Alfred Hitchcock Goes Down Under with “Under Capricorn”

15 10 2010

“I was literally intoxicated at the thought of the cameras and flashbulbs that would be directed at [Ingrid] Bergman and myself at the London airport. All of these externals seemed to be terribly important. I can only say now that I was being stupid and juvenile.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock reteamed with Ingrid Bergman for the third and final time, following “Spellbound” and “Notorious,” for 1949’s “Under Capricorn,” a period piece set in 1831 Australia. Costarring Joseph Cotten and Michael Wilding, it captures the strange culture clash in Australia at that time, where upper class British immigrants mixed it up with the rough-hewn, barely civilized convicts who had been shipped Down Under against their will.

Wilding plays Charles Adare, an Irish aristocrat with no money and no prospects who has come to Australia with his cousin, the new governor of New South Wales. While visiting a bank, Adare meets Sam Flusky, a brusque ex-convict who has made a fortune. Flusky proposes using Adare in a land-buying scheme, and Adare, hungry for money, goes along with it, despite the admonitions of both the bank manager and his cousin to steer clear of Flusky.

Adare learns that Flusky’s wife is an old friend of his, but on seeing Harriet Flusky for the first time since childhood, he’s shocked to see how weak and infirm she’s become. Flusky has learned to ignore the problem — which is that Hattie is drinking herself to death — leaving the running over the house and the care of his wife to their housekeeper, Millie. Adare decides to help Hattie regain her strength and confidence, but Millie undermines Hattie’s attempts to take control of the house. When Hattie tries to assert her authority over the cackling quartet of women who work in her kitchen, Millie brings in a pile of empty bottles of liquor, revealing Hattie’s drinking problem to the staff.

Millie complains to Flusky about Adare’s interference in the household, and hints at Adare’s growing affection for Hattie. Rather than fight, Millie quits, leaving the house in the less than capable hands of another young servant.

Adare tries again to help Hattie, this time by forging an invitation for the Fluskies to a ball. Sam refuses to go, saying he’s no dancer, but lets Adare take Hattie. While they’re at the ball, where Hattie is the hit of the evening, Millie returns to the house. She convinces Flusky that Adare is trying to break up his marriage. When Hattie and Adare arrive back at the mansion, Flusky throws him out, but after a riding mishap, Adare returns, and Flusky attacks and accidentally shoots him.

The governor threatens to send Flusky to the gallows if Adare dies, as it will be his second offense. To protect her husband, Hattie confesses that she committed Flusky’s first murder: He was a stable boy and she a noblewoman, and when they fell in love, her brother tried to kill Flusky, forcing her to shoot him. Flusky took the blame, and she followed him to Australia to wait for his release from prison.

Millie, once again the mistress of the house, attempts to poison Hattie, but Flusky intercedes. Flusky sees that there was nothing between Hattie and Adare, and commits himself to helping his wife recover fully. Adare recovers as well, and without Flusky’s corroboration of Hattie’s story, no new charges are brought against either of them. The story wraps up with Adare leaving for home to be the first person to return from Australia without a fortune.

The melodrama runs thick in “Under Capricorn.” It’s another film about a helpless woman, like “Rebecca” and “Suspicion,” and while there are interesting aspects of the film, there’s very little suspense. It is strange, too, that with a character like Sam Flusky, who’s described repeatedly as violent, the only meaningful moment of action in the whole film is when he attacks Adare. (There’s a scuffle between Adare and a street peddler at the beginning of the movie, but it’s really minor.)

As in “Rope,” Hitch used long takes and moveable sets in “Under Capricorn.” Ingrid Bergman reportedly hated this method, with its interminable speeches and complex choreography. The camera movement is actually distracting, at times; It circles the actors and sweeps across rooms like a restless, silent guest at a party, and follows them down corridors in an odd, unnatural way.

Of course, the actors are riveting, if off-key: Bergman sounds like Bergman, Cotten sounds like Cotten, and the British Wilding does not sound at all Irish. “Under Capricorn” was an odd cap to a decade in which Hitchcock struggled, and often succeeded, in finding his voice. If “Notorious” was Hitch’s high point in the 1940s, this may have been his lowest. “Under Capricorn” was hurt at the box office by the scandal of Bergman’s adulterous relationship with director Roberto Rossellini. This was the second flop in a row for Hitch’s new production company, Transatlantic Pictures, and the last film the company would release. I believe it is also the last period piece Hitchcock ever made. By an odd coincidence, Hitchcock closed the 1940s the same way he did the 1930s. “Under Capricorn” has much in common with “Jamaica Inn,” in that both are period pieces, both have a strange air of artificiality, and both performed poorly at the box office.

After “Under Capricorn,” Hitchcock took some time off and regrouped while on vacation. He would come back with the basic ideas for several movies he would make in the 1950s, including something called “The Man in Lincoln’s Nose,” which would eventually become “North by Northwest,” arguably Hitchcock’s finest movie. The 1950s would come to be regarded as Hitch’s most creative and successful decade, beginning with 1950’s “Stage Fright,” starring Marlene Dietrich and Jane Wyman.

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3 responses

18 10 2010
Shah Shahid

It’s funny, I always considered Hitchcock’s ‘odd’ camera movements and the way he followed his actors around a scene to be very groundbreaking.

Keep in mind I havne’t seen this film in particular, but I see how an overly fidgety looking a scene might seems when shot the way you described. Whereas sometimes less is more.

I recall a movie back in the day: SHAKESPEARE WALLAH by James Ivory. A lot of non-movement in the camera. Stationary long-shots for an entire scene sometimes, very effective.

18 10 2010
adamphilips

Shah, Hitchcock only went this far with his camera movements and long takes on a few movies – “Rope,” “Under Capricorn” and, to a degree, “Stage Fright.” His command of camera movement is generally second to none, though.

19 10 2010
TheShah

Hmmm, interesting. I Especially considering UNDER CAPRICORN & ROPE both had moveable sets, seems like it was a necessity for that kind of a concept.

And I agree with the last statement.

What do you think of Hitchcockian tributes that certain filmmakers try to do within their own style?

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