Under Capricorn (1949) / Drama
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG for some disturbing images
Running Time: 117 min.
Cast: Michael Wilding, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Margaret Leighton, Cecil Parker, Denis O'Dea
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Hume Cronyn, James Bridie (based on the play by John Colton and Margaret Linden, as well as the novel by Helen Simpson)
Review published May 24, 2003
To many, Under Capricorn ranks as Alfred Hitchcock's (Rope, Lifeboat) worst release since coming over to the U.S. to make movies, but even Hitch at his worst is pretty damned good. With him at the helm, and Ingrid Bergman (Gaslight, Casablanca) in front of the camera, it's hard to go wrong, especially in a performance that shows she was one of the greatest actresses of her generation. Alas, the detractors have had their way with this film for years, but many Hitchcock appreciators and reassessors have called this his most underrated of films. I am stuck somewhere in the middle myself, because I do feel that labeling Under Capricorn as a terrible film seems unjustified, while on the other hand, it definitely ranks pretty low on my own personal list of Hitchcock films, perhaps only rivaled by The Paradine Case as his worst effort.
Under Capricorn was adapted by Hume Cronyn (Rope) from the play by John Colton and Margaret Linden, based on the novel by Helen Simpson, whose "Enter Sir John" was also the source of inspiration for an early Hitchcock work, Murder!. The action takes place in Australia during the early 19th Century, where an Irishman named Charles Adair (Wilding, In Which We Serve) has come to seek something different for himself, a chance to start over. Starting over was precisely what landowner and self-proclaimed emancipator Sam Flusky (Cotten, Shadow of a Doubt) had done, and after finding out that Charles is the governor's cousin, he takes him under his wing. During a dinner engagement at Sam's house, Charles meets his wife Hattie (Bergman), whom he had known when they were both very young. However, much has changed over the years, as Hattie has taken to bouts of madness much of the time, and is also quite the alcoholic. Charles has great feelings for Hattie, and makes it his personal mission to rehabilitate her, but dark secrets and scheming housemaids aren't going to sit idly by.
Perhaps the biggest reason that many come away disappointed with Under Capricorn comes from the sense of redundancy between it and Hitchcock's first American film, the Best Picture of 1940, Rebecca. Both films are costumed period pieces, gothic romances with murderous revelations, featuring hired help that doesn't take very kindly to the lady of the house. Although Under Capricorn wasn't produced by Rebecca's famous producer, David O. Selznick, it's abundantly clear from the look and sound of the film that Hitchcock was attempting to mimic the work Selznick had come to be known for, with lavish costumes and lush violin scoring. There-in lies one of the bigger problems, as there isn't any sweep to the story, the sets and costumes suffer from drab and poorly coordinated colors (it was only Hitchcock's second color film), and the score doesn't really drive the film in terms of creating suspense while never really going away during times when it really ought to.
However, there are some stretches when even a misfire can come to life, and this one actually does have a bit of spark. After a rather bland and uneventful first half hour, the film finally finds its footing once Ingrid Bergman enters the storyline, and it's actually quite good for the next hour. Bergman delivers a truly fine performance as a tragically maddened woman, holding a secret she dare not reveal. Cotten is both understanding and menacing in a way that is always convincing, as we are never quite sure if he is a good man or bad. The charismatic Whiting is also very good as the whimsical but misunderstood man with the most honorable of intentions.
Yet, you really have to be quite the Hitchcock junkie or Bergman nut to scrape this deep in the bottom of their movie barrels and give Under Capricorn a shot to begin with. If you haven't seen Hitchcock's greatest films, or Bergman at her finest, do not even think about watching this, as it would be an unfair introduction to two of the giants of their respective crafts, and should never be seen out of the proper context within their bodies of work. However, if you've seen the classics and the masterpieces, and are ravenous for anything and everything either one of them has ever done, Under Capricorn is recommended for you. Hitchcock may have gotten over his head with the production duties, but Bergman shines despite it all. It's an uneven experience to be sure, but if this is the arguably worst film in a career that spans over 50 movies, it only goes to show what a masterful director Hitchcock truly was.
©2003 Vince Leo