Based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca, the film has the distinction of being the third du Maurier film featuring a member of the de Havilland/Fontaine family, as Ms. de Havilland's sister Joan had already appeared in Rebecca (1940, for which she was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award) and in Frenchman's Creek (1944). Like the other films, My Cousin Rachel, set on the Cornish coast, has the wild English seaside feel to it. And, like the other two films, we have a character who is ambiguous. Is Rachel to be trusted? Or is she, as we eventually discover about the title character in Rebecca, a manipulative woman, out only for money and position?
This was the Hollywood film introduction of Richard Burton (he had already appeared in a few films and television shows in the UK), who was only 26 at the time. Commentary by Ben Mankiewicz, which preceded the movie noted that he was unfamiliar with film and the camera. He wanted to play out the entire scene, though only certain shots were needed for close-ups and other angles. Director Henry Koster spent time teaching Burton to save himself up for the big scenes, and not waste his energies on shots that required only a look or a line, a lesson that would stand Burton in good stead in his 77 film and television appearances. Burton was nominated for best supporting actor for his performance in this film, and deservedly so (he lost to Anthony Quinn in Viva Zapata!). He is able to turn the character of Philip on a dime, going from mature, thoughtful man, to petulant child in a heartbeat.
Though not nominated for the Oscar that year (sad but true), Ms. de Havilland gives a masterful performance as Rachel. She plays her as a question mark. Is she guilty of murder? Is she in love with Philip? Was she in love with Ambrose? What is her relationship, really, with Guido Ranaldi (George Dolenz)? The audience is never sure. We delight in her, we admire her, and we even like her, but we are really never sure if we can trust her.
The AFI Catalog notes that the story was initially serialized in Ladies Home Journal, and though filmed versions of du Maurier's novels had a proven record of success, the major studios shied away from her asking price of $80,000. George Cukor and Vivien Leigh were original considerations for director and for the part of Rachel, but Cukor disliked the script (as did du Maurier, who offered her own screen treatment) and withdrew. But Ms. Leigh was not the only contender for the title role - the part was allegedly offered to Greta Garbo, and David Selznick wanted it for his wife Jennifer Jones.
Director Koster's son Nicholas plays the young Philip. Also in the cast is George Dolenz, whose son is know to many of us - future Monkee Micky Dolenz. Audrey Dalton makes her screen debut as Philip's best friend and neighbor, Louise Kendall, and is quite good in a small part. Ms. Dalton would go on to appear in Titanic (1953) as Barbara Stanwyck's daughter Annette Sturges, and to a total of 59 film and television appearances. Born in Ireland, she married assistant director James H. Brown in 1953. The marriage lasted until 1977; they had four children. In 1979, she remarried, this time to an engineer (Rod F. Simenz), at which point she seems to have retired.
This is not the only telling of the story of My Cousin Rachel. On 7 September 1953, Olivia de Havilland reprized her title role (with Ron Randall as Philip) in a Lux Radio Theatre presentation of the story. In 1982, the BBC produced a four-hour series starring Christopher Guard and Geraldine Chaplin as Philip and Rachel. A new feature film version is in post-production, with Rachel Weisz and Sam Clafin in the lead roles. It is currently listed as having a release date sometime in 2017.
Though perhaps not a glowing one, this New York Times review is quite impressed with the film. Our group was much more so, with one of the members saying it was "the best film [she had] seen in a long time". We strongly recommend it, and leave you with this trailer to whet your appetite.