UNDER CAPRICORN B-
Great Britain (117 mi) 1949 d: Alfred Hitchcock
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 in his interview with François Truffaut
Something of a mixed bag for Hitchcock, UNDER CAPRICORN is a confounding picture, most of it shot in London and the English countryside, the last real costume drama Hitchcock ever filmed, without the signature thrill or suspense element, as no murders occur at all, but it’s a film that contains a familiar exploration of the power dynamics in relationships, in this case a marriage, and a movie which is at center a women’s melodrama, like BLACKMAIL (1929), REBECCA (1940), Suspicion (1941), NOTORIOUS (1946), and Marnie (1964). Hitchcock planned to shoot this film before ROPE (1948), but delayed for a year due to the commitments of its movie star, Ingrid Bergman, who was at the time the most popular movie actress in America. This film would never have been made without her, yet her infamous decision to leave Hollywood to have an affair with Roberto Rossellini in Italy certainly undermined the film’s chances of success at the box office, where it tanked, and the bank that financed it reclaimed the picture, where it remained unseen in a state of limbo for years. Despite some very interesting aspects to the movie, where Hitchcock continues his experimental use of long takes that he began in ROPE, there’s also a glum and downbeat aspect to the story that may alienate many viewers, yet there’s also some tense underlying psychological gamesmanship going on that remains quite intriguing, in particular Hitchcock’s exploration of class differences, a key theme that runs throughout the film. Taking place in the British colony of Australia in the 1830’s, a cruel period of history when the use of prison labor was rampant, as was the continued mistreatment of this lower working class, continually threatened to be sent back to prison, where the British aristocracy was at the time more concerned with the appearance of law and order, where the skewed narrowness of their vision is perceived as brutal and coercively criminal in its failure to recognize or administer any outward sense of justice. Despite the privileged class distinction of education and wealth, and in some cases family nobility, this does not translate to wisdom or respect. Instead, from the opening shot, what’s apparent is how aloof and indifferent the British government remains from ordinary Australian citizens, completely ignorant of their history or local customs. The film takes place in this fog of ignorance which pervades over the land with a ghostly presence.
The presumed hero of the film is Michael Wilding as Charles Adare, the privileged and effete cousin of the British Governor (Cecil Parker), who sets out to make a fortune in Australia with little more than a noble birthright. By accident, he runs into one of the wealthy landowners at the bank, Joseph Cotton as Sam Flusky, where many of the most prosperous citizens are emancipated former convicts, immediately accepting an invitation to his mansion for dinner, defying the Governor in doing so, as he was warned against this former convict’s savagery. The appearance of the home is given such an aura of artificiality that it’s almost dreamlike, where the viewer quickly understands that whatever this movie is about likely takes place inside, where there are several lit windows, and as Adare arrives, he pokes his head inside each one where a different melodrama is unfolding, where the lady of the house is too ill to attend and servants in the kitchen are actually being whipped by a housemaid. In something of an amusing theme, every arriving male guest begs forgiveness for the sudden urgent business of their wives who unfortunately couldn’t attend, something Adare seems to take delight in hearing, as he’s getting a bit of the local custom straightaway. The dinner is interrupted by the sudden appearance of the lady of the house, Ingrid Bergman as Lady Henrietta, who does a kind of sleepwalk routine where her disturbed mind obviously lies elsewhere, but inexplicably she and Adare were childhood friends in Ireland, something that seems to give her momentary pleasure before she disappears back upstairs to the bedroom. Due to her extended mental lapse, the house is actually being run by the housemaid, Milly (Margaret Leighton), perhaps overly zealous in her position, as she has the ear of Sam, filling it with Iago-like gossip, where we eventually discover she’s secretly poisoning the lady of the house with alcohol and bad advice, all designed to dilute her power and drive her to madness, leaving Milly in charge. Adare sizes up this dysfunctional balance of power and attempts to rehabilitate Henrietta to her rightful place running the house, but she’s continually undermined by Milly’s devious methods.
While the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd were especially fond of this film, largely due to the technical expertise exhibited in advancing the narrative, so is Peter Bogdanovich, who actually claims it is one of the director’s best films, but they are in a minority view, as others find the film lacking in dramatic power, much ado about nothing, without any likeable characters, where Sam is overly defeated, morosely feeling he’s lost his wife forever, where Wilding in particular, supposedly Irish without an Irish accent, is singled out for his pompous arrogance in his contempt for the established British authority, a sign of his own unique privilege, but also his entitlement when it comes to Henrietta, believing he can have her all to himself if he can nurse her back to the living. While it plays out like an old-fashioned chamber drama, the film has two things going for it. One is Ingrid Bergman, where the atmosphere is rich with the overriding sense of dread that hangs over the head of Henrietta, where the ghastly mood resembles Bergman’s earlier performance in GASLIGHT (1944), where she’s helpless to circumstances beyond her control, a role she plays extremely well, especially as she’s being plied with alcohol and systematically poisoned, as she was in NOTORIOUS. The other is the audacious style used by Hitchcock, especially in a dialogue heavy drama where there’s so little actual suspense, yet Jack Cardiff’s complex cinematography is quite simply stunning, often moving back and forth between floors with ease, where Hitchcock was forced to remove part of the set in the middle of the shot (something Ingrid Bergman found quite distressing), where the opening dinner sequence is over seven minutes long in a single take, circling the actors, sweeping across the room, landing at the feet of Bergman’s entrance coming down the stairs, lingering for a moment before she’s identified, immaculately dressed, looking ravishing before her mental distress is obvious, as she’s lost in thought, very much resembling Katherine Hepburn’s morphine addicted role in LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962). There’s an even longer nine minute shot of Bergman in an infamous confession sequence, where she reveals the secret backstory of the film, a highly emotional, gut-wrenching scene of unwavering love for her husband that Adare, of course, completely misunderstands, but it’s a devastating moment of extreme emotional clarity in an often muddled picture of conflicting interests. Earlier in the film there’s an equally compelling shot of Sam confessing his personal failings to Adare, sadly describing what he believes is a hopelessly lost marriage, where Henrietta fills in the missing pieces. The finale is too easily contrived and oddly enough is one of Hitchcock’s sunnier and more optimistic endings.
Note – Hitchcock can be seen about five minutes into the movie in the town square during a military parade wearing a blue coat and a brown hat. Ten minutes later he is one of three men standing on the steps of Government House. This film, along with Suspicion, are the only two films where Hitchcock makes two cameo appearances in a single film.