If you were asked to name an Alfred Hitchcock movie about a big gothic mansion inhabited by a fragile wife, an imperious husband and a sinister housekeeper, you’d probably go straight to Rebecca, his Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1940. If asked to name a Hitchcock movie where Ingrid Bergman plays a put-upon wife suffering a breakdown, your mind might leap to Notorious (1946).
Well, there’s another example, combining both these descriptions, that’s among the director’s most unseen and disregarded movies, yet on most days I think it’s easily in his top ten. That’s why this Blu-ray of Under Capricorn (1949) is among the most important digital restorations of the year.
When he interviewed Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut called Under Capricorn a beautiful movie, as it is, but Hitchcock tended to be locked into a commercial view that the box office decided which of his films were failures. Fortunately, that never stopped him from experimenting. This film was dismissed on its release as a talky costume drama and a warmed-over Rebecca, and in the home video era, it has floated around in lousy prints painful to the eye and ear, as though crunched into the mud by a horse and carriage. Even so, it was possible to grasp something of its faded glory, which we now see clearly and creamily in this 4K digital restoration.
Hitchcock experimented with at least two elements in Under Capricorn. The first was Technicolor, for this was his second color movie after Rope (1948). This time he employed the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who’d been dazzling the world with his work for a series of films by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger: A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), which won him an Oscar, and The Red Shoes (1948), a Best Picture nominee. These are films that glory in the artificiality of their Technicolor. In Hitchcock’s film, the lighting and painted backdrops are similarly eye-popping.
Even more glorious is the second experimental element, which explains why no less than an unheard-of four camera operators are listed. Hitchcock decided to modify a practice from his previous film. In the stagebound Rope, Hitchcock had amused himself by staging the action in unbroken ten-minute shots, which was as much film as a 35mm camera could hold. In a theatre, projection reels could hold 20 minutes of film before a reel change made it necessary to switch to the second projector (gosh, this sound prehistoric), so Hitchcock disguised the mid-reel cut via brief close-ups of an actor’s back, thus presenting the illusion of an unbroken 20-minute shot.
The movements of actors and camera required precision blocking, with assistants quietly rolling furniture out of the way. After all this work, the “average” viewer either didn’t notice or felt inexplicably uncomfortable and claustrophobic. For students of photography and mise-en-scène, the results were jaw-dropping and riveting exercises in “pure cinema”. Having proven (to himself, if no one else cared) that he could pull off such an extreme stylistic choice, Hitchcock now applied the principal of long elaborate takes to Under Capricorn, though less strictly.
The material is no longer confined to a single set and consists of many scenes in many locations, yet Hitchcock chooses to stage most scenes either in a single shot, whether actual or cleverly fabricated, or else with a minimal use of editing, only cutting judiciously to make an emotional or narrational point, like a grandiloquent and elevated orator who knows exactly when to breathe and when to toss in a counterpoint of vulgar slang.
Personal note: When I gave a university lecture on the interaction of shots and cuts, I used the Odessa Steps sequence from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) for the demonstration of editing, and for the demonstration of virtuoso staging within a single shot, I used an early sequence-shot from Under Capricorn. It’s the scene that begins with the point of view of our footloose hero, Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), as he approaches the beautiful and unreal mansion of gruff Australian landowner Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten).
At first, shots of Adare alternate with dollies forward to the front door. Since Adare is walking, those dollies seem like his subjective POV, but then he enters the shot from over his own shoulder, as it were, and the camera now follows him as he walks around the side of the house, peeking voyeuristically and Hitchcockianly into the succeeding rooms, each like its own stage set. Precisely timed at the reel change, Adare’s back disguises a cut as he enters the back door and begins a series of encounters with many people as he passes through the various rooms he’d seen from outside.
He is now “on the public stage” himself, and the camera companionably drifts with him, reflecting his own sardonic awareness of uneasy social comedy as one man after another offers excuses for their wives having failed to grace the occasion. The event isn’t quite going smoothly but everyone is pretending otherwise. The camera occasionally glances back towards some bit of business before finally leaving Adare behind as it diverts onto a private conversation between Flusky and his housekeeper Milly (Margaret Leighton) about the absent Mrs. Flusky, whom the husband orders to be kept upstairs out of sight, if not actually chained in the attic.
When Flusky summons his guests into the dining room — all still in the same shot that began outside with Adare approaching the house — they sit and say grace as the camera swoops in for a closer pan across them at table. They look up in alarm, their attention caught by something offscreen. Hollywood’s rules of POV cuts (a shot of the gazer, then a shot of the thing seen) dictate that we should now see the object of attention, and we definitely want to after the mounting unease generated by this lengthy unbroken shot. We’re ready to get out of it. But not so fast, for the camera drifts to the proprietorial Flusky as he intercepts his guests’ gaze of something or someone behind him. He too glances back uneasily.
And now, at last, the shot ends as the film cuts — not upward, as the guests had been looking, but downward to the disorienting information of pretty bare feet on the wooden floor. The feet advance as the camera raises to Flusky’s dominating glare forward, away from the figure who now puts her arms on his shoulders and addresses her first lines to the guests. They see her face, but we still can’t. Only now, after that pause on the master of the house and master of its mistress, does the camera tilt up to our first close-up on Ingrid Bergman, disheveled and inebriated but trying to brazen it out gracefully, like a lost soul. No one may look at her without having passed through the disapproving appropriation of her husband.
That’s just over seven minutes of sheer mastery. In a few more minutes, the camera will glide up the stairs and into her room for a moment of mystery, then back down again. Later, we’ll be regaled by sinuous glides between floors from outside of the house, even going into and out of windows. For viewers into the techniques of mise-en-scène, it’s one dazzlement after another.
These techniques didn’t endear themselves to Bergman, despite the gift of her own bravura seven-minute delivery in a scene few actresses could have pulled off. Nor did they endear themselves to the original audiences and reviewers, many of whom complained it was a boring costume picture.
Most acknowledged one brilliantly kinetic scene that involves something shocking in Henrietta Flusky’s bed. That scene is presented with Hitchcock’s traditional mastery of editing, and reviewers wished for more of it. Not to give anything away, but that moment reveals an undercurrent of colonial/racial guilt in the history of Australia, in addition to the story’s surface theme of criminal guilt and expiation in the deportees who were sent to populate the territory. A hint at the historical grotesquery that has been repressed is suddenly exposed in a shot that pans from the close-up of one victimized face to another.
In a sense, Hitchcock was a victim of his own brand. People expected and wanted a suspenseful thriller, not an elegant character study or a pretty historical film or even a restrained gothic romance, and they tried to perceive it in thriller terms instead of letting what it was wash over them. What it was is simply, as Truffaut stated, beautiful, and a deeply felt study of how people torture themselves and each other.
Truffaut was persuaded to admit that the ending feels disappointing, though I feel it ends with mature people coming to their senses after the flirtations with melodrama. Conversation can be a weapon, a power game, a misdirection, and at its best, an honest clearing of the air, and that is where the characters finally arrive after much legerdemain. Maybe the scenes are long and talky, but everybody is talking about real things, or sometimes fraudulent things, and their visual choreography combines subtle detail with sheer showmanship.
One problem with stylistic tours-de-force is that many viewers don’t “see” them because we’re oriented toward following the story, which may be a film’s least interesting element. So this film has always appealed to those ravished by camera moves, though Hitchcock understands when a stable camera is equally effective. He even provides a tour-de-force of such a choice in the shot when Milly is metaphorically pouring poison into her master’s ear. The restless camera confines itself to a narrow space as Milly stands talking and Flusky paces in every direction, now passing in front of the camera, now disappearing from the screen, now reappearing across the background, as Milly’s eyes follow him like the marionette she’s manipulating from her central stillness.
Under Capricorn was the first film Hitchcock made in England since Jamaica Inn (1939), another costume picture (and a very profitable one), after which he’d been lured to Hollywood success. The film’s source was a novel by Australian Helen Simpson, whom Hitchcock had known personally. He’d adapted one of her mystery novels as Murder (1930), and she’d contributed dialogue to Sabotage (1936). Although she’d died in 1940, her name was still known. One of her novels, Saraband for Dead Lovers, had been filmed as a big-budget historical romance just one year before Under Capricorn.
John Colton and Margaret Lindon had turned Under Capricorn into a play, and while actor Hume Cronyn is credited with “adapting” the material, after having filled a similar post on Rope, the screenplay is largely the accomplishment of Scottish playwright James Bridie in between his work for Hitchcock on The Paradine Case (1947) and Stage Fright (1950) — all box office disappointments, alas. IMDB claims the script received uncredited work from Peter Ustinov and Joseph Shearing.
Following Rope, Under Capricorn proved the second and last of two features produced by Transatlantic Pictures, Hitchcock’s independent company co-founded with Sidney Bernstein. Two expensive disappointments were enough. It’s possible that this film’s failure stemmed not only from “not being a thriller” but from the scandal surrounding the revelation of Bergman’s affair with Roberto Rossellini. Her press agent admitted in August 1949, one month before the film’s release, that she was filing for divorce, and it only escalated from there, with news of her adulterous pregnancy official in December.
It may be difficult for today’s audiences to grasp the enormity of this scandal, but it doesn’t seem to have been great for this film’s business. Or perhaps, on the contrary, it helped, with only its then-huge three million dollar budget nullifying what would have been another movie’s healthy ticket sales. Not everyone grasps that when expensive films “bomb”, it doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of people didn’t see them. In many cases, more people saw a bomb than saw the profitable film next door. The figures at Wikipedia indicate that the box office gross wasn’t bad in the abstract, but it wasn’t enough for profit, and the bank repossessed the film.
The supporting cast is filled with British character players, including Cecil Parker, Denis O’Dea, Jack Watling, Ronald Adam and Francis de Wolff, with narration by Edmond O’Brien. Richard Addinsell wrote the extensive understated score. Deserving praise is art director Thomas Morahan, who’d worked on The Paradine Case and would move on to Treasure Island (1950), Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951), Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965) and his Oscar-nominated work on Sons and Lovers (1960).
The Blu-ray offers a commentary by historian Kat Ellinger, who speaks of class issues and approaches the film in the gothic tradition. She draws comparisons, among other films, to the 1944 version of Gaslight with Bergman and Cotten, and to the 1939 Wuthering Heights. A half-hour interview with Claude Chabrol from German TV says a little about the film, though that’s not really its focus. A snippet of the Hitchcock/Truffaut interview is also provided.
Make no mistake, however. The star attraction is the chance, at long last, to see a visual wonder from a master filmmaker in a presentation that makes it look better than it has in decades. We can still perceive a very few glitchy artifacts and subtle color shifts, but this is practically as good as new. If they start handing out Oscars for digital restoration, put this on the short list.