Under Capricorn is a pretty enjoyable picture from Hitchcock, especially if one likes period costume dramas. I love ’em, so I got pretty into this film. It’s not perfect by any means, but it has a good sense of mystery in the beginning and some good performances.
Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) is the black sheep of an aristocratic Irish family come to make his fortune in Australia. His second cousin (Cecil Parker) accompanies him as the newly instated governor. Upon arriving, Charles makes friends with the wealthy Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten), another immigrant from Ireland who is an ex-convict and possibly killed a man. Charles quickly learns not to pry into people’s personal affairs, especially their criminal records. That’s a big no no in colonial Australia, where basically everybody is a ex-convict looking for a new start (another good local custom to be aware of is the creepy trade in shrunken human heads). Over at Flusky’s house for dinner one night, Charles meets his alcoholic wife Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman), who coincidentally was a friend of his sister’s in Ireland during his youth. Charles makes it his personal mission to save Henrietta from her alcoholism, but this triggers the jealousy of her husband and the housekeeper, Milly (Margaret Leighton).
This is one of those films where instead of a love triangle, we really have a love quadrangle. Charles loves Henrietta, but she loves her husband more. Her husband is jealous of Charles because he is able to bring Henrietta out of her alcoholic depression where he has failed for years. However, that’s not entirely his fault, because Milly is possessively in love with Sam as well, and undermines Henrietta’s attempts to recover. She reminded me a lot of a character from another one of Hitchcock’s films: Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca. She’s not quite as creepy as a person, but the things she does are actually more sinister because they threaten not just Henrietta’s psychological well-being, but also her physical health.
The main problem with this film is that it can get pretty talky. Generally I’m a fan of talking, but unfortunately in this film, especially towards the end, Hitchcock tends to have his actors maniacally monologue plot points we’ve already figured out or actually witnessed. It really drags the film down towards the end. There’s this one lengthy speech where Bergman tells us the real story behind Sam’s arrest, but up to this point we’ve already guessed most of what she’s said. Bergman delivers it well, lots of tortured emotion, but it ends up not mattering that much because already have the general picture of what she’s getting at. It’s quite unfortunate. Milly has another one in which she tries desperately to convince Sam that his wife is cheating on him, but again, we already understand the situation here. Like Bergman, Leighton does a good job with the speech, she goes all trance-like on us, but since we already know what Charles and Henrietta are up to, the scene ends up being unnecessary.
The other problem with this film, and it’s not really the film’s fault, is that it needs to be remastered. I’m kind of going out on a limb here, but when I was watching I kept thinking that the film probably looked beautiful when it was released. Some of the lighting and the general use of color was reminding me of the films of Powell and Pressburger, which are some of the most beautiful technicolor films ever produced. Low and behold, in preparation for this review I find that the director of photography was Jack Cardiff, also the DP on A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, and The Red Shoes. He was a master at technicolor photography, and I could recognize his style even though the colors were all faded, so the film looked kind of old and dusty. Take a look at this shot from A Matter of Life and Death:
The actors faces are perfectly lit and shaded, the image really has a lot of texture. The colors are vibrant. Now compare to a shot from Under Capricorn:
This image is just a lot flatter and more boring. You can see some of the texture in Bergman’s face, but it’s not as full and noticeable as the previous image from A Matter of Life and Death. And the colors are so faint! I could be making too much of this, but honestly this was distracting me and putting me off of the film all the way through. It’s just really sad, because I bet this film was gorgeous before it got all faded (if that’s what happened, which I suspect it is). You can still see some of its promise but it’s just not as fully realized as the other films Cardiff has worked on.
In his previous film, Rope, Hitchcock tried an experiment. He filmed almost entirely in long, ten minute takes. This was to achieve the sense of continuous action, as in a play (Rope was based on a play). This experiment, in my opinion, ended up intruding into the film a bit because Hitchcock had to keep dissolving into big, dark objects, with absolutely no regard to what this would mean to the story. However, it is a neat experiment and it forced Hitchcock to move the camera in interesting ways that he might not have otherwise. He tried that experiment again here, but I didn’t even notice it in the film because he just goes to a black screen, and this happens during logical scene transitions. This is much less intrusive, and Hitchcock still gives us some interesting tracking shots.
The performances in this film are all pretty good. Joseph Cotten sort of sinks into the background behind Wilding and Bergman, and even Leighton when she shows up, but nevertheless he turns in a serviceable performance. Bergman is as great as always here, recalling her previous role in the Hitchcock-like Gaslight (though it was directed by George Cukor). Wilding was actually the surprise here. I thought he was pretty good; he generally has this sort of half smirk on his face like he’s full of himself, which he is, but he still really cares about Henrietta. It’s interesting to see his self-centeredness clash with his desire to be helpful.
Under Capricorn ended up being a pretty good film. It has a lot of drama and shocking moments, which may not be shocking to everyone, but I enjoyed them. I got roped into the story, but unfortunately the film sort of lost me at the end with all of the actors’ incessant speeches about stuff we already knew. Hitchcock tries his Rope experiment again, which I had never realized about this film before. He actually improves the execution, even though it doesn’t conspicuously add that much to the picture. So if someone just gets on remastering this film, we’ll be good!
(note: Hitchcock actually has two cameos in this film, the other comes earlier in the picture than the one I’ve included. Hitch is standing in a crowd in the center of town, and here I believe he is the gentleman in the yellow vest standing in the back.)
Long story short: 3/4 stars