Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn is a curious entry in the famed director’s output. The 1949 motion picture is a historical romance and it was met with negative reaction upon its initial release, so much so that it was actually repossessed by financiers. It has regained some of its lustre over the years, with French critics with Cahiers du cinema naming it among Hitch’s best.
In his interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock said that Under Capricorn was by and large made for its star Ingrid Bergman. He was out of his element, however, and the flick went soaring into a $2.5 million budget. Not only that, the Helen Simpson source material was not landing with Hitch. “I had no special admiration for the novel and I don’t think I would have made the picture if it hadn’t been for Ingrid Bergman,” he said.
The film opens in Australia and the year is 1831. Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) has arrived with his uncle, the new governor (Cecil Parker). Charles finds himself befriended by a wealthy ex-con named Flusky (Joseph Cotten). Flusky is married to Lady Henrietta (Bergman), who turns out to be an old friend of Charles’ sister from Ireland. Flusky wants the visiting Charles to cheer up his wife, who is an alcoholic.
Complicating matters is Milly (Margaret Leighton), Flusky’s housekeeper. She harbours affection for the ex-con and “encourages” Henrietta’s drinking to the point that the lady of the house is rendered nearly comatose. But Charles’ arrival encourages Henrietta in another direction and, with the lady up on her feet again, Milly’s plans soon come to light.
The story of Under Capricorn is a convoluted one, even if there are some rich themes under the surface. Some might rightly draw comparisons to Rebecca, which also deals in nefarious housekeepers and obsessions. But where Rebecca lurks neatly in the shadows and exists as a tempered gothic thriller, Under Capricorn is harder to get a read on.
Part of that problem lies with how the tale is constructed. The opening scenes lay the focus on Charles. This approach dilutes the tension-building process considerably because the audience is centred on the wrong character for a lot of the film. Seeing the action through Lady Henrietta’s eyes would’ve altered the course of events and presented a more streamlined tale of woe.
The muddled approach doesn’t render Under Capricorn a colossal failure. Hitchcock’s technical prowess is building nicely at this point and his curiosity over the long take plays into this picture well. He doesn’t quite build things as openly as Rope, but one could argue that the longer takes are more complex in Under Capricorn due to the elaborate sets and lighting designs.
The extended sequences make space for the movie’s dialogue-heavy script. The adaptation was helmed by Hume Cronyn, the Canadian actor and writer who also wrote Rope and acted in Lifeboat as well as Shadow of a Doubt. While much of the screenplay is cluttered, Cronyn’s work does shine through elegantly in the longer scenes. Bergman’s confessional sequence, for instance, is a work of art.
Indeed, this picture looks beautiful. It is Hitch’s second kick at the Technicolor can and he illustrates more mastery of a full palette, with Bergman’s colourful (and sometimes silly) costumes blending well into the backgrounds and various lighting schemes. Various other moments of inspiration, like the way the candelabras show isolation at the dining room table, make Under Capricorn aesthetically interesting.
At the core of the movie is a sense of transplanted expectations, something that may reflect Hitchcock’s own sensibilities. Australia, the setting, is viewed as an “infernal place” run through with convicts. Even the animals have a “bit of the devil” in them, while the purity of Ireland – home of Lady Henrietta and Charles – calls from the “Kingdom of Heaven.”
Even with these elements, its scrambled approach to storytelling still proves problematic. While Hitch’s technical proficiency is clear, his disinterest in the project is also apparent. As such, Under Capricorn is unsatisfying. It has a lot going for it and it is thematically strong, but its lack of clarity keeps the tension and meaning from really sinking in.