Home > Reviews > Lesser-known Hitchcock: UNDER CAPRICORN

Lesser-known Hitchcock: UNDER CAPRICORN

I was browsing the library’s DVD shelves the other day, and I came upon one labeled “Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn.”  “Hey,” thought I as I pulled it out and looked at the cover.  “It’s a Hitchcock film I never heard of!  And Ingrid Bergman’s in it!”  So I checked it out and brought it home — but once I watched it, I realized why I’ve never heard of it.  It wasn’t one of Hitch’s more successful films.

One expects thrillers from Hitchcock, but Under Capricorn is more of a historical romance, based on a novel by Helen Simpson.  (The screenplay is by James Bridie, and Hume Cronyn gets a credit for “adaptation” — a credit that often shows up in older films, but whose meaning I’m not clear on.  I’d guess it’s what’s now called a “screen story,” the outline on which the screenplay is based.)  This 1949 film is set in Australia in the 1830s and revolves around class tensions between gentry and commoners, with the latter consisting mainly of paroled felons who can be sent back to prison at any time if they misbehave.  The plot is a love triangle between stable boy-turned-land baron Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten), his upper-class wife Henrietta (Bergman), and her old friend Charles (Michael Wilding), a dissolute gentleman who helps her recover from the drunken and helpless state that she’s been guided into by jealous housekeeper Millie (Margaret Leighton), making it more of a love quadrangle, I guess (though her jealousy is as much about maintaining her absolute control over the household as it is about desire for Sam).

What makes it intriguing is that Hitchcock experimented here with the same kind of really long, uncut master takes that he’d employed in the previous year’s Rope, though not to the same extent.  There are some technically ambitious set pieces of the camera following characters through the various rooms of the Fluskys’ mansion, from downstairs to upstairs, and even from outdoors to indoors (though there are some visible cuts when that happens if you pay attention).  The camera must have been on a crane throughout, and I imagine there were stagehands hastening to maneuver wild walls in and out of position while the camera was pointed elsewhere.  But while this was an ambitious experiment, it didn’t always work.  Sometimes the long takes were just extremely static shots of two people having a conversation.  That can be a good way to showcase the actors’ performances, let them shine on their own without a lot of camera work and intercuts getting in the way, but here the performances tended to be underwhelming and the story not especially engaging.  Cotten in particular gave a cold, flat performance that failed to create the sympathy for his character that the story required.  The others were pretty much in that wry, detached idiom that was commonplace in ’40s British films, except for Bergman, who was overly melodramatic.  I think Hitchcock was so focused on the technical side that he didn’t bring out the best performances in his cast, and Cotten was simply miscast.  So there are a lot of cases where the performances and dialogue alone aren’t all that engaging and some camera movement or intercutting would’ve helped liven things up.  And note I’m saying this as someone who loves long master takes as a rule.

It’s also somewhat laughable to hear the Swedish Bergman, American Cotten, and English Wilding using their normal accents while playing characters who are frequently described as Irish.  Leighton is the only one who even approaches an Irish accent;  everyone else has an English accent even though they’re all either Irish or Australian (and at the time of this film, more than 40 years after the settlement of New South Wales, a distinct Australian accent would have already existed).  It’s all rather bizarre and off-putting, and I wonder if the casting played a role in the poor box-office and critical reception for the film.  Apparently it was such a huge flop that its financiers actually repossessed the film.

Anyway, the DVD release (from Image Entertainment) is quite minimal.  It’s got no features, and the only menu it has is the chapter selection menu.  It would’ve been nice to see some behind-the-scenes info on the production (in addition to the ambitious long takes, there are also some nice matte paintings or glass paintings of the city of Sydney and Flusky’s mansion), but I suppose there wasn’t much interest in documenting this film.

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  1. May 14, 2012 at 11:41 am

    I saw a documentary on Hitchcock years ago; this was his attempt to break away from the studios and do a film independently. It went wildly over budget due to it’s technical ambition, which meant that when they did a retake, it was a long retake, and, as you say, flopped, forcing him back into the studios arms.

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