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Under Capricorn

Kino // Unrated // June 19, 2018
List Price: $24.96 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted July 8, 2018 | E-mail the Author
There seems to be no middle ground with Alfred Hitchcock's Under Capricorn (1949), a historical drama made in England though set in 1830s Australia. Most Hitchcock admirers dislike it. Hitch himself considered it an almost total failure. Even during production co-star Joseph Cotten disparagingly referred to it as "Under Corny Crap." It was an expensive flop, to the $2.5-$3 million production losing money, the bank even repossessing Hitch's rights.

But the French loved it, thinking it one of Hitchcock's all-time best films, and for at least 40 years a handful of determined English-speaking film theorists have written exhaustively about its supposed qualities. That's probably why it turned up in a cinema class I audited around 1978-79. Watching the rented 16mm print, I was bored out of my mind, and only the new Blu-ray made me want to revisit it again. (Needless to say, the video transfer here is far superior to that print.)

The movie is not without interest and plays somewhat better if the viewer goes into it not expecting a typical or even minor Hitchcock thriller. The story has faint echoes of Hitchcock's first American success, Rebecca (1940), but it's not a suspense thriller in the usual sense.

In rough and rugged Sydney, Australia, the new Governor, Sir Richard (Cecil Parker), arrives to take charge of the region, accompanied by his rebellious second cousin, Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), a gentleman with no means of support.

Ignoring Sir Richard's strict instructions to the contrary, Charles accepts an offer from landowner Samson Flusky (Joseph Cotten), a convicted murderer and transported convict, now wealthy and married to Irish aristocrat Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman), where years before in Dublin Flusky had been the family's stable boy.

Charles agrees to Flusky's dodgy land deal to financially benefit both men, but more importantly the hazily alcoholic Lady Henrietta, socially shunned and near the point of madness, lights up when she learns that Charles is a close friend of her sister back in Ireland. Recognizing the positive influence Charles seems to have over his wife, Flusky invites Charles to stay on at the estate.

Charles gradually makes significant progress with Lady Henrietta's recovery, but this does not please the longtime housekeeper, Milly (Margaret Leighton), virtually the lady of the house during her mistress's long illness, and secretly in love with Flusky herself. Like Iago she begins hinting (none too subtly) that Charles and Lady Henrietta, he clearly in love with her by this point, are having a clandestine affair.

Hitchcock had recently broke free of his long-term contract with meddlesome producer David O. Selznick, striking out on his own. With British businessman Sidney Bernstein Hitchcock formed Transatlantic Pictures, making Rope (1948) in Hollywood and Under Capricorn in the U.K., both distributed initially by Warner Bros. Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946), each starring Ingrid Bergman, had been big critical and commercial hits, and landing her for Under Capricorn seemed like a shrewd commercial move.

Hitchcock soon realized his mistake. He doesn't say so directly in the audio interview excerpt included on the Blu-ray (lifted from the Truffaut interviews of the mid-1960s), but the idea of emphatically Swedish actress Bergman playing a high society Dubliner was ludicrous from the start. (Bergman affects a strange, vaguely Swedish-Irish accent.) By contrast, Virginia-born Joseph Cotten, playing a onetime Irish stable boy long ago transplanted to Sidney, requires much less suspension of disbelief. He's very good (as the underrated actor almost always way) and his unusually good costumes add to the effect.

The most interesting thing about Under Capricorn is how it subverts slightly the usual class pecking order. Cotten, a former nobody, is a domineering presence, while servant class Millie assumes the role of lady-of-the-house in Lady Henrietta's absence. Charles is a gentleman but basically penniless and at Flusky's mercy, while both Flusky and Lady Henrietta rely on Millie for everything, unaware that she's facilitating her physical and psychological decline. And even though Flusky appears to be Sydney's largest landholder, he's unwelcome at an official ball of Irish expatriate society types.

In the audio clips Hitchcock places more blame on the screenplay, first entrusted to actor Hume Cronyn, whom Hitch unflatteringly calls a "total amateur," then passed along to playwright James Bridie, whom Hitch complains could never write a decent third act. The long film (nearly two hours) is excessively talky, especially for a visual storytelling master like Hitchcock, a much of the talk is insipid. Millie's Iago-like manipulations are painful in their obviousness. And when Charles tries to boost Lady Henrietta's spirits, early scenes have him encouraging her to take on "women's work": seeing to the linens, lording over the kitchen staff, etc. By today's standards Charles's words of encouragement aren't exactly liberating.

Hitchcock famously employed long takes in Rope, some as long as ten minutes, to create the impression of a story told in a single, unbroken "take." Under Capricorn does a little of this, though the longest takes here run probably no more than two or three minutes. However, the camera dollies around the scenery much more noticeably than the usual 1949 production, often effectively and never distractingly so. The downside is, probably because of this the sets are all evenly ablaze in mostly flat, high key lighting for nearly the entirety of the picture. Though photographed in three-strip Technicolor by the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff, Under Capricorn is visually unappealing. A bit of suspense toward the end exhibits a flash of atmospheric lighting the film could have used a lot more of. Hitchcock later admitted he was out of his depth attempting a historical costume picture, and nothing about it feels authentic, its many phony matte paintings, backlot sets and over-lit interiors being singularly unreal.

Video & Audio

The 4K restoration of Under Capricorn is mostly very impressive. Some of the close-ups of Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten dazzle, though scattered shots, particularly process dissolves, exhibit misaligned matrixes and there's some damage here and there. But the color is vividly accurate for the most part and the extreme detail would be revelatory if the movie was better. The DTS-HD mono, supported by optional English subtitles, is a little tinny during the film's thunderstorm sequence, but is likewise mostly very good. Region "A" encoded.

Extra Features

Once again, Kino impresses with its ramped-up commitment to supplements. Included here is a audio commentary featuring Kat Ellinger, but the really noteworthy extras are 12-odd minutes of audio of Hitchcock discussing the film with director Francois Truffaut for his seminal book; and "Cinema of Signs," a fascinating short film featuring director Claude Chabrol discussing Hitchcock and Under Capricorn in particular from the perspective of the French New Wave. A trailer rounds out the extra features.

Parting Thoughts

Lesser Hitchcock for sure, but still worth seeing and a must for completists. Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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