Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross ---

After a 1930s period that cemented him as a master of his craft, Alfred Hitchcock left his English island and realized his long-held ambition of making movies in the US market. His emigration to American filmmaking in the 1940s saw his career shift from success to sensation. Starting in 1940 with Rebecca, Hitchcock spent seven years making 10 American films for producer David O. Selznick. Despite the creative clashes between the two, the collaboration gave him the budgets and creative freedom he needed to act on his formal ambitions, and set him off on a prolific streak that produced many great films, among them Rebecca, Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, Lifeboat, and Notorious.

His 1948 thriller Rope, the last of his first American streak of pictures, continues to attract attention for having the purest formal gimmick of any Hitchcock film: composed of only five shots from 10 takes connected from mask cuts, it challenged Hitchcock’s ability to merge technical bravura with nail-biting suspense. Its box office success confirmed to him that his artistry could have mass appeal, and he next set off to direct one of his strangest and most out-of-character features, the 1949 period drama Under Capricorn.

Capricorn was the second film of Hitchcock’s Transatlantic Pictures production company, founded by Hitchcock and producer Sidney Bernstein to prepare for the expiration of Hitchcock’s contract with Selznick. After the success of Rope, Capricorn saw the now-independent Hitchcock leaving his suspense-thriller comfort zone for 19th-century costume drama.

His lack of experience in the genre quickly shows itself during the opening wides of Sydney, Australia circa 1831. The accompanying narration details Australia’s discovery, and informs us that Sydney received many convicts who, after their sentence, would become the civilizing pioneers of the continent. This opening narration is unusual of Hitchcock (he wouldn’t use it again until The Wrong Man, a film based on actual events of a much more recent history), and an unfortunate cop to clarity and convention. Unfortunate because these details would have quickly become clear to us within the narrative’s diegesis, and because the narrator’s objective control over historical Sydney and the narrative therein (“and now our story begins”) contradicts the film’s central theme: the ungraspable nature of memory and the past.

Into Sydney comes Irishman Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), second cousin of the newly-arrived governor. Adare is a lazy and carefree opportunist who meets ex-convict Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten), now a rich man with land and local respect to his credit. Flusky, as it turns out, recognizes Adare from his pre-arrest life in Ireland, and gives Adare friendship and money to live on, hoping that he will cheer up his alcoholic wife Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman). It works: Adare conjures initiative and sobriety from Henrietta, and as he does so he takes advantage of her helplessness and initiates an affair.

Flusky’s conviction itself is at first kept mysterious to Adare; it is mentioned early and often that to ask a convict about his past is considered awful bad manners in Sydney. And though of course we do eventually learn the details of that past, it doesn’t come cheap: in Under Capricorn, to remember is a self-destructive act of trauma. Sam Flusky yearns for his happier days in Ireland, and as Adare brings life out of his wife that he himself never could, he is horrified to see his plan working so well.

On the surface, it seems a mannered, even stuffy work, but to suggest our past’s inaccessibility — to one’s self or to others — in a costume drama of all things marks Under Capricorn as one of the most subversive films in Hitchcock’s career. Indeed, it is a clear antecedent of Vertigo in its psychoanalytical influences, and in its pessimistic view of sexuality.

Under Capricorn also shares with Vertigo a despicable, obsessive horn-dog protagonist. As Adare pulls Henrietta out of her inveterate boozing, he becomes increasingly possessive and manipulative of her, calling her “The first work of art I’ve ever done.” Despite his affable persona, Adare is a vicious emotional predator, motivated entirely by selfishness; he will do nothing for others if there is more for him to gain by doing evil. Wilding’s performance doesn’t capture this as well as it ought to — he plays everything, even anger with a chipper glee, but there is rarely a sense of his character’s subtextual feelings — but nonetheless makes for a charismatic anti-hero in disguise as a romantic lead.

If Wilding shows too little, Bergman shows too much, playing almost a caricature of an alcoholic. Her borderline mugging makes her hard to identify with, especially as her agency becomes critical in the third act. Cotten is the best of the three leads, perfectly suited to a stoic man with a golden heart and short temper, easily controlling the frame as his inner demons wrestle across his face. Only Margaret Leighton equals Cotten as Milly the housekeeper, who secretly loves Sam and aims to have him by fostering his suspicions of the affair and encouraging Henrietta’s alcoholism.

If the film does not fully succeed, it is because the visual form it takes demands exemplary acting. Under Capricorn marked the first and only collaboration of Hitchcock and legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who had just rewritten the rules for colour cinematography while working on Powell and Pressburger films like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. Of all his work, Cardiff was proudest of Under Capricorn, and understandably so. Besides his typically masterful use of technicolor (unfortunately faded by time — the film is in dire need of a restoration), Under Capricorn features shots of extraordinary length and complexity.

It is in these shots that Under Capricorn formally confronts its ideas of the past, as the camera uses long takes and startling movements to suggest that its characters are locked within the here and now; long speeches by the Fluskys respectively detailing their pasts are conspicuously unbroken by cutting or flashbacks. One particularly extraordinary shot moves through the halls of Flusky mansion, landing again and again on lovely compositions before moving into the dining room and circling around the faces at the table. This technique gives Under Capricorn a sense of deep, romantic longing unmatched elsewhere in Hitchcock’s filmography, but as I mentioned, the technique requires absolute proficiency of its actors, proficiency that is not always on offer here.

But though the cast is not on the whole up to the cinematography, they do good work, and as the melodrama deepens, that makes Under Capricorn work. One could ask little more from a film visually, and if Hitchcock isn’t fully at home in a romantic period piece (he would later admit that he simply wasn’t suited to it), his daring and technical invention offered more new ideas to the stagnant genre than any other film would until Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon in 1975.

The film shared another quality with Vertigo — it was a critical and financial failure. It marked the end of Transatlantic Pictures, and after one more British picture (Stage Fright), Hitchcock returned to America and made Strangers on a Train, marking the start of the most widely acclaimed decade of his career — indeed, of any filmmaker’s career. And though he never again ventured so far away from the material we think of as Hitchcockian, Under Capricorn surely expanded Hitchcock’s horizons, and in spite of its failings it stands as an evocative statement that proved the Master was capable of more than Suspense.


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