Sunday, June 14, 2009
Under Capricorn has always had a tough time finding a place in Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre, not fitting in with the psychological thrillers or high-spirited adventures for which he is best known. Even Rope—his 1948 murder drama employing a comparable long-take style of filming—has been granted more attention as a “problem picture,” while most people prefer to politely overlook the supposed failure of Under Capricorn.
To be fair, Under Capricorn is actually an easy film to pass by based on description alone. A period romance set in 1830s Australia as directed by Alfred Hitchcock: was anyone clamoring for this? As subject matter, this is pretty suspect terrain for any director (19th century Australia hardly seems ripe for weepy dramas filled with flouncy dresses and embroidered hankies and all that), but for someone as acidic as Hitchcock a disastrous outcome seems a foregone conclusion.
But the lure of this film proved too much for me and I had to give in, regardless of the dubious concept and seemingly ill-conceived marriage of subject and director (but then again, ill-conceived marriages are Hitchcock’s normal terrain, aren’t they?). Luckily, the film can be downloaded from Archive.org’s mammoth collection of public domain films, and in a decent quality version no less (although you can watch it in streaming video at the bottom of this post, I recommend downloading the 1.3 gigabyte MP4 file, which is of a higher quality). No harm in trying something for free, right?
As I discovered, Under Capricorn is far better than its reputation would lead one to believe. Even if it doesn’t possess the queasy, obsessive power of something like Vertigo, the film is so masterfully conceived and executed that it stands with the best of Hitchcock’s work. The genteel tone of the film at first feels peculiar for a director so fond of the perverse and violent in human nature, but there is a powerful tale of poisoned passion buried within the restrained romantic anguish. The pitfalls of marriage are a running theme that reoccurs throughout Hitchcock’s films—sometimes as the main subject, and sometimes as a side gag, but almost always present in some form. Under Capricorn proves to be one of his definitive depictions of marital hell.
The film begins with Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), cousin to the newly appointed governor of the colony, landing in Australia in the hopes of making some sort of fortune for himself. Opportunity comes in the form of Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten), a local landowner and man of wealth who approaches Adare with a business proposition. Flusky invites the newcomer to a dinner party at his mansion, and a rather tense evening ensues: the wives of all of the other guests are conspicuously absent, as is Lady Henrietta, Flusky’s own wife, until she suddenly appears, drunk and confused and in bare feet.
Having known Henrietta when he was a child, Adare is distressed by the current state of the woman: an alcoholic mess hiding from the world in Flusky’s mansion. Adare—with the consent of Flusky—begins the difficult process of restoring her self-confidence. And as the enthusiastic Adare brings Henrietta back to life, Flusky watches anxiously, at first with hope for his wife’s recovery and then with jealousy as he sees her grow closer to the charming young man.
However, the relationship between Flusky and his wife is more complicated than just another aging marriage on the rocks. Flusky is a former stable boy who eloped with the aristocratic Henrietta back in Ireland; he was convicted of murdering her brother and has spent the years since his release cultivating a life as a respectable, wealthy citizen. This is a marriage built on sudden passion and death, and the pair are linked in a complicity far stronger—albeit more painful—than anything Adare can offer to Henrietta. The couple remains dedicated to each other, and yet, under the burden of the past, they find themselves unable to love each other even as they acknowledge that they cannot live apart. The same love that nourishes poisons as well.
This sounds rather harrowing, but the cobbled-together colonial gentility of the film’s atmosphere forces restraint upon the extreme emotions running through the story. Hitchcock’s depiction of these characters is carefully observed and humane as he ruefully addresses their plight without condescension or moralizing. Telling the story primarily through a series of carefully constructed, elegant long takes, Hitchcock achieves something quite moving—even lyrical—out of the sex-death perversity that runs through so much of his work.
As I watched the film, I thought back to Rope quite often. Made in 1949, Under Capricorn is very much an extension of the methods employed in the earlier film, but with greater refinement and intelligence. Rope is largely a gimmick—a fun and often intriguing one, but a gimmick all the same. The conceit was to make a film in a single shot, even though less than 10 minutes of film could be contained on a single reel. In order to accommodate his desire to make the film at least appear that it was done in a single take, Hitchcock engaged in some elaborate staging tricks that allowed him to switch the film mid-scene unnoticed. Unfortunately, this required many awkward close-ups of people’s backs and other distracting attempts to blank out the image and allow for the reels to be changed. The technique constantly calls attention to itself and never really meshes with the material as a result. Rope is a marvel of staging and timing, but Hitchcock is too pre-occupied with playing games to pay much attention to the particulars of the story.
By contrast, Under Capricorn is a work of nuance and maturity. Hitchcock discards the vain conceit of the single-take film, but he retains the intricate staging and lengthy shots he had mastered in Rope, making the earlier film seem now like a warm-up for this more judicious and thoughtful follow-up. Instead of serving as a distracting, self-conscious experiment in style, the long takes of this film elegantly draw out the emotional tensions between the characters.
In one particularly fine scene, Charles is taking down a message from Henrietta to include in a letter to his sister Diana. Henrietta stands over him and dictates a letter that explains how much she appreciates everything Charles has done for her; the moment glows with warmth and mutual feeling. The camera drifts away from the pair and slowly pans over the empty room as Henrietta’s voice continues to speak softly, a lulling music for this serene image. The searching eye of the camera finally settles on Sam, back turned, walking away down the hall.
There’s a kind of suspense here, albeit not the type Hitchcock fans are typically accustomed to expecting of the master. The pan over the empty room builds up a sense of peace that is broken by the sight of Sam walking away, and that disruption in the mood creates a subtle yet ominous chill in the midst of this delicate moment. In a single visually eloquent shot, Hitchcock uses physical space and camera movement to convey Sam’s increasing emotional isolation.
The easiest dismissal of this film is that it is “talky,” an argument which might make sense when coming from a blind person, but which otherwise I have little patience for. Listen less and watch more. If the film seems too windy to you, then put it on mute, because you’re missing the point. The talk is purely illustrative. As is the case with many a great film, the dialogue elaborates the story without being absolutely essential to the telling. All of the real action in this film occurs on the visual level, and even if you never heard a word spoken, the basic emotional truth would still come through loud and clear.
The quiet elegance of the letter scene is typical of Under Capricorn, which prizes small gestures and glances and the expressive capabilities of staging and camera movement. The film cultivates a tone of ominous tranquility, which is perfect for relaying this tale of murderous, torrid passion entering the late stages of its decay. One could possibly mistake this entropy for a sort of peace—but only if you don’t look too closely.