the label’s series, the music score’s been isolated on a separate mono track, and Kirgo’s lengthy essay presents an in-depth overview of the story.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan