It’s interesting how Alfred Hitchcock has been labeled as the Master of Suspense, perhaps causing his less suspenseful films to fall by the wayside. It’s treacherous waters attributing ignorance to people, but the marketplace voices popularity better than it does most anything else. You won’t find Under Capricorn (1949) in a video store and you can barely find it online. The copy I bought through Amazon has, shall we say, evidence of injustice to it. You can find it, in rather low quality, on YouTube (along with a surprising amount of others). Every other movie of Hitchcock’s, from 1934 onward, has been readily (and often inexpensively) available. Why is this? Is Under Capricorn “a lesser” Hitchcock film or even, dare I say it, bad? Not in the least. I mark it as the 13th out of 20 of the Hitchcock movies I’ve seen. If I were a more confident man, I would add that it is the third most technically interesting Hitchcock film I’ve seen. All this, doomed by costume.
Australia, as we all know, is entirely peopled by criminals and criminals are not to be trusted. Its settlement in the late 18th, early 19th century is, for that reason, much like that of the Old West in the United States if one substitutes destitution with criminality and destitution. Once they’ve served their sentence, as “a guest of His Majesty”, these ‘emancipateds’ go forward, ever forward without a word of the past. Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) has come under a very different cloud. He is the second son to an Irish peer—the lowest of the low—and second cousin to the new Governor of Australia (Cecil Parker) and is seeking his own fortunes as many before him had done.
In quick time, Adare comes into contact with the very wealthy, but socially shunned Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten)—“Flusky, I know that name somehow”. The bank manager says to Mr. Adare, “If you are invited to Mr. Flusky’s home, you should refuse.” However, Flusky offers an arrangement for Adare which would profit them both by a property deal and invites Adare to his house. His cousin, the Governor, orders Adare not to go. But go he does and refreshes his memory upon the sight of Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman), an old friend of Adare’s sister who married beneath her to the old stable hand, Flusky. But Lady Hatty has changed a great deal. She is debilitatingly alcoholic, slightly mad, and entirely dependent on her maid, Milly (Margaret Leighton). This touches Adare quite deeply and he swears to help Sam by putting her right and comes to fall in love with her himself.
It’s a very traditional, possibly cliché, story about love and sacrifice and placed in a context very like Gone with the Wind. I’m certain there are many other comparisons to be had, but I am simply not that familiar with romantic literature. I suppose you’d call it melodrama, though I usually attribute that to the maudlin and poorly acted. This is acted very much as you might expect of the 40’s and that will certainly be a deal breaker for some. I am fully converted to the enjoyment of non-realist acting styles (so long as there’s no flailing involved). It certainly isn’t maudlin or histrionic. The characters are quite rational and self-possessed when they aren’t driven mad by drink or jealous manipulation. If anything, the central love story between Sam and Hatty is too understated. The film is in Technicolor, so perhaps that would do something for those anti-black and white viewers who can’t watch movies.
There’s a story I heard about a little known Oscar Hammerstein production. The story was told on the PBS Broadway documentary, and the name of the show escapes me, but the gist was this: the way scenes were changed used to be a certain, inefficient way but in this unknown show, a new, revolutionary method was used (something about turning sets and moving the stage). The next show to use this method was Oklahoma! or something and everyone changed over to this new method. If there are waters more treacherous than ascribing ignorance, it’s claiming an innovation, but I can’t recall another film as early as Under Capricorn that moved as much or had as many long takes as this one (Jack Cardiff). It’s remarkable. Is it useful? Is it serving a purpose? I’m not sure. It feels more like an experiment gone right than a pragmatic choice. Considering the period nature of the film, it doesn’t seem like the place to do something interesting.
The Hitchcock film Rope (1948), which has greater claim to the innovation, is a series of 10 takes that appear as one single take and that’s clearly for a purpose. Rope is the story of two men who murder a friend for the sheer philosophical quest of it and then have a dinner party (while the body remains in a trunk all night). You can imagine how the idea is to weave in and around the apartment while people get close to discovering the body or highlighting relationships. Is it strange that I find the use in Under Capricorn more laudable because it is so inapt? It’s interesting at least.
As I said at the start, I believe that the period aspect of the movie had more to do with its dismissal than anything else. We’ve got Joseph Cotton and Ingrid Bergman here! Sure, they aren’t household names right now, but in their day, and for a few days after that, they were known and adored. Hitchcock is probably the best known director that isn’t working today. It’s true that the “period aspect” is very noticeable and not in a good way. They’ve got Bergman dressed like a valentine more times than is advisable. Michael Wilding, a name to be committed to memory as ‘pretty darn good’, is also dressed like he’s in a third-rate high school production of Pride and Prejudice The Musical. Possibly it’s all very accurate, but accurately dressed fools remain foolish. And, of course, this isn’t a scary or suspenseful film. There are some elements of Rebecca (1940) and Notorious (1946), but these are very limited. This is more of the typical romantic costume drama. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t very good romantic costume drama.
Oh and the music (Richard Addinsell) is pretty rank and flowery.