I will admit I have not seen as many Olivia movies as I’d like to, but I really would love to delve into her filmography because she’s just one of the greatest stars from the era, and her star status is very clear when she made My Cousin Rachel (1952).
Directed by Henry Koster and co-starring Richard Burton in his US picture debut, this film is the first of two movies based of the novel by Daphne Du Maurier. Furthermore its noteworthy for being Miss de Havilland’s first movie since winning her first Oscar for 1949’s The Heiress.
Burton plays Philip Ashley who was taken in by his cousin Ambrose (John Sutton), who lives on a lavish estate in Cornwall. Ambrose marries his cousin Rachel (Dame Olivia) while on a holiday in Florence. However, shortly after the wedding Ambrose dies of a “brain tumor”. While Philip suspects Rachel’s involvement, he nonetheless invites her to stay at the estate, which he will now inherit upon his 25th birthday.
Although skeptical of Rachel and swearing revenge on her for Ambrose’s death and her motives for being mistress of the estate, Philip eventually falls in love with her. Rachel though, is not interested in marriage, only the status of being with Philip and what he can give her. When Philip falls ill however, Rachel *does* nurse him to health- but she plans to go back to Florence. Fearing she plans to poison him before she leaves, Philip then sets out to prove it. It all culminates in a very Hitchcockian move, with all of Rachel’s guilt or innocence (including her feelings of Philip and her potential involvement with Ambrose’s death) contained in one single letter.
On a personal note, I enjoyed this movie- not as much as Rebecca, as that’s a Hitchcock masterpiece, but it still holds that suspense with the simple question of: Is Rachel guilty or innocent, and who is she exactly? I often ponder what would have happened if Hitchcock directed the movie or even George Cukor, original director until creative differences with the studio either caused him to quit or be fired. (Imagine the discussions we could have had today of Hitchcock, the de Havilland sisters, and Daphne du Maurier if that had happened!)
On the flip side, I do understand those who prefer the 2017 version with Rachel Weiz and Sam Calfin (which I have not seen), and also those who feel the book is the superior. I own the book, but have not read it- yet.
Part of what I feel held back the complexity and mystery of the Rachel character was the fact Olivia now had an image to live up to, as she was an Oscar winner. Had she made this movie before The Heiress, perhaps she could have played it closer to the source giving a layered performance along the lines of The Snake Pit (1948).
Overall, I do recommend the movie, as it is a great mystery and especially if you are a fan of Olivia’s and Daphne Du Maurier’s then it’s an essential!!!