Thursday, April 07, 2011

Sundays with Hitch: Under Capricorn (1949)

Comes now another title from the middle of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography that tends to provoke blank stares. Let’s find out why, shall we?

The costume drama begins with Michael Wilding as a young wastrel arriving in Australia. (Oh, under Capricorn. Now I get it.) He’s instantly befriended by the unfortunately named Samson Flusky (Joseph Cotten), ex-convict turned wealthy landowner, who offers to set Wilding up in a shady deal that will make his fortune. Things turn promisingly lurid as Wilding arrives at Casa Cotten and finds the maid whipping the household retainers. But then he meets Lady Flusky (Ingrid Bergman), a childhood friend now drunk and unstable, still reeling from the scandal of having married Cotten, a mere groom. Wilding, with Cotten’s blessing, sets out to reintegrate Bergman into society but in the process various ardors are flam’d and past sins confess’d.

We’ve got three main characters who are supposed to be from the Emerald Isle played by an Englishman, an American and a Swede. This non-Irish stew of accents tackles a talky script containing some true howlers; at one point Bergman, in loon mode, cleaves to a staircase and says, “Now I have the balustrade. Good old balustrade.” Her affections toward the two men in her life go through a few too many unmotivated reversals. The rest of the plot unfortunately echoes Rebecca, and while Margaret Leighton’s maid is no Mrs. Danvers she still gives the film’s strongest performance.

Hitchcock again used 10 minute takes as he did in the previous year’s Rope, but for all the fluid movement of the camera in and around Cotten’s cabin the sequences call attention to themselves. The best moments are less ostentatious: Wilding using his coat to turn a window into a mirror for Bergman, a shot that holds on Cotten’s hand holding a necklace behind his back that he is at first eager to present as a gift and then desperate to hide.

Ultimately, Under Capricorn is a disappointing, static film from a period when the bloom had gone off the Hollywood rose for Hitchcock. Things would soon improve; Strangers on a Train, which depending on the day you ask may be my favorite of Hitch’s movies, is only two years in the future. But I’ll be moving into the past and watching some of Hitchcock’s earlier English films next.