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Under Capricorn

Under Capricorn
Image Entertainment
1949 / color / 1:37 flat full frame / 117 min. / Street Date June 17, 2003 / 19.99
Starring Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Michael Wilding, Margaret Leighton, Cecil Parker, Denis O'Dea
Cinematography Jack Cardiff
Art Direction Thomas Morahan
Film Editor A.S. Bates
Original Music Richard Addinsell
Written by Hume Cronyn, James Bridie from a play by John Colton & Margaret Linden from a novel by Helen Simpson
Produced by Sidney Bernstein, Alfred Hitchcock
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Under Capricorn is Alfred Hitchcock's second go-round with his own TransAtlantic pictures, in between Selznick servitude and his rise to greatness at Warner Brothers. This time around it's a very Selznick kind of property that draws his attention, yet another period drama about a disturbed wife haunted by past crimes and present intolerance. Ingrid Bergman is given a different glamour treatment by Jack Cardiff's painterly camera, and even though the result is no suspense masterpiece, it's halfway intelligent and nowhere near as bad as the books say.


Penniless Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) arrives in Sydney but ignores the advice of his uncle, the Governor (Cecil Parker) and openly associates with societal pariah Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten), a murderer emanipated in the new territory of Australia, who has since become a wealthy landowner. Flusky invites Charles to dinner in hopes that his good name will attract the local ladies who so far have refused his hospitality; Sam has the notion that their company might help the condition of his wife Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman). She's a sickly alcholic convinced their marriage will come to no good. Charles tries to help, and brightens Henrietta's outlook, but other interests seem set on keeping Sam's wife in her sickbed - namely the Flusky's housekeeper, Milly (Margaret Leighton).

After the poor performance of his color production Rope, Hitchcock took a second dip into Rebecca territory, probably hoping to give his TransAtlantic producer a hit. Under Capricorn is handsomely mounted and well-performed, but the wordy and fairly obvious script doesn't freshen the story. We're given a rather stiff compilation of situations from Wuthering Heights (the backstory of Henrietta's elopment with the family groom back in Ireland), and Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Audiences familiar with Mrs. Danvers surely had little patience with the similar Milly character, a housekeeper resentful of her mistress and openly plotting against her.

Ingrid Bergman is fine; her fans won't be bothered by the rest of the story at all. In authentic 1840 garments and hairstyle, she's allowed to be naturally attractive instead of being bathed in studio lighting, so her pale, quivering Henrietta is an interesting change of pace for her. As opposed to her almost sensual poisoning in Notorious, here she's a more natural neurotic, showing up at a formal dinner in her bare feet for her jittery first entrance.

Joseph Cotten has the grim husband role, and almost overcomes the script's main flaw - he's totally dedicated to Bergman, while being insanely jealous at the same time. His situation as an emancipated convict making good in a new land is interesting - the local gentry tolerate him, but snub him socially.

Top-hatted Michael Wilding looks just like the cartoon dandy symbol of the New Yorker magazine, and takes on the task of rekindling Henrietta's interest in life. He's handsome, witty, authentic-looking - and dull. One of the main tasks of the film is to generate melodramatic sparks to hold up the romantic triangle, but Wilding doesn't cut it, while Cotten plays too withdrawn and resentful. Nobody's having fun here.

The various stiffs playing the Aussie nobility aren't very imaginatively arrayed. Cecil Parker begins as a thick-head when it comes to Henrietta, is bowled over by her at a party, yet soon thereafter is trying to get her tried for a ten-year-old killing in another country, already paid for by another party. But Margaret Leighton (Seven Women) is excellent in the thankless role of the schemer who causes most of Henrietta's grief. Once again, a gothic novel lays the source of all evil at the foot of women. Because her husband paid for her crime in her place, Henrietta is presented as quasi-culpable, even though she saved his life.

The other factor keeping Under Capricorn from rising above brooding melodrama status, is its adherance to the values of its period. Henrietta and Sam are prisoners in a social order that forever relegates criminals to 'unclean' status, wayward relations of politicians can't defy their benefactors without paying a price, and uppity servants will be hammered back down mercilessly. We're ready for Under Capricorn to be resolved in conventional Hollywood terms - the wife will recover, and no matter which man she runs off with, they'll both ignore society and tell off the representatives of snobbery. Hitchcock sticks with the uncommercial literary conclusion. I'm probably all wrong, but the hoary device of the shrunken head (so nicely referred to in The Horrible Dr. Hichcock) plays like a last-minute attempt to jazz up proceedings and provide an intriguing still for the ad campaign.

Hitchcock's direction shows he wasn't quite finished with his Rope experiment. Much of the film plays in unbroken master shots that prowl from room to room and block out the action much more interestingly than the earlier film's pushy, self-conscious camera. The technique only breaks down when the camera settles for too long - there's altogether too much talk, and not enough action. The main dramatic moment happens off camera, and only reminds us that, even with the Hitchcock sophisticated and subtle camera direction, the film is 98% people standing around talking.

Image's DVD of Under Capricorn is a pleasant surprise. The source is a 35mm element in excellent shape, with just a few emulsion nicks here and there. The audio is clear as well. The encoding is more than adequate. Although digital work could have smoothed out the picture even more, this is a very good-looking disc.

Fans of Jack Cardiff will instantly recognize his palate of favorite colors that quietly emphasize the emotions of the characters. Cardiff's exacting work enlivens the show - it's interesting that if any director other than Hitchcock had directed, the static painterly look would have been considered an asset instead of a low point. Hitchcock fans expected intrique, a faster pace, and more modern thriller smarts from their master of suspense.

There are no extras.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Under Capricorn rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 6, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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