Under Capricorn (Alfred Hitchcock, 1949)

Under Capricorn poster

This is my contribution to the Ingrid Bergman blogathon being organised by Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema. Please visit to read the other postings.

Ingrid Bergman starred in three Hitchcock films, all made during the 1940s. The first two, Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946), are both  recognised as classics, but the third, Under Capricorn (1949) has fallen under the radar. It seems to have disappointed many Hitchcock fans, partly because it was wrongly marketed as a thriller. There are some especially misleading posters which seem to have been issued for a 1960s rerelease, with a headline screaming “Murder will out!” and black-and-white photos arranged to make the film look like a close relation of Psycho.  

In fact, the film is a slow-burning romantic period drama set in 1830s Australia, and filmed in gorgeous Technicolor by the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Sadly, it wasn’t actually filmed in Australia, but mainly made in London, so there are no glimpses of the wildlife which is repeatedly mentioned, and it’s hard to believe in the characters’ complaints of heat! Bergman gives a brilliant, intense performance in the lead role as alcoholic Lady Henrietta Flusky, with Joseph Cotten and Michael Wilding as the two men caught up with her in a damaging love triangle.

Wilding, Cotten and Bergman in Under Capricorn

Wilding, Cotten and Bergman

At the start of the film, aristocratic but penniless Irishman Charles Adare (Wilding) arrives in Sydney together with his cousin, the new Governor (Cecil Parker). Adare is in a hurry to make his fortune, and meets up with a local businessman, another Irish exile, Sam Flusky (Cotten), who offers him a shortcut to making money. It soon becomes apparent that Sam is socially ostracised by the great and the good of Sydney because he is an ex-convict, who has served time for manslaughter. When Charles is invited to dinner at his home, one man after another turns up without his wife, voicing a succession of feeble excuses. However, as the guests sit down for an all-male dinner, one woman does arrive – Sam’s wife, Lady Hattie, who is drunk, confused and half-dressed, with bare feet and flowers in her hair. A shocked Charles recognises his childhood sweetheart from Ireland.

Michael Wilding and Ingrid Bergman, Under Capricorn

Forbidden passions – Wilding and Bergman

Sam invites Charles to stay with them, and he tries to help Hattie, but  soon dangerous tensions are building. Sam is a former stable hand and recognises that Hattie and Charles share a class background. To make matters worse, domineering housekeeper Milly (Margaret Leighton), who is clearly in love with Sam, sets out to stir things, making insinuations that Charles and Hattie are having an affair. Leighton is excellent as Milly, with violent passions simmering beneath a cold surface. Both Cotten and Wilding perhaps underplay their parts somewhat compared to the women. In particular, Sam seems to be intended as a Heathcliff type character who is furious over his low roots, but Cotten never really makes him as angry as he could be.

Under Capricorn was based on a stage adaptation of a novel by Helen Simpson. As in his previous film, Rope, also based on a play, Hitchcock continued to use a technique of long takes, sometimes 10 minutes long. This has the effect of making the film feel rather slow and talky, but gives a feeling of realism and allows the actors space really to develop their characters. In particular, Bergman has some great scenes where she really brings out the anguish of  Lady Hattie. There are many interesting echoes of other Hitchcock films, in particular Notorious, as Bergman once again plays a drunken wife tormented by her past.

Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten, Under Capricorn poster

This poster has a period feel

The Fluskys’ Gothic mansion, which looks both magnificent and foreboding, is called Minyago Yugilla, said to be an Australian Aboriginal rendering of the Biblical “Why weepest thou?” These are the words of the gardener to Mary Magdalene when she visits the tomb of Jesus. This seems like an odd name for a house, but it points out the sorrow of Hattie. Also, the Wikipedia article on the film shows how critic Ed Gallafent has traced a series of references to Magdalene in the portrayal of Hattie, from her bare feet to jewels thrown on the floor.  Tying in with this iconography, it’s suggested that Hattie might have had to make money from prostitution to survive while Sam spent seven years on a chain gang after transportation. This is never stated outright, but implied.

Bergman speaks in a surprisingly good Irish accent, with only occasional vowels betraying her real Swedish voice, while Wilding uses his normal upper-crust English accent and Cotten sounds mid-Atlantic. So it’s not always easy to believe that all three of them come from the same area of Ireland, but the contrasting accents do drive home the class divide between Charles and Sam. There also seems to be a class divide between Charles and Hattie, expressing how she has come down in the world since their shared childhood.

All in ll, I enjoyed this film and would like to revisit it in future. It would be great to see it get a release on blu-ray or, better still, see it on the big screen. It is available on DVD in both region 1 and 2 but is rather expensive. Lastly, I didn’t notice Hitchcock’s cameo in this one, but the Hitchcock Zone points out that he is glimpsed in the town square.

Joseph Cotten and Margaret Leighton, Under Capricorn

Joseph Cotten and Margaret Leighton

1960s poster Under Capricorn

I think this thriller-style poster and the one below date from the 1960s

Under Capricorn 1960s poster

 

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18 thoughts on “Under Capricorn (Alfred Hitchcock, 1949)

  1. Pingback: The 2nd Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon is here! | The Wonderful World of Cinema

  2. A very interesting article! I liked what you said about the posters at the beginning and I’m glad you like this film! Because it’s actually very underrated. Yes, it can be slow, but it remains clever.
    Thanks for your participation to the blogathon! :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha, yes, I was very surprised by those posters, which bear little if any relation to the film! Many thanks for organising the blogathon and for visiting and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t seen this film, and have never read much about it. I always assumed it was a thriller – blast those misleading movie posters! ;)

    Now that I’ve read your review, it sounds like a thoughtful, well-acted film, and I’m looking forward very much to seeing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are thriller elements at times, but that definitely isn’t the main genre for this one. I hope you get a chance to see it soon, Ruth, and will be interested to hear what you think. Many thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve almost never heard about this film, which is amazing considering who directed it and the cast! Your description makes me think a little of Rebecca, which I really like, and after your review, I’d really like to see this one!

    You and Silver Screenings are right…those posters are awfully misleading! :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hope you get a chance to see it, Christina. Yes, there are elements of Rebecca woven in, especially the controlling housekeeper. Rebecca is a favourite for me too.

      I wonder if those misleading 60s posters managed to get many people to see the rerelease?

      Like

    • Hope you get a chance to see it, Vienna. Surprising really that it isn’t better known, but I suppose we don’t tend to think of Hitchcock in terms of period dramas on the whole.

      Like

  5. I don’t mind this film, even though it doesn’t quite work. It has a poor reputation, possibly because it doesn’t comfortably fit in with the bulk of Hitchcock’s other work. Still, I think it has some charm and atmosphere. I find it a lot better than, for example, The Paradine Case and the long take isn’t as distracting or at least I didn’t find the technique as affected as it was in Rope.
    None of the DVDs I’ve seen have ever looked all that great and I’d be pleased to see a Blu-ray which showed it off better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Colin, I’d agree about the charm and atmosphere. I feel as if most of it works, but must admit that not everything does. For instance I find it hard to believe in Joseph Cotten being quite as angry as his character ought to be.

      I haven’t seen The Paradine Case as yet, but I liked Rope a lot more than I’d expected to – the long takes have a fascination to them and give the actors a lot of scope even though I can see the technique does slow the film down. This could definitely do with a Blu-ray release! Many thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Cotten famously disliked the film and was extremely scathing about it. His character and characterization is a strange one for sure and one of the weaknesses of the movie, the writing not favoring him much.
      The Paradine Case is a misfire for me, lifted only by Charles Laughton and Ethel Barrymore – when they’re not on screen it’s dull stuff.
      I think one of my problems with Rope, a film which is generally liked by quite a few I think, is the casting of Farley Granger. I never found him an especially engaging screen presence and all of his negative characteristics are on display in that one. I feel Hitchcock got much better from him in Strangers on a Train.

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  6. Thanks for this informative review. I just discovered that I have this on DVD, which I didn’t know I had. Now that I read that it’s set in Australia, where I’m from, I’m definitely going to treat myself to a viewing. I’ve seen Ingrid’s other two Hitchcock films, so how have I missed this.

    Don’t forget to check out my rather outlandish contribution to the blogathon

    https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/what-if-ingrid-bergman-was-on-bewitched/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Vienna. I haven’t had time to blog recently due to work, but might start up again in the future – will see how it goes!

      Like

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