Under Capricorn (1949, Alfred Hitchcock)

1949-Under Capricorn-poster

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In 19th-century Sydney, a man reconnects with an old friend who’s keeping a dark secret…

Speaking in 1963, 14 years after its release, Alfred Hitchcock summed up a pesky issue with his period drama Under Capricorn. ‘I remember some remark by a Hollywood critic who said, “We had to wait 105 minutes for the first thrill.” They went in expecting something and didn’t get it.’ Not since his silent-movie days had the director made such a laidback film, and after two decades distinguished by thrillers, spy stories and capers, audiences wanted more of the same. Under Capricorn, however, is decidedly sedate and orthodox.

But while the plot is wispy, the emotion overwrought and the sloshy incidental music constant to the point of tedium, Hitchcock’s shooting style is worth discussing and also ties into a theme of time that runs through the whole movie.

In 1831 in Australia – the film’s title is a reference to being south of the Tropic of Capricorn – a new governor (Cecil Parker) arrives to take over the administration of the town of Sydney. Convicts were once transported there from Britain, and a delicate etiquette has now built up. Reformed characters known as emancipists are given respect and freedom as long as they behave.

One of the governor’s aides is his cousin, a happy-go-lucky yet ambitious Irishman called Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), who soon befriends shifty local businessman Samson Flusky (Joseph Cotten). Then Charles is surprised to realise that he already knows Samson’s wife from when they were children – but Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman, in her third and final role for Hitchcock) is now a deeply troubled and isolated alcoholic. She’s more or less a shut-in, wracked with some unknown guilt and apparently under the spell of her domineering housekeeper, Milly (Margaret Leighton). Over time, Charles and Henrietta grow close and he starts to tempt her out of her malaise…

Though based on a novel by Helen Simpson, all this feels like stage-play material – the kind of thing you can imagine a rep company wheeling out on tour. As well as performances that are being aimed at the audience as much as to other characters, one of the reasons for this is that virtually every scene is shot in a long, uninterrupted take. Writing for The Guardian in 2012, the film critic Joseph D A Walsh argued that the long takes ‘challenge audiences used to rapid cuts and edits’ and he’s not wrong. We’re drawn into a world where, as in the theatre, actors are allowed to dictate the pace and rhythm of each scene. Unlike classic narrative editing, which creates its own sense of time by chopping together moments in precisely chosen orders and at precisely chosen points, this kind of storytelling exposes the script and the cast: there’s little support and no hiding place. Sadly, with Under Capricorn, it sometimes means you feel ‘stuck’ like a theatre-goer with a poor view of the stage. Boredom creeps in a bit too often.

But whereas edits are rare, there are plenty of camera moves which dictate where our attention should focus. The camera tracks, glides, swoops and even climbs storeys of the Fluskys’ house. (During one take, the rig actually ran over Hitchcock’s foot – breaking his toe!) A great example comes early on in a grandstanding scene presented as one fluid camera move that lasts for seven minutes, takes place in several rooms and features 13 (!) actors. (It’s actually two shots stitched together by a disguised edit, to allow an actor and the camera to pass through a doorway.) The camera roves around a large, complex set as Charles approaches the Fluskys’ house; we shadow him as he eavesdrops on events from outside the window; we follow him as he goes inside and talks to Samson and Milly; he meets several other dinner-party guests, and the men all sit down to eat… but are then shocked by the unexpected arrival of a barefooted and distracted Henrietta at the door. As a self-contained example of what cinema can achieve, it’s an absolute wonder.

Other long takes in Under Capricorn are more static and less showy, essentially being played out in a locked-off frame, such as a key scene where Henrietta reveals her terrible secret to Charles… We’ve earlier been told that Samson is an emancipist who was transported to Australia for seven years for killing Henrietta’s brother; she followed him from Europe out of love. But now, in a monologue that dominates an astonishingly controlled take that lasts close to nine minutes, she spills the truth: *she* shot her brother and Samson gallantly took the blame. It’s a bravura piece of acting. ‘The crowning achievement of the story,’ says Walsh, ‘and, in my opinion, one of the finest performances of [Bergman’s] career.’

Hitchcock had used long takes throughout in his most recent film: the dazzling and experimental Rope, which is a 78-minute movie with just 11 shots in it. (He would have made the whole thing as a ‘oner’, but film cameras can only hold so much film at a time.) In that movie, however, the style is totally simpatico with the story’s real-time setting and the way tension is built inexorably and steadily. Trapped in a single apartment with a body stashed in a box, waiting to be found, the long takes enhance the viewing experience no end. However, while extraordinary moments in and of themselves, the long takes in Under Capricorn are – in comparison – hollow pieces of showing-off by a director who doesn’t seem engaged with the material. (Variety magazine agreed at the time, saying in its contemporary review that the long takes and moving camera are not ‘a substitute for the dramatic movement that would have come with crisper storytelling.’)

When Hitch mentioned critics having to wait ‘105 minutes’ for the first thrill, he of course chose the figure as an arbitrary way of suggesting a point when the film was almost over. (Under Capricorn is 117 minutes long, so 105 minutes is close to 90 per cent of the way through.) But he was hitting on the truth in more ways than one. Yes, he meant that critics didn’t like the film because they were expecting another thrill ride like The 39 Steps or Notorious and felt short-changed. But his comment explains the failings of Under Capricorn in another way.

Throughout this story the past weighs heavily on many characters. It’s also a film about waiting – Samson for power and respectability, Charles for independence and happiness, Henrietta for romance and to be free of her history, the devious Milly for Samson’s attentions – but the people who have to wait the longest are the viewers, and not just because Hitchcock and editor Bert Bates make us wait for a camera cut. Early on in the story, newly arrived in Sydney, Charles is shocked to see a man carrying a shrunken human head on the street. Samson tells him there’s an illicit trade for such things because people use them superstitiously. It then takes 90 minutes for this plot point to come back into focus when we learn that Milly has been using a shrunken head in her attempts to drive Henrietta insane. Under Capricorn is clearly not a movie in a rush to deliver anything, thrills or plot developments.

At the time of its release, audiences even had to wait to see it. The New York premiere was held on 8 September 1949, followed by a US nationwide release on 8 October. But many other countries – Italy, France, West Germany, significantly Australia – had to wait until the clock had ticked over into the 1950s before they could view the film. Sadly, while interesting on an intellectual level, it wasn’t especially worth it.

Six men listening to the governor’s speech out of 10

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