Archive for the ‘Week 34: ‘Under Capricorn’ – 1949’ Category

Week 34: ‘Under Capricorn’ – 1949

August 28, 2010

One of the main points of interest in this often rambling tale is Hitchcock’s technical exploration of the long takes approach he used to such an extent in the previous year’s (more successful) ‘Rope’. The problem with ‘Under Capricorn’ is that the story doesn’t quite grab you enough to keep you interested and the film therefore falls into that column of movies that is fine if you want to wonder at all things technical but a noble failure if you want to do something as old fashioned as actually be entertained. Saying that, however, there are certain scenes and sequences within the film that transcend its own limitations and are worth the price of admission alone – one of them in particular being absolutely astonishing. The title of the film (by the way) refers to the story’s Australian setting, much of the continent being below the Tropic of Capricorn, one of the five major circles of latitude on world maps.

The Hon. Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) arrives in Australia and is the second cousin of the much respected Governor, played by the venerable Cecil Parker. Charles quickly gets acquainted with the ex-stableboy then ex-convict-made-good figure of Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotton) and his wife Lady Henrietta (‘Hattie’ played by Ingrid Bergman). Hattie had some years before been responsible for a murder that Sam took the fall for, she standing by him and waiting for his release – only to find herself trapped in a loveless marriage and with a raging alcohol problem – this encouraged by the jealous housekeeper Milly who secretly holds a torch for Sam. Charles had known Hattie when they grew up in Ireland and romance is in the air from their side also. The whole soapy story gets itself all into a lather over the near two hour running time but does have enough points of interest to keep it all chugging along.

Hitchcock’s fluid camera showboats through many sequences. As Charles comes to see the distractedly naked bathing Governor, the camera flashily follows his progress through two doorways in a rapid track/dolly, all very well but it doesn’t seem to have any narrative reason (see the famed steadicam shot from ‘Goodfellas’ – at the Copacabana as Henry and Karen sweep through the kitchens – the shot expressing her feelings of being swept up in this tempting and overwhelming world).

There are many other instances also – the uniformly unaccompanied men who turn up for dinner swept up in a take that lasts for some minutes, later when there is a dinner at the Flusky’s the camera sweeps along the diners in one continuous movement (they apparently falling backwards onto mattresses to get out of the way of the large camera rig).

These shots (and so many more it’s endless) are technically adept and undoubtedly impressive but ultimately detract from caring about the story and characters. It’s a prime example of getting carried away with the ‘can we?’ rather than focusing on the ‘should we?’

Ingrid Bergman’s first appearance is well handled – she appearing unexpectedly at the men only dinner, barefoot and looking distinctly the worse for wear.

Bergman had played booze-hound in ‘Notorious’ but here she takes it up a notch. It’s a curious choice of role for the actress and apparently a real coup for Hitchcock to get her (she was the biggest female star in the Hollywood firmament in 1949) and, by the director’s own admission, he was dazzled by this achievement and proceeded to make a film that didn’t do her or himself any justice (although, as described below, there are scenes that are very great indeed). She is meant to hail from Ireland but her accent seems to go by the by in the picture (see Sean Connery’s Russian brogue in ‘The Hunt for Red October’ or Richard Attenborough’s drifting Scotsman in ‘Jurassic Park’).

It’s strange that the familiarity between Charles and Hattie is so readily accepted by Sam – he knowingly lets Charles into his wife’s bedroom even though he knows they are ‘very old friends’, it’s all a bit questionable (not withstanding that Hattie is three quarters off her face for much of the time).  I suppose it’s the feeling that Charles might actually prove to be a force for good for her and he may succeed in pulling her out of the alcoholic funk she has sunk into – something that Sam cannot seem to do. Charles and Hattie have extended dialogue scenes together – and not extended in any particularly riveting way. Sam doesn’t seem to mind that, when Charles can’t get an answer to his doorknocking at Hattie’s bedroom, he then scales the outside of the house to casually climb in through her window (!) – this scene then resulting in a passionate kiss between Charles and Hattie.

Sam has a massive inferiority thing going on as he is a former stable boy who has crossed the line and married way above his station, but he can never let himself forget it.

Milly the maidservant (Margaret Leighton) is an interesting character, in the tradition of the much less evil Araminta from ‘The Farmer’s Wife’- the servant pining privately for the master of the house (Mrs. Danvers, obviously, is also in this mold – aching from the loss of ‘Rebecca’). Milly is a far nastier piece of work than the goodhearted Araminta, though, and her humiliation of the mistress of the house and subsequent slow poisoning gradually ramps up the evil ante.

At Hattie’s first tentative step to take back control of her own home (by attempting to order the kitchen staff around) Milly gets one of the servants to dump all of Hattie’s empty wine bottles on the kitchen table, resulting in a chorus of coarse cackling from the servant women, Hattie scuttling back up the staircase to the sanctuary of her room. Milly eventually quits in a huff and departs the estate.

There’s a really good scene as Hattie is invited to the Governor’s ball, post Milly being banished. Sam offers to buy her a new ballroom gown but Charles steps in and says he’ll do it. Sam has such a low opinion of his own taste and breeding he gives into the more dandyish fashion conscious Charles. Then, as a breathtaking Hattie descends from her room, Sam clutches a ruby necklace behind his back, about to surprise her – but is nixed when Hattie and Charles say rubies wouldn’t go with what she’s wearing. Sam never reveals the rubies he has, and puts them away without the others seeing.

It’s a poignant moment and perfectly expresses Sam’s low self esteem: for all his pulling himself up to a position of wealth, he can never learn the ways of ‘proper’ society – he even lets Charles take his wife to the ball rather than take her himself for fear of appearing boorish. The snake-like Milly happens oh-so-conveniently to appear just as they leave, and plants the thought of adultery with Sam. These are great scenes and finally bring real drama and life into the film – very welcome.

Of course, the starting point of all of this – the party invitation – is a fake, Charles having engineered the whole thing. This, combined with the seeds of insane jealousy sowed by Milly, throws Sam into a rage as he sweeps into the party – ruining Hattie’s first wobbling steps of confidence as she has been accepted by the Governor. Sam makes a scene and his wife must leave, thrown back down just as she starts to be reborn. This is all great stuff and has the kind of pace to it that other areas of the film lack. Bergman and Cotton are great, as is the clumsy Charles – he trying to do good but making a right meal of it, Milly fueling the fires of mistrust for her own purposes.

Post the ball disaster comes a very long one shot scene that is breathtaking and in one fell swoop illustrates why Ingrid Bergman was such a massive star. About an hour and seventeen minutes in, she delivers a very long soliloquy in which she describes how she and Sam got together and fell in love:

‘Sam is part of me and I’m part of Sam, for ever and ever’

The dialogue is laden with sexual suggestions (‘we rode all night’ etc.) and intimates that she did what she needed to do in the seven years Sam was in jail (‘how did you live, all those years?’ asks Charles, she giving a look that tells us what we need to know). The scene is undeniably play-like and stagey (as is much of the rest of the film) but Bergman gets through a nearly ten minute take (8’47” in total) with such a range of heartfelt emotion it’s fantastic. For me, the entire film rests on this scene and its power – and therefore in Bergman’s performance. ‘Under Capricorn’ is worth watching for this one long take of a true star acting her bonnet off and a director keeping his nerve and letting her fly. Just at the point where Hattie is brought low, the film has finally taken flight – and, my, does it soar!

The film never reaches these heights again, but there are interesting and dramatic scenes towards the film’s close. With a little encouragement from the scheming Milly, Hattie gets back on the sauce – post Sam accidently shooting Charles. Milly asks if she can sit to talk to Sam and the pair of them discuss Hattie by the fireside, Milly must be overjoyed to be in the mistress’s armchair (this also reminded me of ‘The Farmer’s Wife’, but a dark side of the same notion). Later, Milly is rumbled trying to overdose Hattie with sleeping juice in her booze and is exposed as the shrunken head placer on Hattie’s bed (the shrunken head seed had been laid way earlier when a dodgy dealer sidled up to Sam to try to flog him such an illegal item).

The film gets pretty hysterical by this point (in an over the top way, not comedic) and is pretty gripping – the evil housekeeper once more trying to wrestle control of the household.

The film has a painterly feel to it, courtesy of the very great Jack Cardiff and his Technicolor photography*. It does looks a little odd at times though, almost as if it’s been colourised (it hasn’t obviously), the hues looking pastel and sometimes rather flat. This may well be the transfers of the picture that are available – the film was not a success and is now merely a curiosity in the grand Hitchcock canon, so the expense of restoring it to its full Technicolor glory would be way down on anyone’s financial shopping list. Cardiff and his director make extensive use of matte paintings, in particular on establishing shots to give a sense of the great scale of the country – these are very effective and well done throughout, although I have to say that they draw attention to themselves somewhat as the camera has to stay static to make this technique work which is in stark contrast to the scenes that are then contained within, where the camera is almost constantly on the go.

On the negative side, the versions I have seen are pretty dark and muddy picture wise, and probably do not do any kind of justice to the original look of the feature.

When I first watched ‘Under Capricorn’ I expected to give it a good kicking, but having been through it again I have to say it’s pretty intriguing. It’s not great and has deep flaws throughout (and is technically fascinating/weird as mentioned) but I found myself actually caring about these characters and wanting things to work out for the class hopping couple of Sam and Hattie. The film is worth watching for Bergman’s extended acting masterclass alone and, although the film ultimately doesn’t really succeed, there is much to recommend it. It’s the only one so far that I’ve changed my opinion of the second time around.

Miscellaneous notes

*Cardiff was one of the most respected cameraman in film history – particularly for his work with Powell and Pressburger. For all the info you’ll need, check out Craig McCall’s excellent doco ‘Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff’ (2010).

Medium to large sweeping staircase is a central feature in the Flusky’s place – many excuses to camera crane up and down.

Hitchcock pops up in full 19th Century costume on the steps outside the Governor’s place just before Charles visits his bathing cousin.

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