Under Capricorn

UNDER CAPRICORN would not be the prime introduction to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, a period costume drama set in colonial Australia with little mystery, no action and not particularly appealing characters. Failing with critics (still offering a cold shoulder), dismissed by audiences (#106 in 1949) and considered a mistake by its makers, the study in repressed guilt is nonetheless worth seeing for the performances and camerawork. Watch out for that shrunken head!

Sydney,1831. When bemused swell ‘Charles Adare’ (Michael Wilding) arrives in the rough-hewn continent colony, hoping to make some money, he meets brusque convict-turned-businessman ‘Samson Flusky’ (Joseph Cotten) who offers a land-buying idea that will benefit them both. Adare finds that Flusky’s wife is a childhood friend, but ‘Lady Henrietta’ (Ingrid Bergman) is suffering from alcoholism, frightful delusions and social ostracism. Sam hopes Charles can help turn his wife’s misery around, but there’s malicious interference from ‘Milly’ (Margaret Leighton), the controlling housekeeper. Suspicion, secrets and jealousy are afoot.

Besotted with Bergman (who wouldn’t be?) Hitchcock hoped they could spark another hit together like Spellbound and Notorious, plus he’d scored a winner with Cotten, playing against type in Shadow Of A Doubt. Unknown in the States, easygoing charmer Wilding was quite popular in England.

From the script on, problems beset the production, shooting in England, with costs rising to $3,000,000, $450,000 alone for salaries demanded by Bergman and the director. Hitchcock’s actor friend Hume Cronyn adapted Helen Simpson’s novel, with the screenplay then done by James Bridie. The director and his wife Alma Reville worked on it as well, but the 4-way divvy didn’t jell to satisfy scribes or players. Technically, the shoot was a nightmare as Hitchcock designed the presentation to make extensive use of long, uninterrupted takes with much dialogue and fluid camera movements, as in his previous experiment of Rope. Essentially ,the idea was to take the level of voyeurism from the observant into the participatory, the gliding, circling lens hopefully achieving a you-are-there heightening of immediacy and tension. In Rope, the gimmick was confined to a few rooms in an apartment. Enlarging it here to a mansion with more levels and rooms brought so many technical issues of timing that cast & crew were frazzled. The artificiality of the sets (including too obvious matte paintings for the exteriors) contributed to the theatricality; they and the camera tracking made you more conscious of the movement than the material. That it looks as good as does is due in large measure to the pro tasked with the job, ace cinematographer Jack Cardiff—the lighting throughout is superb— with four associates manning the actual camera movements (while unseen grips frantically moved walls and furniture out of the way). The hassles didn’t sunder friendships but did strain working relationships the director had with Bergman, Cotten and Cronyn.

Another twerk was that the three lead characters were all supposed to hail from Ireland (the script makes much of this) and Bergman (Swedish), Cotten (from Virginia) or Wilding (British) bothered to affect one. That miff aside, they’re all good. Bergman (she doesn’t appear until 25 minutes into the story) has some stellar moments, including a faultless 9-minute monologue that could serve as a soliloquy model in acting classes; she was peerless at conveying deeply felt emotions in minute, natural expressions and inflections without sinking into gushy melodramatics. Cotten was fine at playing tormented types (Portrait of Jennie, Niagara), though he did irk Sir Alfred mightily by unwisely referring to the script as “Under Cornycrap”—oops! Wilding adds a needed light touch, and Margaret Leighton’s scheming estate tyrant recalls the deluded Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca, Hitchcock’s American debut.

Box office died on the vine at $3,400,000. With Cecil Parker (hearty as ever), Denis O’Dea, Jack Watling, Francis De Wolff and Martin Benson. 117 minutes.

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