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.


Alfred Hitchcock Goes Suburban with “Shadow of a Doubt”

30 08 2010

“What it boils down to is that villains are not all black and heroes are not all white; there are grays everywhere.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock often called his 1943 picture, “Shadow of a Doubt,” his favorite film, and it’s not hard to see why. It allowed him to work with a spectacular cast, to tell a quintessential Hitchcock story, and to collaborate with top-notch writers as well as a cast member who would become a close associate.

Critics have called “Shadow of a Doubt” Hitchcock’s first truly American film, and while “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Saboteur” are both set in the U.S., those both feel like a British director’s observation of the country; with “Shadow of a Doubt,” Hitchcock no longer holds the country at arm’s length. From the opening scenes filmed on the grimy docks of Newark, NJ, looking out at the Pulaski Skyway, we move to the idyllic town of Santa Rosa, California, Hitchcock demonstrates a new familiarity with the U.S.

The story revolves around the Newton family: Joe, the father, a banker played by Henry Travers; his wife, Emma, played by Patricia Collinge; young adult daughter Charlie, played by Teresa Wright, as well as two younger siblings. It’s summer, and Charlie, recently graduated from high school, is bored and wishing for adventure. Just as she decides to telegraph an invitation to her Uncle Charlie, played by Joseph Cotten, the family receives word that Charlie is planning a visit. She is thrilled, and takes the news as evidence of how close she and her uncle are.

Not long after his arrival, though, Charlie begins to wonder what’s going on with her uncle. His charming nature often turns moody; he shows a cynical side that almost frightens Charlie, launching into a dinnertime diatribe against idle, wealthy widows and the world at large. He’s also extremely wary of two men who come to visit, claiming to be conducting a survey for the government. The younger of the pair takes Charlie into his confidence, explaining that he is actually a detective on the trail of “The Merry Widow Murderer” — and that her uncle may be the murderer.

Charlie doesn’t believe it at first, but soon starts to see some clues, including a ring her uncle gave her with the engraved initials of one of the killer’s victims, and the Merry Widow Waltz, which seems to be stuck in several character’s heads as the film goes on. And when Uncle Charlie realizes that she is figuring out who he really is, he takes action, first by sawing through a step in an exterior stairway so that Charlie nearly falls to her death, and then trapping her in a garage with a running car.

After she survives both attempts, Uncle Charlie decides he has to leave town. He meets a train, but before it leaves Santa Rosa, he shows Charlie and her siblings his accommodations. The young brother and sister run back off the train, but Charlie is held back by her uncle until the train starts moving. They struggle in a doorway as he tries to through her out of moving train, only to fall himself into the path of another oncoming train.

“Shadow of a Doubt” was conceived by Gordon McDonnell, an employee of David O. Selznick, but much of its tone came from screenwriter Thornton Wilder, who captured the ordinary life of smalltown American as he had in his classic play “Our Town.” Hitchcock enjoyed the chance to introduce an element of evil into this idyllic setting, and the screenplay continued to develop after Wilder had joined the war effort under the guidance of Sally Benson, who wrote the story “Meet Me in St. Louis,” and Hitchcock’s constant collaborator, Alma Reville.

Teresa Wright also noted that Patricia Collinge, who played her mother, contributed to the screenplay. Collinge wrote for “The New Yorker,” and when Wright expressed concerns about a scene between Charlie and the detective in which they profess their love for each other, Hitch was happy to let Collinge rewrite the scene so that their affections were only mentioned, letting the threat of the Merry Widow Murderer remain their primary topic of discussion.

“Shadow of a Doubt” also marks Hitchcock’s first collaboration with actor Hume Cronyn, who would go on to appear in “Lifeboat” and episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Cronyn cowrote the screenplays for “Rope” and “Under Capricorn,” and remained a close friend of Hitch’s through the director’s life. Here, he works primarily with Henry Travers, his coworker at the bank; the two share an obsession with murder mysteries, continually talking about the best ways to kill each other, providing darkly comic relief to Charlie’s ordeal.

The film contrasts the beauty of smalltown living with the threat posed by Uncle Charlie, and in fact he exposes his niece to darker parts of the town than she had seen before. At one point he drags her into a bar to try and stop her from exposing him. The place is full of rowdy sailors on shore leave, smoking, drinking and pawing at women; they are served by one of Charlie’s classmates, who seems beaten down and much older than her seventeen years.

Of course, the town of Santa Rosa itself is a character in the film, from the slightly dingy house the Newtons live in to the busy intersection presided over by a beat cop, from the local bank to the public library, it is all American towns, replate with gossip, provincialism and secrets. While the film idealizes the setting, Uncle Charlie and Emma Newton are nostalgic for their own childhood and the street where they grew up. Hitchcock enjoyed filming on location, capturing life in a small California town in a way that presages “The Birds.

Later, when the detectives receive word that their other suspect had been killed, Uncle Charlie assumes momentarily that he’s off the hook; he leaps up the stairs into the house, full of joy, only to realize halfway up the stairs that he is still under suspicion, slowing his ascent and turning to see his niece, framed in the doorway, looking up at him. Like Cary Grant in “Suspicion,” Joseph Cotten is convincing whether he’s being charming or menacing. Cotten would collaborate with Hitchcock again in “Under Capricorn.”

Up next, Alfred Hitchcock makes one of his strongest statements about war in “Lifeboat,” from a tale by another great American writer, John Steinbeck.

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