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Under Capricorn

by Glenn Erickson Jul 07, 2018

 

What could go wrong? Alfred Hitchcock directs Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten in a mysterious tale of marital intrigues and social bigotry in a land populated by ex-convicts. Bergman is the long-suffering wife and Jack Cardiff is behind the Technicolor camera, which swoops through several amazing unbroken moving camera master shots, one fully five minutes long. What could go wrong?


Under Capricorn
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1949 / Color / 1:37 Academy / 117 min. / Street Date June 19, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Michael Wilding, Margaret Leighton, Cecil Parker, Denis O’Dea.
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff
Film Editor: A.S. Bates
Original Music: Richard Addinsell
Written by James Bridie adapted by Hume Cronyn from a play by John Colton & Margaret Linden, from a novel by Helen Simpson
Produced by Sidney Bernstein, Alfred Hitchcock
Directed by
Alfred Hitchcock

 

Under Capricorn is Alfred Hitchcock’s sophomore try with his own TransAtlantic pictures, after servitude to Selznick and before his ‘fifties masterpieces at Warner Brothers. This time around a very Selznick-y property draws his attention, yet another period drama about a disturbed wife haunted by past crimes and present intolerance. Ingrid Bergman is given an interesting period look treatment by Jack Cardiff’s painterly camera, but the picture has serious problems in the script and production departments. Hitchcock fans tend to dote on this UK-filmed show mainly for its elaborate camera work. One extended shot is over five minutes long, with scores of camera moves and positions. This time Hitchcock’s technique is almost invisible.

 

Hitchcock all but apologized to biographer François Truffaut for his production deficiencies on Capricorn, confessing that he was so proud to cast Ingrid Bergman that he neglected basic script issues. Back in 1831 (that’s five years before the fall of the Alamo) the penniless ‘black sheep’ Irishman Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) arrives in Sydney, the capital of the new territory of Australia. Charles ignores the advice of his uncle, the new colonial Governor (Cecil Parker) and associates openly with the social pariah Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten), an emancipated murderer who has since become a wealthy landowner. Flusky invites Charles to dinner in hopes that his good name will attract the local ladies that so far have snubbed his hospitality; Sam also has the notion that socializing might improve the condition of his wife Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman). A sickly alcoholic, Henrietta is convinced that she’s put a curse on their marriage — Sam was convicted for the murder of her brother, and she fled her noble family to be with him here in New South Wales. Charles knew Henrietta years ago. His presence brightens her outlook, but other interests seem set on keeping Lady Flusky in her sickbed — namely the troublemaking housekeeper Milly (Margaret Leighton).

After the poor performance of his first TransAtlantic color production Rope, Hitchcock took a second dip into the semi-gothic romance territory he mastered in Selznick’s Rebecca. Under Capricorn is handsomely filmed, but its painfully klunky, overwritten script is an almost total loss. We’re given a stiff compilation of situations from Tess of the D’Urbervilles and especially Wuthering Heights, with its backstory of Henrietta’s elopment with the family groom back in Ireland. Audiences familiar with Mrs. Danvers surely had little patience with the tiresome Milly character, a resentful housekeeper openly plotting against her mistress. The four principal characters spend a full two hours distressed and unhappy. Sam’s suffering seems especially unnecessary — the real cause of his discontent is so obvious that the audience soon loses patience with the whole story. Hitchcock later said that it was a mistake to put his friend Hume Cronyn in charge of the adaptation. Is it fair to say that he sorely needed the assistance of a strong story editor like Alma Reville or Joan Harrison?

 

Ingrid Bergman is fine, but her conflicted character seldom smiles. Her Victorian garments and hairstyle certainly seem authentic, if less glamorous — the pale, quivering Henrietta begins in the neurotic state where her Paula Alquist finishes in George Cukor’s Gaslight. Henrietta already seems caught up in a nervous breakdown — for her initial entrance at a formal dinner, she arrives barefoot, jittery and clearly not well. For us filmgoers the problem is that it’s a one-note performance — Henrietta remains morose and distraught without letup. A subplot about Henrietta learning to supervise the kitchen help is dropped midway — we never learn which ex-convict crone made the winning breakfast. We also wonder why the crones in the kitchen don’t spill the beans about Milly’s cruel trickery.

After the first hour or so Henrietta’s suffering ceases to be interesting, especially when the schemes of Margaret Leighton’s jealous housemaid are so transparent. (spoiler, but not really:) At the finale Milly once again ‘gaslights’ Henrietta with a disappearing shrunken head, in the only scene anybody seems to remember from the picture. She also tries to poison Lady Flusky. Make up your mind Milly, do you want your mistress dead, or just crazy?

We’re told that English film critics were not pleased to see the admired Ms. Leighton, an accomplished stage actress, forced to play such an annoying character. Fifteen years later, Leighton married actor Michael Wilding; she’s unforgettable in John Ford’s final feature 7 Women.

 

Joseph Cotten is woefully miscast. His Sam Flusky is meant to be wholly devoted to Henrietta yet also maliciously jealous of her, a contradiction that doesn’t play. We never get an idea of what Flusky suffered as an emancipated convict. He simmers with resentment. He seems a moron to be so fooled by Milly’s nasty manipulations. As he was raised as a humble groom, a better screenplay might have better explained his incompetent manners and methods, perhaps making him more sympathetic. Flusky instead just lumbers about, nursing evil thoughts about his peers and growing more jealous of Adare’s attentions to his wife.

The local gentry feign tolerance yet snub Sam socially; his dinner guests want his patronage yet lie to his face to cover their wives’ bad manners. Flusky’s barging into the Governor’s Irish Ball is a fatal faux-pas that spoils all Adare has done for Henrietta. What should be the ‘big scene’ falls flat because Flusky really hasn’t anything to say once he arrives. The moment draws comparison with Burl Ives’ invasion of a ranch party in The Big Country, or even better, Tom Courtenay’s foray into a fancy Tsarist eatery to retrieve Julie Christie in Dr. Zhivago. Hitchcock’s best films are loaded with scenes even more dynamic than those, but Capricorn hasn’t a one.

Looking just like Eustace Tilley, the top-hatted cartoon dandy of The New Yorker magazine, Michael Wilding takes on the task of rekindling Henrietta’s interest in life. Charles Adare is handsome, witty, authentic-looking — and deadly dull. His motives are also suspect: he’s lacking in the personal ambition department, and seems perfectly happy to break up Henrietta’s marriage. A gothic thriller needs romantic sparks to energize a love triangle, but the bloodless Wilding is simply not in Bergman’s class. He had been in Brit films for sixteen years and is often described as dashing, but here he comes across as a bore. Was he ever an effective romantic lead? Michael Wilding likewise makes no impact in his second Hitchcock picture, Stage Fright. The only role I’ve seen the actor really nail is his idealistic Egyptian pharaoh — Wilding’s blissfully blank expressions are perfect for a noble inspired by a new religion.

 

Frankly, Australia doesn’t feel like an inviting place. Henrietta and Sam are prisoners in a social order that forever relegates former criminals to ‘unclean’ status. A poor relation of a politician can’t defy his benefactors without paying a price, and an uppity servant will be hammered back to her station without mercy. Cecil Parker’s thick-headed Governor is bowled over by Henrietta at a party, yet soon thereafter tries to indict her for a ten-year-old killing in another country, a crime already paid for by her husband. We’re ready for the show to be resolved like Bergman’s Gaslight, where the wife recovers and runs away with the man of her choosing, giving the representatives of snobbery a piece of her mind as she exits. Capricorn’s conclusion may be logical but it remains unsatisfactory.

Hitchcock’s direction shows he wasn’t quite finished with his Rope experiment, improving on his idea of filming entire scenes in unbroken master shots that prowl from room to room. The action here is more interesting than the earlier film’s pushy, self-conscious camera, mainly because Rope didn’t try to disguise its theatrical, artificial nature. In Capricorn Jack Cardiff’s camera glides and cranes smoothly as it follows Adare, even as the man climbs up the outside of the Flusky mansion to break into Henrietta’s room. Cardiff’s autobio explains that the enormous blimped Technicolor camera was so unwieldy that they called it ‘the tank.’ When it moves through three rooms in one five-minute take, stagehands had to move and then reassemble the set as it progressed — rushing wild walls into position before they were caught in the view of the moving camera. That accounts for the candle-holders that are still vibrating as the camera re-enters the dining room. Cardiff reported that tempers run thin while trying to master this technical steeplechase. Hitchcock’s toe was broken when it was run over by the camera dolly.

 

For all that effort the film feels inert. We never seem to get outdoors. People talk about riding horses, but the horse accident that figures strongly in the plot happens off-screen (and makes Charles Adare seem even more of a dolt). Almost every scene is bracketed by a matte painting of Sydney Harbor or the Flusky manse at various times of day or night. None of them are particularly convincing. One painted view of the house uses a camera move on multi-plane art to achieve a depth effect. In another, a puppet horse’s head and leg add a bit of needed motion.

But we’re never more than a dissolve away from long pages of dialogue, much of which seems unnecessary. After we’ve witnessed Milly’s scheming first-hand for a full hour, the characters proceed to explain it all back to the audience one more time. Alfred Hitchcock was later teased for forcing his show-off ‘Hitchcock moments’ into pictures, and for constructing some movies as stacks of these sometimes-forced moments. After flops like Under Capricorn Hitchcock likely took a keen interest in seeing that every scene had something of immediate audience interest, and returned to stories that could be told as much as possible with his camera.

There’s no reason Alfred Hitchcock couldn’t stray from his ‘Master of Suspense’ line of thrillers, although he never seemed quite the man to succeed with costume dramas. Jamaica Inn has its grace notes — it’s complex, funny and clever. The only moment that stands out in Capricorn is the hoary device of the shrunken head, the one so nicely quoted in Riccardo Freda’s The Horrible Dr. Hichcock. The ‘haunted’ head now plays like an attempt to jazz up the proceedings and provide an intriguing still for the ad campaign.


 

Touted as a 4K restoration, the KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Under Capricorn is the best I’ve seen this show, and a pleasure to watch compared to older disc releases. But it’s far from perfect. CBS is listed as the rights holder; Hitchcock says that when the movie failed, it was reclaimed by the bank. If the film materials to do so still exist, CBS could have spent a lot of money re-compositing the Technicolor film. The more likely scenario is that an existing Eastmancolor composite negative was given a 4K scan, and digital tools were used to maximize the color, sharpness and contrast. Digital enhancement might also have minimized color fringing where the three color elements did not align.

We immediately wonder if the picture isn’t too bright overall. The Warners logo fades up, passing a point of good ‘exposure’ before settling on a washed-out level of brightness. Color fringing is not strongly apparent, but some contrasty objects carry faint color ‘halos.’ Most interiors seem very high-key, and few images show the kind of image sensitivity we associate with Jack Cardiff. He was fresh from his string of Powell-Pressburger classics, some of the most accomplished color films ever made. Bergman looks good, of course, but the color is more than a tad forced.

Then again, this is the first time I’ve seen this movie where it looked good enough that I wanted to watch it all the way through.

Not helping is the Richard Addinsell music score, which persists in backing intimate conversation scenes with fully-orchestrated and inappropriately busy music. By the time we get to the Irish Ball, the romantic waltzes just seem more of the same background racket. Is this evidence of how inattentive Hitchcock could be when he lost faith in a production?

Kino assembles good key extras. Kat Ellinger assesses the film from an academic, feminist viewpoint, adding choice opinions about Bergman and gothic romance clichés. We also get the full audio tape of the Hitchcock/Truffaut chat session that addresses Under Capricorn. From featurette producer Robert Fischer comes a lengthy Claude Chabrol interview on Hitchcock, much of which discusses the clash of opinions back at Cahiers du Cinema. Flaws in the Auteur Theory became obvious when the magazine unaccountably voted Capricorn one of the ten best films of all time.

 

Kino’s welcome English subs are marred by quite a few typos, even changing Joseph Cotten’s name from Flusky to ‘Klusky.’ A trailer is present that collects the movie’s every potentially interesting image. Ads exist for a reissue that hypes the shrunken head to sell the picture as a horror thriller. Is Ingrid Bergman really “A Woman Driven by the Demons of Hell!”  Maybe we agree — the show needed to invent a shower scene for Margaret Leighton’s Milly, interrupted by the entrance of Henrietta Flusky’s silhouette, brandishing a carving knife.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Under Capricorn
Blu-ray  rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Good +/-
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by Kat Ellinger, original uncut Hitchcock/Truffaut interview tapes; Robert Fischer featurette interview with Claude Chabrol, Trailers.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 4, 2018
(5756capr)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.