Sunday, May 13, 2012

Under Capricorn Revisited

Under Capricorn (1949) occupies a pivotal position in the career of Alfred Hitchcock. After completing his contract with David O. Selznick, the director formed his own production company. Selznick was, famously, as much of a control freak as Hitchcock and their partnership was not a happy one. Forming his own production company gave Hitchcock the freedom to do as he liked. The first film Hitchcock produced for his new Transatlantic Pictures company was the highly experimental Rope, in which the film is constructed to appear as a single long take. It was also Hitchcock's first film in color. In spite of this, Rope is an archetypal Hitchcock film: it's a suspense film, laced with themes of guilt and psychosexual derangement. On the surface, Under Capricorn appears to be very far from Hitchcock's signature idiom. It's a costume drama, for one. It's not particularly suspenseful for another. But that's not to say that it's out of character. Under Capricorn hearkens back to Hitchcock as the maker of melodramas in the 1930s. Additionally, it borrows a number of elements from Rebecca, as if the director were making the film as a rebuke to Selznick's meddling in that film. Finally, it revisits Rope's long-take aesthetic, this time without the conceit of splicing them into a single, uninterrupted shot. Unfortunately for the director, it was the wrong project at the wrong time. Audiences, expecting a thriller from Hitchcock, didn't get one and stayed away. Additionally, this film appeared just as the scandal of star Ingrid Bergman's affair with Roberto Rossellini became public, and the actress herself became box office poison. While Rope had been merely unsuccessful at the box office, Under Capricorn was an outright fiasco. According to the director, it was such a huge bomb that its financial backers repossessed the film, which perhaps explains why it has always been among the director's least seen pictures. But maybe not only that. Although the French have always thought Under Capricorn was a legitimately great film, that opinion is not generally shared. It's a regular candidate for "worst Hitchcock movie." I've even seen it on lists of "the worst movie ever made," which is, frankly, unearned. After Under Capricorn, Hitchcock went back to making thrillers. His next two films were in black and white and refined what we think of as a Hitchcock film. And he placed a premium on the entertainment value of his films. He became a populist filmmaker. The experimental filmmaker of his Transatlantic films wouldn't resurface again for another decade.

I need to pause for a minute to mention something of my own relationship with Under Capricorn. I originally saw the film on cable when I was a teenager. I think it was on American Movie Classics during the Bob Dorian years, but I don't remember. What I do remember is being bored out of my mind by it. I haven't seen the movie again since then, but it has always been one of the movies I point to as an example of a great director making a really bad movie. But, as I've mentioned in some of my other recent writing, I no longer trust the opinions of my younger self, because that kid is SO not me anymore and in many, many things, I was an idiot. Ah, youth. Anyway, when the prospect of writing a week's worth of posts about Hitchcock as part of the blogathon presented itself, I knew that Under Capricorn was something I wanted to revisit.

Under Capricorn is a kind of weird conflation of Rebecca and Gaslight, reimagined as a technicolor period piece. The story follows a newly emigrated Irishman as he arrives in 1831 Sydney, Australia with the aim of making his fortune. Charles Adare is the cousin of the new governor of the colony and a general ne'er do well. He hasn't got a penny to his name. He's told that he can get rich in Australia if he is willing to work for it, but work is something that's an anathema to him. Instead, he falls in with successful, but disreputable, business man Sam Flusky, who after serving a sentence as a transportee, has become wealthy. Flusky enlists Adare in a scheme to expand his own land holdings, much to the consternation of Adare's cousin, who basically disowns him. When Adare takes Henrietta to a state ball, Flusky's jealousy overcomes him and he ends up disgracing the three of them in front of Sydney society. Back at his manor, the truth of their circumstances and dark past comes out. Flusky ends up accidentally shooting Adare, and when he's faced with the prospect of being hanged for committing a second crime, Henrietta owns up to her own culpability in his original conviction. Meanwhile, Milly makes her move...

Sometimes my younger self isn't wrong: Under Capricorn is dramatically inert for two thirds of its running time. Part of this is the conceit of the long take.  The sheer number of shots in which the camera follows a character through a door suggests that Hitch intends each doorway to lead deeper into the film's mysteries. And that's certainly defensible in theory.  Unfortunately, there's a time dilation effect in these shots that Hitchcock doesn't seem aware of, and though many of his shots  may symbolically be delving deeper into the mystery, they do not advance the plot by revealing new information to the viewer. It's not until the film begins revealing its secrets in earnest, in the actual text of the film rather than in subtext, that the film comes to any kind of life. This happens very late in the film and provides its characters with a film noir-ish case of no exit. If Henrietta persists in her confession, she'll be deported to be tried. If not, Flusky will be a second offender and back to the chain gang for him, or the gallows. Adare, for himself, has a moral dilemma, too: send up Flusky and lose Henrietta. Save him and lose Henrietta. This all sounds compelling, no? The trouble is that long build up. It doesn't allow the audience to become invested in the characters except, perhaps, in retrospect. It's a film that stands up to a second viewing better than it stands up to a first.

Usually, however, my younger self was an idiot, and I think that may be the case here in spite of my misgivings about the film, because my younger self's complaints are all about the plot of the film (my younger self had similar complaints about Vertigo, by the way, and she was TOTALLY off base about THAT film). This film is a formal experiment and it seems only right to meet with it on those grounds. As a formal object this film is very much of a piece with the rest of Hitchcock's filmography, though one finds the director re-purposing some of his suspense techniques to other ends. One good example of this is the scene right before the Governor's ball, in which Flusky suggests that Henrietta deserves to have a string of rubies to go with the gown she's wearing. When she pooh poohs the idea, there's a wonderful sense of deflation in Flusky, followed by a sly movement of the camera to show him holding a string of rubies behind his back. This is comparable to the use of objects in Hitchcock's other films as emblems of psychological states (the money in Psycho, the glass of milk in Suspicion), but here is rather emblematic of an emotional state instead. Whatever else Flusky does during the rest of the movie, the rubies are a talisman that tells the audience that he's devoted to Henrietta. And those long takes? There's a sensual quality to them independent of what the movie is about, a lot like the long gallery scene in Vertigo. It's filmmaking for the sake of filmmaking and to hell with the plot. The film is beautifully shot, too, regardless of whether or not I think the color palette is appropriate to the movie's story. This is Hitchcock playing around with the toys, and in some ways, he's reinterpreting the movies he shot for Selznick: the evil housekeeper is from Rebecca, the sinister beverage is from Suspicion, the effect of poison being mistaken for alcoholism is from Notorious. Meanwhile, the director is mapping out techniques for the future. Vertigo is the direct beneficiary of Under Capricorn's experiments, I think.

Still, even viewing it with new eyes, Under Capricorn has its problems. The biggest problem is the casting. The lead actor, Michael Wilding, is complete cypher: He's callow, lacking in charisma, allegedly a bad boy but without the allure. When the movie is centered on him, I started to check out. When the movie relegates him to the background in the last act, the movie improves dramatically. Both Joseph Cotten and Ingrid Bergman are miscast, too, and the film, ostensibly containing nothing but Irish characters, is a polyglot of accents. Only Bergman attempts an Irish accent, and she loses it mid-film. Making matters worse is the fact that the film has divided loyalties. Henrietta is clearly in love with both her husband and Adare, and the movie doesn't know how to handle that. Further, both of them elbow to the forefront as the romantic lead at points during the movie. It makes for a bit of a muddle. (I can only speculate on how much of this muddle results from catering to the production code). That said, Margaret Leighton is terrific as Milly, and if comparisons to Judith Anderson's sinister Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca are inevitable, then Leighton is up to the challenge. In some ways, she's a more comprehensible character, given that Rebecca had to dance around the fact that Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca De Winter were almost assuredly lovers. Milly, heterosexual and evil, can wear that all up front. Bergman, for her part, gives a terrific performance too, even if the accents trip her up. That vulnerability and aura of tragedy that was so much a part of her screen image is an ideal match for Henrietta Flusky.

I'm not sure what to think of Under Capricorn now. It's not a great film, I don't think--it may not even be a good film--but it's a more interesting film than I remembered and not one that can be entirely dismissed as one of Hitch's misfires. It's at least as interesting as Rope, and taken together, Rope and Under Capricorn set the stage for what turned out to be Hitchcock's golden decade.

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Aubyn said...

This was a great look at a film I'm always meaning to revisit, pretty much for the same reasons you did. It's a film that just flat-out refuses to stick in my memory, which for a Hitchcock is pretty unusual. I think you're right that it was a learning experience for Hitchcock, as much as anything.

And Michael Wilding just does not fit as a bad boy. In the right role he had charm and likability, but dangerous and dashing he is not.

Chris Hewson said...

Wow, film audiences of the 40's were harsh!

Have you ever seen a Hitchcock film, Rich and Strange? I've got it on a public domain 10 pack, but the sound quality for the film is so bad that I could barely hear anything with the volume ramped up to 100!-as high as it can go!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Chris

I have seen Rich and Strange. It's kind of a hybrid. It's a talkie with intertitles! Parts of it are awesome. Parts of it creak.

I have it on one of those public domain discs, too.

Hi Rachel,

I know, right? Not even a hint of Byronic anti-hero. Yeesh.

Joe Thompson said...

I'm glad you found something to write about. I often argue with my younger self. I should give Under Capricorn another chance. For some reason, the long takes work better in Rope or Orson Welles movies than they do in this one. Thanks again for a thoughtful essay.

Joe Thompson said...

By the way, I'm glad Chris mentioned Rich and Strange. I agree that it was its bad parts, but the good parts are very good.

Casey said...

Nice breakdown of Under Capricorn. Even though it doesn't totally work, I've always thought it was a pretty interesting movie. As you say, it seems like Hitch was trying to think about film differently. Also, he may have been more focussed on Ingrid Bergman than on the movie. According to Donald Spoto, Hitchcock's interest in Bergman was a large part of the motivation for making Under Capricorn.

Kevyn Knox said...

Great piece on a film I haven't actually seen. It is one of the few Hitchcock's I have yet to see, but is at the top of that said list.

I really enjoy how you keep second-guessing your younger self. I do the same thing. Many films I saw as a youth and was totally meh about (Some Like It Hot, An American in Paris, Rear Window) I now gleefully include in my all-time favourites.

Again, great article. It has forced my hand and made me place Under Capricorn at the top of my Netflix queue.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Joe. My favorite long take in classic Hollywood, Touch of Evil aside, is at the beginning of Ride the Pink Horse. It's so subtle that it sneaks up on you. I like that.

Hi, Casey,

I knew that Hitch had the hots for Ingrid Bergman, but I can't blame him for that, I guess.

Hi, Kevyn. Thanks.

If it makes it any easier, you can find the complete film on YouTube, which is where I watched it. The print I watched wasn't bad, either. Though I guess Netflix is probably a better choice. Oh, and my younger self was usually an idiot. I can't believe some of the stupid things I used to believe.

Kevyn Knox said...


Everyone's younger selves are idiots. We just don't know that until we are older.