You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
At first glance, Under Capricorn (1949) is an almost perfect fit for this column. It’s a film from an auteur you’ve heard of (Alfred Hitchcock, anyone?) but you’re less likely to have seen it then say, Rope, Rebecca, Vertigo or Psycho. It has been both critically and popularly underrated – it flopped at its time of release (quite possibly due to the scandal surrounding its star, Ingrid Bergman, as her affair with Roberto Rossellini came to light), resulting in the financiers repossessing the film and preventing it from seeing the light of day for some years. While experiencing a renaissance in cinematheques and the like, and gathering some big name champions (Peter Bogdanovich has called it one of Hitchcock’s finest films1), there are still plenty of critics calling it boring and tired. It has just the right amount of critical support and derision, popular recognition and obscurity, to make it the sort of film you will be told you “have to see”. But really, you do.
To my mind, Under Capricorn is a stunningly realised melodrama, masterfully executed, and more than anything else, it was a film Hitchcock wanted to make. It is perfectly placed to allow us to examine his flair for both technical prowess and storytelling, in a career that provides no shortage of examples, but even more so the development of that flair. It is a beautiful, if strange, and compelling film, though perhaps disappointing to those looking for classic Hitchcockian suspense and thrills. Under Capricorn is essential viewing for any cinephile or anyone interested in the master of suspense – particularly given suspense itself is so thin on the ground in this film.
The film revolves around Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), Irish upper-class ne’er-do-well and cousin to the newly appointed Governor of New South Wales, who travels with him to Australia to make his fortune. Still very much a penal colony, New South Wales runs on a sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell system – you don’t question the criminal past of anyone, nor hold them accountable for it after their time is served, because no one in the colony is very far removed from their transgressions. Disinclined to work for his fortune, Charles meets Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotton), an ex-convict who has actually made his, and offers Charles the opportunity to profit by helping him to expand his land holdings somewhat against the spirit of the law. Sam invites Charles to dinner at his house, where Charles meets Henrietta (Bergman), Sam’s wife, Charles’ childhood friend and a very drunk, troubled woman. Sam had been the stable boy to Henrietta’s family, and their elopement and the concurrent murder of Henrietta’s brother had caused a great scandal, leading to Sam’s transportation to Australia for the crime and Henrietta’s chasing after him. Charles and Sam hatch a plan to bring Henrietta back to her former glory – Charles encourages her to take control of her own house again, much to the chagrin of their maid and her keeper, Milly (Margaret Leighton), a Mrs Danvers-esque domestic with a secret love for Sam. Milly is able to poison Sam against them, fanning his jealousy. Meanwhile Henrietta herself reveals to Charles her own past – it was she who murdered her brother, after he tried to stop her eloping, and Sam took the rap for it. When Sam’s jealousy gets the better of him and he drags Henrietta away from the Governor’s ball, embarrassing her and starting a fight with Charles, he accidentally shoots Charles. Henrietta confesses to her old crime to try to save Sam, and Charles suddenly finds that he holds the power to condemn or to save Sam, though either way he will lose Henrietta – who is herself somewhat in need of saving from Milly.
Under Capricorn is beautiful to look at, shot in lush technicolour and full of measured long takes in what is possibly Hitchcock’s talkiest film. If you can excuse the terrible accents from the three main actors – all are written as Irish, but Cotten is decidedly American, Wilding is definitely English and Bergman’s attempt at an Irish brogue is unsettling – the performances are nevertheless engaging and moving. Wilding plays Charles with a discernible relish for the campiness of the role, and Cotten’s slow descent in lonely jealousy is touching to watch. Bergman, as she bares Henrietta’s past and soul, is deeply captivating, transcending any complaints you could have about her accent to deliver a performance that is vulnerable and broken, deep within. Leighton as Milly is genuinely chilly, and in lacking the stylised horror of Judith Anderson’s Mrs Danvers she is somewhat more terrifying for her credibility.
For all its merits, Under Capricorn is not what you expect or even necessarily want from a “Hitchcock film” – although this concept in itself is incredibly problematic. Thomas Leitch makes the point that so much as been written on the subject of Hitchcock that it could constitute an entire field of study, 2 and a discussion of what exactly constitutes a “Hitchcock film” deserves far more time and space than can be given here. Without delving too deeply into the issue, suffice to say that one generally associates Hitchcock with suspense, thrills, murder and mystery. One doesn’t immediately think of colonial melodrama.
Under Capricorn was the second film made under the auspices of Hitchcock’s own production company, Transatlantic Pictures. It was also probably the film that ruined the company. Hitchcock formed Transatlantic Pictures with Sidney Bernstein at the conclusion of his infamously difficult contract with David O. Selznick. Hitchcock’s relationship with Selznick is now the stuff of film legend – Selznick brought Hitchcock over from England to work for him, yet allowed the director very little freedom in his work. This partnership, however, produced some of Hitchcock’s greatest films – Rebecca and Shadow of a Doubt were products of this unhappy partnership.
In an interview with Andre Bazin 3 Hitchcock said “I am interested not so much in the stories I tell as in the means of telling them”. One of the most prominent means in Under Capricorn is the extensive use of long-takes – overall the film contains far fewer shots than films typical to the time. In terms of Hitchcock’s filmography, Under Capricorn follows after Rope, which was also made under Transatlantic Pictures. In Under Capricorn, one can see that Hitchcock in a way extent settled into the technique – whereas in Rope it was one of the defining features of the film, in Under Capricorn, the long takes are in every way subservient to the narrative. The first time I really became aware of the long takes used was the scene of Charles’ arrival at the Flusky mansion – he hears voices inside and instead of ringing the doorbell, walks along the outside of the house, watching the people within. He sees Sam, Milly and Sam’s secretary Winter making the arrangements for dinner, and observes a fight amongst the ex-convict women in the kitchen. There is so much happening within this shot that enables the narrative and pushes it forward, giving us a great deal of information as to how things are run in the Flusky house while satisfying the voyeur in us all – and in Hitchcock. Just as you can see the inheritance of Rope in the long takes, you can also see the seeds of Rear Window in the casual voyeurism of Charles. The shot continues – Charles is discovered and moves inside the house – he meets his fellow diners, learns that none of the women have come, each making the same excuse, and they sit down to dinner. The shot only finally cuts as Henrietta enters the room, barefoot and drunk – that her arrival causes the break only emphasises the disruption she brings, the imbalance within her as a character. There is nothing obtrusive about the long takes and their use – they are smooth, mobile, flexible and entirely in the service of the plot. If Hitchcock is predominantly interested in the means of storytelling, rather than the storytelling itself, I believe that Under Capricorn shows us a finessing of sorts on his behalf. In the absence of some great suspense or any truly gripping unravelling mystery, Hitchcock works to balance the two.
Interestingly enough, in his interview with Bazin, Hitchcock eschews the importance of the technical means themselves, and arguing that they make the film more costly and himself more accountable to the commercial nature of a film. This observation was made in an interview nine years after Under Capricorn, during the filming of To Catch A Thief, and I can’t help but wonder if a lesson was learnt from the technical achievements and commercial flops of the Transatlantic years. Regardless, Hitchcock states in the interview that it is his goal in all his work to “achieve the quality of imperfection”. To Bazin’s mind, it is the collision between the “well-oiled and supple machinery” of Hollywood (and I suspect of Hitchcock’s own method, known as he was for planning out each shot in detail before even getting to set) and the creative “stumbling block”, or unavoidable problems arising during production, that created that imperfection. I would add that some of the “quality of imperfection” is also achieved through the marriage of technical means and storytelling. In Under Capricorn Hitchcock weaves a delicate set of characters whose past may emerge at any given time to destroy them. Steve Jacobs notes that Under Capricorn, like Notorious, Rope and The Paradine Case, contain both characters with traumatic pasts and a proclivity for long takes, much like many American films in the 1940s. Jacobs argues that the scanning of space and objects in a mobile long take creates a mesmerising effect whereby “characters with wandering thoughts are presented in a state of reverie”. If we consider the room full Sydney’s society men arriving at the Flusky house, enveloped in a long take, we can see the implications of a long shot for a group of people with a criminal past not far behind them. Later in the film, Henrietta recounts the murder of her brother to Charles in one long take – by now the tables have turned, and the unrelenting camera captures a woman whose past has caught up with her. The 35mm film used at the time could only run for ten minutes – eleven in total, but allowing for roll and slate, essentially ten. Henrietta’s confession runs for eight minutes, as does Charles arrival at the mansion. With technical means come technical limits, and there is an argument to be made for their contribution to Hitchcock’s “quality of imperfection”.
I want to return briefly to the idea of Under Capricorn as non-Hitchcockian Hitchcock. While this film is certainly some way away from the tightly woven suspense of Rear Window, or the sweeping, driving thriller- mystery of North by Northwest, every single frame of it is Hitchcock. This was only the second time Hitchcock was his own producer, and although he would go on to produce his own films for the remainder of his career, this was also a short-lived period of full creative licence. Hitchcock was not accountable to Selznick or any other producer, and although he would eventually be overpowered by his financiers following the film’s poor box office performance, he was his own man on Under Capricorn. So if we don’t consider Under Capricorn to be a stylistically Hitchcockian film, I think we do have to challenge how we determine what is. Or rather, we should broaden our definition, our perception of Hitchcock to include the full breadth of his oeuvre – David Thomson argues that the first thing we should recognise about Hitchcock is indeed the “variability of his work” 4. It is for this, among other reasons, that I think Under Capricorn really is essential viewing – this is Hitchcock, to its very core, just not as you know him.
In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Hitchcock was asked why he thought the French critics of the Cahiers du Cinema had such an affection for the film. Hitchcock responded, “Because they looked at it for what it was and not what people expected”. These are words to be taken to heart when watching Under Capricorn, and if you can allow yourself to suspend your expectations, it will more than reward you.
Brad Mariano: Boy, this is an odd film. But the more I think about it, it’s pretty good one. You mention the cinematography, and I figure it’s worth mentioning that the cinematographer was Jack Cardiff, the DP of one of the most beautiful films of all time, Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus and there are connections both visually and (albeit more tenuously) thematically between the two. The use of matte paintings, accentuated and expressionist colours (the blue and yellow ochre tinted exteriors are gorgeous) show his handiwork, and both films are at least somewhat concerned with the inhospitality or incompatibility with very British customs and people in lands with very different cultures – this part is pretty incidental in Under Capricorn and could have been taken further, but it is there. Particularly interesting is the use of what must be one of the strangest MacGuffins in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, of a shrunken head, which I’m torn on – on the one hand prescribing the practice to Indigenous Australians is pretty ignorant and offensive (the custom is basically exclusive to peoples in the Amazon) but at the same time it’s the 1940s so a bit of cultural insensitivity is something we can partly forgive, and it is used to make great cinema; resurfacing in an extremely Gothic climax – with heightened colours and tone – that is for my my money one of the best scenes Hitch ever shot.
As for (melo)drama, it also works mostly – Michael Wilding isn’t an actor I’m terribly familiar with and this film suggests why that might be, though Cotten and Bergman are both terrific. However, Margaret Leighton as the housekeeper is the stand out player as a tremendously sinister maid. The love triangle didn’t quite work for me – Cotten’s character especially is sketched a bit inconsistently and the reveals towards the end doesn’t quite make him as sympathetic as the conclusion needs him to be. But for the most part, the central four characters make a great Othello-Desdemona-Cassio-Iago dynamic within the Flusky manor and between the direction and cinematography the film which, as Imogen notes, is very talky doesn’t become stagey – the former can be good, the latter bad and Hitchcock knows how to stay on the right side of that divide. I think people will be surprised by this film, and I can’t help but have a special spot for Hitchcock’s strange foray into Australiana.
Virat Nehru: This was quite a distinctive Hitchcock experience. Observations of social class, structure and status were reminiscent of Oscar Wilde, with a balance of lightness and acuity which frankly, I didn’t expect. I was more taken in by the historical detailing and embedded social commentary than the otherwise placid ‘thriller’ elements. The way class tensions in colonial Sydney are shown really enrich the stylistic ‘period’ elements of the film. Witty dinner banter, such as – “How are you enjoying the society in Sydney?”/”I wasn’t aware there was one” not only provide chuckle worthy moments but also reveal a lot about the social canvas of colonial Australia. I really liked how each minor character revealed something or the other about that time period – from the bank manager of New South Wales who preferred discussing business in public places as opposed to in his office to convicts who could be hired as domestic help by affluent families and hence, were released on a temporary basis. A precursor to the modern system of parole may be? As much as I enjoyed the historical detailing, I was equally annoyed by the forced thriller arc of the plot. For the most part, this wasn’t a ‘Hitchcockian thriller’ by any means. Still, Hitchcock tries to forcibly add thriller style elements – such as the gothic nature of Flusky’s mansion and the supposed mystery surrounding the condition of Ingrid Bergman. It really didn’t work for me. It was very distracting because it didn’t let me enjoy the period detailing to the full extent either. The film tries to be a period drama-cum-thriller but it doesn’t succeed. Portrayal of the three main characters – Sam Flusky, Lady Henrietta and Charles Adare doesn’t help the narrative either. Seeing Ingrid Bergman in yet another one track tragedy queen performance was a pain to get through. My only solace was the character of the housekeeper, Milly. Furthermore, as soon as I got convinced that Michael Wilding was the unofficial doppelganger of Alan Cumming (not even kidding), it made the film infinitely more enjoyable!