Joseph CottenFrancis De WolffJack WatlingIngrid Bergman
Under Capricorn
Medium: film
Year: 1949
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: John Colton, Margaret Linden, Helen Simpson, Hume Cronyn, James Bridie
Keywords: historical
Country: UK
Actor: Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Michael Wilding, Margaret Leighton, Cecil Parker, Denis O'Dea, Jack Watling, Harcourt Williams, John Ruddock, Bill Shine, Victor Lucas, Ronald Adam, Francis De Wolff, G.H. Mulcaster, Olive Sloane, Maureen Delaney, Julia Lang, Betty McDermott
Format: 117 minutes
Website category: Hitchcock
Review date: 3 October 2011
Hitchcock's historicals don't have a great reputation. Jamaica Inn a decade earlier had made Daphne du Maurier consider not letting Hitchcock make Rebecca, while this one failed so badly at the box office that the financiers repossessed it. It wasn't available for TV until 1968.
That said, I quite liked it. It's gently flirting with dullness until the final act, but I'm fond of its characters and I think there's a lot here to enjoy. Mind you, you'll also want to know that for once the Master of Suspense isn't making a thriller. The New York Times grumbled that the viewer had to wait almost 100 minutes for a suspenseful moment, which is a bit like complaining that James Bond doesn't show up in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Instead this is a historical romance, set in Australia in 1830. Joseph Cotten is a moody, violent man with piles of money and a bad reputation, who was lucky to get sent here instead of being hanged. Ingrid Bergman is Cotten's wife and a despairing drunk. Michael Wilding is a flippant ne'er-do-well who happens to be the Governor's second cousin and acquainted with Bergman from childhood. Sure enough, a love triangle develops... but it's an unusual one. Cotten and Bergman love each other, but neither of them is the person they used to be before Cotten's transportation. Cotten's almost despairing of his wife and when she reacts positively to the sight of a familiar face, everyone concerned sees this as a sign of hope that could be built on. Cotten is as keen as anyone that Wilding move in with them and try to snap Bergman back to her old self.
What I like about these characters is their maturity. They're not narcissistic children who assume that everything has to boil down to sex. It's kind of sad that I should be writing that sentence, but... well, modern Hollywood. They have their problems and none of them is fully functioning, mind you.
It's towards the end that the film gets going. The emotional stakes are running high and there's a risk of people getting hanged. Furthermore there's no guarantee that this will turn out well. The film's perfectly capable of sending any of its characters to the gallows and it's provided ample reason for their friends to stand back and let this happen.
That said, it seems clear that historicals weren't Hitchcock's forte. It doesn't feel any more historical than, say, Rebecca. The coats and silly hats in the opening scene are eye-catching, but there's nothing uniquely 19th-century about those. One doesn't feel any weight of research, despite it being based on a novel, and I don't believe that anyone was trying to explore the period setting. The most glaring example of this is the accents. No one's making any effort to sound Australian, with Wilding being cut-glass British and Cotten being proudly American. Now admittedly I've no idea what kind of accents were common in Sydney in 1830 and it's possible that this is more realistic than it looks, but unfortunately all three of the main characters are supposedly Irish. Ironically the only person attempting that accent (and thus showing up her co-stars) is the Swedish Bergman. Her attempts come and go, but when she's there, she's not actually bad.
I didn't notice at the time, but apparently Hitchcock tries some more of those incredibly long takes he used the previous year in Rope. They didn't work and he ended up abandoning the idea, but there are a couple in there. It's a shame Hitchcock died before the advent of hand-held digital cameras, because he'd have gone apeshit for them.
The actors I quite liked. None of them are a knockout, but Bergman puts in a brave performance in a challenging role. In her first scene, for instance, I was trying to work out if she was blind. Meanwhile Cotten and Wilding inhabit their roles convincingly and there's impressive back-up from the likes of Margaret Leighton as the chilly servant who runs Cotten and Bergman's household. Oh, and the colony's new governor is Cecil Parker from The Ladykillers. To cite a couple of anecdotes, Cotten used to call this film "Under Corny Crap" and apparently even used that name on set, while fifteen years after this Wilding and Leighton got married and stayed together until the latter's death in 1976. This would be Leighton's third marriage and Wilding's fourth, with his second having been to Elizabeth Taylor.
The following story also amuses me. While shooting a passionate scene between Bergman and Wilding, at one point Hitchcock suddenly howled and then in the gentlest voice said, "Please move the camera a little to the right. You have just run over my foot." They later learned that the cameraman had broken Hitchcock's big toe.
The title refers to the Tropic of Capricorn, by the way. Australia's one of the few parts of the world that goes south of it.
I like this one. I think it's good. It could be called pedestrian and I can see why it gets neglected, but equally it doesn't seem outrageous to me that the French critics in Cahiers du cinema thought this was one of Hitchcock's best films. As for its box office failure, this would seem to be due to (a) misplaced audience expectations and (b) Bergman's adultery with Roberto Rossellini that for a while made her name mud in Hollywood. (She fled to Europe and didn't come back until 1956.) Hitchcock himself would be dismissive of this film, but then again he always judged himself by his box office receipts. This isn't one of his landmark classics, but it's a good movie with characters I found engaging. I'm fond of it.