1 Hr., 57 Mins.
July 29, 2020
lfred Hitchcock long insisted that 1949's inconsistent period melodrama Under Capricorn — which lost money, which got bad reviews upon release, which sat between commercial letdowns Rope (1948) and Stage Fright (1950) — was a failure. Hitchcock was prone to conflating box office with a film's merit. So he took the movie's tanking at cinemas to mean unambiguously that he had
fucked up — that he should avoid doing what he’d done with this movie ever again.
French director François Truffaut (in line with other contrarian, Gallic film lovers) told Hitchcock in 1962 during their now near-mythical interview series that he thought Under Capricorn was, in fact, "beautiful.” It was hardly a disaster at all — just misunderstood. Hitchcock took the compliment. But it didn't inspire him to revise his stance. Years after the film came out, he’d admit he hadn't made the movie because he was all that passionate about it. His interest was more rooted in a cocky (but correct) conviction that he could get its star, Ingrid Bergman, who'd more famously worked with him on Spellbound
(1945) and Notorious (1946), to do just about anything for him. (She does some of her most vivid work in the movie.) Sometimes going out on a limb doesn’t work out.
There are some filmgoers, increasing in recent years, who believe Under Capricorn is actually one of the filmmaker’s finest movies. Proponents generally lean toward the idea that the feature is so widely reviled not because of its quality per se but, more maddeningly, because the shock of Hitchcock not offering a straightforward thriller overshadowed what he had achieved. “If Under Capricorn is not Hitch's crowning glory, it is undeniably his most underrated film,” Joe Walsh wrote in The Guardian in 2012. He declared it his favorite movie from the director — then and still unthinkable. “This is the kind of film that finds the most brilliant poetry in the slightest movement of the camera — a paradigm of cinematic expression,” Dave Kehr concurred in the Chicago Reader.
Under Capricorn is set in 1831 Sydney, and is concerned with the love triangle that forms between the convict turned prosperous landowner Samson (Joseph Cotten), his tormented and agoraphobic wife Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman), and Charles (Michael Wilding), the good-natured cousin of the governor. (The latter comes to Sydney at the beginning of the feature, and recognizes Henrietta from his past.) We learn that Samson and Henrietta are bound together by a deadly shared secret. It will eventually be revealed in a very-dramatic fashion — a roller coaster of a seven-minute-long monologue delivered by Bergman. Simultaneously, Henrietta’s caustic housekeeper, Milly (Margaret Leighton), who has the hots for Samson, is secretly plotting to poison her employer to be with him. This movie is, in some ways, a bit of a Rebecca (1940) redux, though I wouldn’t say it’s an unimaginative mutation of it.
I don’t think Under Capricorn is the unrecognized masterpiece some tout it to be. It’s too dramatically arid; I didn’t especially care what happened to its characters. But it is, to be sure, among Hitchcock’s most technically stunning movies. It’s daringly, and thrillingly, shot almost exclusively in nine-to-10-minute-long takes. Rather than come across as a self-gratifying stylistic endurance test, the choice emboldens the claustrophobia — as well as the prison of sexual tension and repression as experienced by Henrietta — of the movie. Jack Cardiff’s supple Technicolor photography is typically gorgeous and bold. It quivers.
Hitchcock so successfully creates an atmosphere of romanticism-evoking storminess in Under Capricorn that you wish he worked in this mode — quasi-Sirkian melodrama — more often. The narrative isn’t up to par with the ardent ambiance he conjures. But imagine if he had found one in his lifetime that did. How many potentially great soapers from Hitchcock did we miss out on as a result of the fiasco of Under Capricorn? I suppose it shouldn’t be that major a surprise that a perceived creative flop from a maestro is still fascinating (and in many ways promising) despite its shortcomings. B