Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Notorious: Celebrating the Ingrid Bergman Centenary. For more information on this TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Alfred Hitchcock is known for many things, most notably being the Master of Suspense and for creating hit after hit time and time again. What he’s not known for is a dud, but he did make them occasionally, like The Manxman in 1929, The Skin Game in 1931, Jamaica Inn in 1939 (a huge mistake that unfortunately marked Hitch’s only collaboration with Charles Laughton), and his last film Family Plot in 1976. Add to that Under Capricorn, an unfortunately dull costumer that came right in Hitchcock’s most fruitful period and is smack dab in his most fruitful and exciting period (which is really about 25 years long).
. . . an unfortunately dull costumer that came right in Hitchcock’s most fruitful period and is smack dab in his most fruitful and exciting period.
It’s about an errant Irish lord Charles Adair (Michael Wilding) who arrives in New South Wales, Australia in the mid 1800’s in the care of his 2nd cousin the Governor (Cecil Parker). He falls in with former convict and now rich land owner Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten) who takes a bit of a shine to him. Going to Flusky’s estate, against the wishes of his cousin, he encounters Lady Henrietta Flusky (Ingrid Bergman), whom he knew years ago in Ireland and who was a friend of his sister’s. Henrietta appeared at a banquette very sickly and because of that she has to leave almost as soon as she arrives but not before Charles remembers himself to her and she recounts how she misses his sister. He helps her upstairs and later speaks to Flusky about Henrietta years ago. Flusky arranges for Charles to stay to help get Henrietta back on her feet.
It’s discovered that she’s really not sick but an alcoholic and her alcoholism is being fueled by the housemaid Milly (Margaret Leighton), who is obviously in love with Flusky. Charles works with Henrietta to get her off booze and take charge of her household, which Milly has a firm grasp on. She has some success and much failure which makes her bounce from confident to dejected from one instance to another.
A subplot that takes over the primary story (what there is on one) is that Flusky murdered Henrietta’s brother in Ireland, which sent him to Australia as a convict doing seven years hard labor. That inflates to some kind of mystery and threatens Flusky’s situation when he accidentally shoots Charles, forcing the Governor to arrest him and possibly send him to the gallows.
I hate to say it, but this Hitchcock film just doesn’t work, which is why it’s understandable that it is one of his less-remembered films.
This subplot, I imagine, was played up to suit Hitchcock but the film was so flat and uninteresting leading to it that it fails to elevate it much beyond that. Hitch seems bored in his handling of the film, which is surprising considering that it was not a studio assignment like Spellbound was. This was his last film produced under his own production company (which folded after Under Capricorn failed to perform at the box office) so he chose it himself. Perhaps he thought it would be a nice break from suspense films, as it was following Rope. Also, it is sort of an experiment in formalism, utilizing uncharacteristically long takes. Not as long as in Rope, his ultimate experiment where he attempted to make the film seem like one long take, like a play, but still much longer than he normally used. Perhaps he felt this material was better suited to these long takes as opposed to cutting a lot for suspense pictures or he was still trying to push the boundaries of film by testing the limits of a shot within a more standard, multi-locational film as opposed to one set in a single room. This also leads to an unfortunate decision to keep the camera predominantly static, draining what life there would have been from the film. Perhaps it was Hitchcock’s returning to England after eight years in America or just the subject in general but Hitch seems like he’s on autopilot here and it doesn’t feel like he programmed it properly.
The film was shot in color by legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff, whose work with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger set the gold standard form color photography in the 1940’s (films like The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus being chief among them). His work here is good, drawing out some vibrant color in an otherwise drab setting, using low lighting (which was very rare in the early days of wide Technicolor use). Even Cardiff’s camera work fails to elevate interest in the film as even he falters and succumbs to the dullness of the film in parts. Some areas of the film look like they were shot with the same disinterest as Hitchcock had in setting them up.
Speaking of disinterest of the crew, the cast doesn’t seem that much more interested in what’s going on either. Bergman, Wilding, Leighton and Parker do good work, but Cotten seems like he’s there only as a favor to Hitchcock, reteaming with him after Shadow of a Doubt and with Bergman after the great George Cukor directed Gaslight five years prior. He mumbles his way through his scenes with eyes half-closed, barely able to maintain consciousness let alone interest in what’s going on around him. Bergman steps up and delivers a well thought-out and nuanced performance, even transcending the material from time to time and makes the film worth watching during her scenes, but then she’s gone and so is the interest. Leighton also makes a good showing, bringing some depth to her character but she ends up being one of the few people swimming in a pool of drowning people.
All of this stems from a lackluster adaptation by actor and sometimes writer Hume Cronyn (who did not appear in the film) and a screenplay of that adaptation by James Birdie. Everything just plods along from one beat to the next, trying to create tension from misapplied and misinterpreted social graces and standings that has worked in other films but not this one. The local is never used but endlessly described along with the Australian culture. In truth, the film is just too talky. A lot is said but little is done so when there is some action at the end, it feels forced and remains uninteresting because Birdie doesn’t really create any reason we should care for any one of these characters who never really feel like people.
I hate to say it, but this Hitchcock film just doesn’t work, which is why it’s understandable that it is one of his less-remembered films. It’s slow paced and doesn’t have anyone to latch onto or identify with. Even later films of his that move with leaden paces (I Confess, The Wrong Man, Marnie, Topaz and Torn Curtain) all have redeeming qualities that make them watchable and even entertaining, but not Under Capricorn. This film is replete with miscalculated choices and wrong steps, adding up to something that is worth watching for Bergman’s performance, Cardiff’s cinematography and for the Hitchcock completist, but put it near the end where his reputation won’t be tarnished or in the middle so you have better things to look forward to.
This film is replete with miscalculated choices and wrong steps, adding up to something that is worth watching for Bergman’s performance, Cardiff’s cinematography and for the Hitchcock completist, but put it near the end where his reputation won’t be tarnished or in the middle so you have better things to look forward to.