Mystery and romance from the pen of a popular author, headlined by a prized actress absent from the screen for three years paired with a promising actor imported from England, comprised the glistening new Christmas Day offering New York moviegoers unwrapped 65 years ago at the palatial Rivoli Theatre. The novelist/playwright/screenwriter being adapted was the phenomenally prolific Daphne du Maurier. The returning star was Olivia de Havilland, stepping into the tradition of troubled du Maurier heroines previously the domain of her sister Joan Fontaine, already revered as Mrs. DeWinter of Rebecca (1940) and Dona St. Columb of Frenchman’s Creek (1944). In the intervening time since her Christmastime 1949 Academy Award® winner The Heiress, de Havilland had been occupied with making her Broadway debut in revivals of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and George Bernard Shaw’s Candida. The new-to-Hollywood discovery was 27-year-old Welshman Richard Burton, with a handful of British films under his belt and noteworthy Broadway engagements in Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning and Jean Anouilh’s Legend for Lovers. The property for inspection was the Gothic-flavored, 19th-century Cornwall-set film version of du Maurier’s tantalizing 1951 bestseller My Cousin Rachel (1952). Before these elements were in place there was the tantalizing possibility that director George Cukor would coax Greta Garbo out of retirement to play the title role, but this didn’t work out. So the de Havilland/Burton matchup would reach the screen under the direction of Henry Koster (The Bishop’s Wife, Harvey) and produced and written for the screen by Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath and The Keys of the Kingdom, a Twilight Time title), who had also performed the same chores for the superb de Havilland vehicle The Dark Mirror (1946). That Robert Siodmak-directed thriller, in which de Havilland played twin sisters, one good and the other murderously evil, served as a deft dual-personality dry run for the complexities of My Cousin Rachel.
As The Private World of Daphne du Maurier author Martyn Shallcross describes this bewitching tale: “Ambrose Ashley [played by in the movie by John Sutton] marries the beautiful and mysterious Rachel [de Havilland], Countess Sangeletti, in Italy and never returns home. Over the following months his letters to his favorite cousin Philip [Burton] hint that he is being poisoned. Philip therefore decides to travel to Italy but he arrives too late – by the time he gets there, Ambrose is already dead. Shocked and very worried, Philip returns home to Cornwall. Then Rachel crosses the Channel, comes to Cornwall and stays at Philip’s beautiful manor house. When Philip meets her, he is attracted by her great beauty and her air of mystery, and as time goes by he finds himself torn between dark suspicion of Rachel and passionate love for her. Is she a scheming murderess or is she the sweet and angelic woman she often seems? This perplexing doubt runs through the novel; did Rachel poison Ambrose, or didn’t she? It is a question that is never properly answered, and it is left to the reader to come to a decision. ‘Everyone asks me was Rachel guilty or innocent,’ Daphne often said. ‘Do you know, I could never make up my own mind about that – actually, I think Rachel was the culprit. But I have always left my readers guessing.’” So too does this brooding, carefully constructed film, which walks a delicate line between swooning attraction and dangerous portent, fueled by a beautifully crafted Franz Waxman score and adorned with the atmospheric contributions of its Oscar®-nominated black-and-white cinematography (Joseph LaShelle), art direction/set decoration (Lyle R. Wheeler, John DeCuir and Walter M. Scott) and costumes (Charles Le Maire and Dorothy Jeakins). De Havilland would score a Best Actress/Drama Golden Globe® nomination for her work, while Burton earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® nomination and Most Promising Newcomer Golden Globe® trophy for his. Du Maurier’s tale retained its fascination for future generations via a 1983 BBC TV miniseries with Geraldine Chaplin and Christopher Guard, a 2011 BBC Radio dramatization with Lia Williams and Damian Lewis, a 2012 Dublin Gate Theatre stage adaptation with Hannah Yelland and Michael Legge and a second big-screen feature film this year with Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin. But this first film edition, with an edgy, alluring de Havilland and Burton in his vigorous early heartthrob prime, still leads the pack, and it looks and sounds sharper than ever in Fox’s brand-new 4K restoration transfer debuting on TT hi-def Blu-ray January 23. Extras include an Isolated Track of the brooding Waxman score and a vintage, audio-only 1953 Lux Radio Theater Adaptation starring de Havilland. Preorders open January 10.