05 November 2008

Under Capricorn (1949)

d. Alfred Hitchcock / UK / 117 mins.

As a high school student – all those splendid years ago – I worked at a movie theater in various capacities: projectionist, cashier, etc. My favorite role was always the shift as the official ticket-tearer and welcome-to-the-theater greeter. It was tedious, except when I wasn't working (which was often) and I could listen to my barrel-chested boss behind the cashier's desk as he spun tales, anecdotes, and philosophical musings. He'd worked in the film business for years, mostly on the business side, and had many screenings under his belt. One day he asked who my favorite director was, and I told him Alfred Hitchcock. After slowly nodding and stroking his chalk-white beard, his wily eyes began searching my face and suddenly he claimed: "But what about Under Capricorn!"

Indeed. For many, Under Capricorn is a quasi-unfathomable blemish for the director who had hit an impressive stride in America in the early 1940s. It is a talky film, often slow and droll, and emotionally cold in a problematic way. The film was one of the director's only forays into an explicit period-piece genre (and his other notable entry, Jamaica Inn, is also among his worst). It bears some passing similarities to Hitchcock's last melodrama – his great work Rebecca – namely in the way the hired help seems to taunt, push, and punish the mistress of the house for selfish gains, but it lacks all the narrative explosions and manipulation he pulled off so well previously.

Under Capricorn is melodrama, yes – and bad melodrama, at that – but thematically it is not unchartered territory for Hitchcock. Others have speculated that he chose the project because it was cheap (psychological biographer Donald Spoto claims it cost one dollar) or that Hitchcock's fondness for the novel's author, Helen Simpson, might have played a role (she worked with him on Murder! and Sabotage). But Under Capricorn is also a hotbed of dark and disturbing elements: someone is covering for someone else's murder; there are terrifying and dramatic psychological breakdowns; the locale of Australia, and its former position as an English penal colony, provided a tangible reform of crime-to-riches. Set in the early nineteenth century and in Australia, the film follows the arrival of Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), the nephew of the colony's governor, and his friendship with an ex-convict named Samson Flusky (Joseph Cotton, his second collaboration with Hitchcock). Samson has climbed the ranks into the higher levels of Australia's society after finishing a term for a murder he supposedly committed, but Charles becomes quite interested in the man and his wife Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman, in her third and final collaboration with Hitchcock), who was once a friend of Charles's sister. Henrietta is a terrible alcoholic, and while Samson hopes Charles could counteract her substance abuse, Henrietta is secretly tortured by the couple's maid (Margaret Leighton) who wants Samson for herself.

Cotton and Bergman seem like they might be a splendid combination, but for whatever reason (the weight of the clunky plot, I'm guessing) their work is not worth much value. Bergman, who at this time in her career reportedly only wanted to sign on to potential "masterpieces," doesn't get good until nearly an hour and fifteen minutes into the film (which is also when the film itself becomes moderately engaging). Burt Lancaster was Hitchcock's original choice for Cotton's role, but I'm not sure he would have done much better. Cotton, playing an Anglo, abandons all pretense of masking his American voice against Bergman's multi-national intonation and Wilding and Leighton's British accents; it reaches a point where the disregard is so flagrant that the line "Ladies and gents look at things in their own way" might just be intentionally spoken as a John Wayne impression. Remarkably, the one performer I'd never really heard of – Leighton – turns in the best work of the film as the manipulative housekeeper, a chilling villainy in the vein of Judith Anderson's Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (although, it should be noted, Leighton is nowhere near as good as Anderson, and Cotton and Bergman ain't no Olivier and Fontaine either).

Under Capricorn was Hitchcock's second film in color, and although the film itself provides little by way of entertainment, Jack Cardiff's cinematography really displays the full possibility of Hitchcock in Technicolor. (The director would go back to black-and-white film stock for his next three films, then shoot largely in color for the rest of his career, with some notable exceptions.) Cardiff, who collaborated as a cinematographer with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in the early 1940s on The Red Shoes and A Matter of Life and Death, won an Oscar the previous year for Black Narcissus. His camerawork for Under Capricorn is something to behold, with a rich tapestry of expressive blues, purples, blacks, and oranges. The colors "pop" in Under Capricorn in a way they wouldn't again until The Trouble With Harry and Vertigo.

After the modest success of shooting with the long-take in Rope, Hitchcock utilized the technique again in Under Capricorn. The film isn't entirely made in long-takes, nor is there an attempt on Hitchcock's part to obscure or conceal the actual cuts as he did in Rope. Critics and scholars, who have given Under Capricorn more credit than I'm willing to give it, have long argued the long-take in the film is rooted more in character psychology than anything else, that the unbroken examination of characters is a tangible representation of their own trapped thoughts and emotions. I find that proposal compelling, and perhaps even correct, although I think the result is altogether disappointing. While Hitchcock transports the long-take to a greater technical level (the camera swirls in and out of a house and in and out of rooms with most fluidity than in Rope), the effect doesn't quite work as well as Rope; it might simply be the difference between Rope being an adaptation of a play and Under Capricorn an adaptation of a novel, which doesn't lend itself to the long-take in the same way a single-set play does.

It wasn't until I began digging around the Hitchcock coves on the Internet that I discovered a small band of Under Capricorn loyalists who see the film as one of Hitchcock's most psychologically complex and lavishly haunting productions. I see no reason to deny them their pleasure, although there's no doubt in my mind that it is really one of the least important and enjoyable films the director made. The ironic thing is that today it's perhaps best remembered as a failed experiment in the long-take, the cinematography is, to me, one of the more interesting aspects of the film and among the least of its numerous problems. I don't foresee myself rushing to watch it again any time soon, but I wonder if it would be more enjoyable on mute, downplaying the stilted acting and the leaden plot and letting Cardiff's colors and camerawork shine?


MovieMan0283 05 November, 2008  

I really like Cardiff's particular style of cinematography - the shadowy color. I've been noticing it a lot lately in 50s American films like War and Peace & The Barefoot Contessa - I'd already seen the Powell/Pressburger movies, but I guess I just attributed the flair more to Powell or something. You're right about it "popping" - for some reason it makes me think of those ViewFinder toys I used to like as a little kid in the 80s.

darkcitydame4e 06 November, 2008  

Oh! this Hitchcock film caused me "endless headaches" and "many" "sleepless nights," but I finally, watched {it} Hitchcock's 1949 film ("Under Capricorn")
to the end!... Phew!
With that said,...

... T.S. said, "It wasn't until I began digging around the Hitchcock coves on the Internet that I discovered a small band of Under Capricorn loyalists who see the film as one of Hitchcock's most psychologically complex and lavishly haunting productions."

This is "true" because I have discovered some of these same UC loyalist(s) while searching the internet and reading books about Alfred Hitchcock's 1949 film Under Capricorn and all I can say is...long live!..."Stranger on a Train," "The Lady Vanishes,"
The 39 Steps" "Rear Window" N by NW
etc, etc, etc...I guess to each his (or her) own! (This is just my opinion about the film "Under Capricorn" it may not be that "bad!" after all?!?)
dcd ;-)

Sam Juliano,  08 November, 2008  

Yes, I can well understand why it caused you headaches and many sleepless nights. LOL! That's true Dark City Dame, many do consider it one of the master's "most psychologically complex and lavishly haunting productions." It's not a dismal film, but it's one of teh weaker Hitchcocks, for the reasons T.S. reports in yet another definitive Hitchcock examination.

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