Friday 9 April 2021

On Hitchcock - Ken Mogg contemplates a film set in colonial Australia - UNDER CAPRICORN (1949)

This film … is the story of a face, that of Ingrid Bergman. 

     -      Eric Rohmer & Claude Chabrol, Hitchcock

 ‘I’ve done him wicked wrong, so many, many times.  Wrong to love him, wrong to marry him.  I was my brother’s murderer, and he paid for it.’  She halted.  ‘No children.’

    -      Lady Henrietta Flusky, in Helen Simpson, Under Capricorn


THERE IS MUCH TO remark in this lovely 1949 Alfred Hitchcock film set in colonial Australia in 1831 – it is full of incident.  Most such incidents come from the novel and, if anything, Hitchcock and his Canadian adapter, Hume Cronyn, have respected them a little too uncritically.  The film’s scenarist was the Scottish playwright James Bridie.  It’s likely that both director and collaborators felt themselves insufficiently on top of their material to make many changes, a standpoint that never suited Hitchcock.  Nonetheless, though the film was a commercial flop, it was well-received in Australia.1  

(click to enlarge and for slideshow)

One can see why.  The film’s evocation of the penal colony of New South Wales, utilising location–paintings (with matted-in movement, above) and convincing street sets (below), is first-rate: the Art Director was Thomas Morahan working with a team of six assistants, including two ‘draughtsmen’.  Historical research was also painstaking.  I recall reading a publicity squib in some popular magazine that proudly affirmed that ‘there are no cobwebs on the wine bottles in Under Capricorn’ because the spider that spins such things had not yet been introduced to Australia.  The film’s researchers gave special attention to visual matters.  The design of Samson Flusky’s residence outside Sydney, ‘Minyago Yugilla’/‘Why weepest Thou?’, where he lives with his alcoholic wife, Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman), scheming housemaid Milly (Margaret Leighton), and staff, has a wide turreted front resembling work by Francis Greenway (1777-1837), the most important architect in the young convict colony: Greenway was himself an ex-convict, like both Flusky (Joseph Cotten) and Milly in the film. The panoramic views of Sydney and its harbor we see at the start of the film seem based on oils done by Conrad Martens (1801-78) - in the style of Claude Lorraine and J.M.W. Turner - painted soon after he arrived in the colony in 1835.     


“…on a moviola…”

For my part, I have only pleasant memories of my first encounter with Hitchcock’s film.  I had learnt that a 16mm television print existed, held by the ABC at its then headquarters in Gore Hill, Sydney.  Some kind people arranged that I might view the print after hours on a moviola.  So, one night, high in the ABC’s tower block, with the lights of Sydney twinkling on several sides, I sat down to treat myself to this ‘new’ (to me) Hitchcock, a historical re-creation of early Sydney itself.  The experience felt almost mystical, and the colour print was superb!  I don’t recall many particulars of that viewing, but no doubt Jack Cardiff’s cinematograhy and the emotive score by Richard Addinsell were strong factors in why I was so moved.  Not to mention that the film felt so different from your run-of-the-mill Hitchcock – whatever that is – even allowing for Hitchcock’s incredible ability to create the unexpected from film to film.  The fact that top French critics saw Under Capricorn  as a masterpiece suddenly seemed to me very palpable and self-evidently right!  

Michael Wilding as Charles Adare

Possibly the original audiences and reviewers couldn’t grasp where the film was heading: one English review complained that you had to wait until the last reel before there were any thrills.  That’s maybe true, but the underlying theme of ‘rehabilitation’ is powerful enough. If Lady Hattie needs rehabilitating from her alcoholism, caused by too heavy a burden of guilt – probably less for accidentally killing her brother than for having brought her husband into disrepute as the alleged murderer, and possibly for her inability to perform as a wife and give him children – Flusky himself, with his stable boy background, can barely unlearn his class-inculcated ‘inferiority’ in order to take pride in his real achievement - far exceeding what Society knows. (‘Society’ is a major target of Under Capricorn’s scorn.)  Into this sorry situation enters the Hon. Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), a young man2newly arrived from Ireland, whose own reputation as a ne’er-do-well had determined his departure for Australia.  Charles’s rehabilitation during the course of the film is no less complicated than that of Lady Hattie and her husband.  Entering into danger – he finds himself falling in love with Hattie – he must finally detach himself and return home, but only after a noble act of defying the law for the sake of both Fluskys.  In consequence, he ‘grows up’ with a new inner strength and his own scepticism towards Society.  The Attorney-General, Mr Corrigon, tries to intervene (telling the Governor, ‘Your Excellency, it isn’t as simple as that!’) but the Governor (Cecil Parker), hitherto the film’s figure of fun, won’t be drawn – we may infer that he, too, has attained a new level of humanity.  Indeed, a villain of the film, after the murderous Milly, is Corrigon, the mouthpiece of a blind Law.  (There are echoes of the film’s position in later Hitchcock movies, such as Marnie, where Marnie scoffs at the word ‘legal’, and the weight of the movie is solidly behind her.) 

Ingrid Bergman as Lady Henrietta

“…between husband and wife…”

The source of Under Capricorn’s considerable pathos  is the ‘great gulf fixed’ between husband and wife, who have always loved each other.  Who, or what, can remove it?  Ironically, it proves to be Milly’s scheming and the outsider Charles’s role as a catalyst. ‘The Lord moves in mysterious ways’ as Milly says, using another Biblical phrase.  This, too, is a beautiful concept, in which everyone has a God-given role whether they know it, and acknowledge it, or not.  But as I say, it isn’t particularly cinematic. Before the denouement, Flusky complains that events seem to go ‘on and on and on’, and the shape of the film rather bears him out – unfortunately.  Milly thinks she knows God’s plan.  After she is found out, she defends herself by saying, ‘I know the Lord’s way when I see it’, and claims that she couldn’t just stand by and let Flusky ‘sacrifice’ himself.  These days, we might interpret that to mean that she considers him sex-starved, and feels the same way herself.  The film, though, invites a less-blunt reading.  Further, it carries a strong criticism of Milly’s presumption that prompts her to slowly poison Lady Hattie so that she may have Flusky herself.  In this, the film comes close to echoing the lesson of Rope (1948) in which Rupert denounces its two ‘thrill-killers’ by asking rhetorically, ‘Did you think you were God?’ 

Joseph Cotten as Samson Flusky

At times, in watching Under Capricorn, it does feel like the audience is simply required to be entranced by Ingrid Bergman’s face.  Not quite your usual Hitchcock movie - no thrills until the last reel!  Of course, that’s a facile yardstick in this case.  I know of no other film quite like this one: a sui generis example of a work that sets its own rules for appreciating its many moods.  And undoubtedly it has scenes that work beautifully in their own way.  True, Helen Simpson’s novel provides most of them. For example, the scene in which Adare makes a ‘mirror impromptu’ from the glass of a verandah door by holding his dark jacket behind it, so that Hattie may appreciate her still radiant beauty, comes from early in the novel (Book One, x).  His dashing gesture marks him as the film’s young hero who has what it takes to redeem him from Society’s estimation of him.  Similarly, shortly afterwards, watched by Flusky, he shinnies up a tree to reach Hattie’s room in which she has locked herself because she despairs at her drunken condition (cf. Book One, xi).  Michael Wilding is equal to the demands of his role.3  Even the pay-off to this scene, in which Milly arrives and finds the door locked – making Adare look compromised – comes from the novel.  None of these incidents, and several others, are particularly Hitchcockian, something which seems to have disappointed the film’s original audiences.4

“…the bare feet of Lady Hattie…’

Likewise, film students studying Hitchcock may have difficulty in knowing what to make of Under Capricorn.  That was all the more reason why I enjoyed teaching it!5  Some of its stylistic coups could be easily demonstrated.  Early in the film, Adare accepts an invitation to dine at Flusky’s house with most of the bigwigs of the colony.  All of them, however, arrive without their wives, making lame excuses like, ‘I’m sorry, my wife was detained at the last moment’.  Eventually, Flusky summons them to a long dining table where they seat themselves at their appointed places.  Quickly aware that there is a space vacant between each guest (where the wives had been anticipated to sit!), Flusky is equal to the occasion and in a gruff voice instructs the guests, ‘We needn’t sit here like a row of milestones!  Move down to this end of the table.’  Note that, as yet, the audience hasn’t been told the exact reason for the wives’ absence, nor for why Lady Hattie herself is also absent.  It will be dramatically disclosed in a moment.  Since the guests arrived in the dining room, Hitchcock’s camera has been following the action in a single take, i.e., devoid of cuts.  The re-seating of the guests prompts the camera to slowly sweep from the far end of the table to its head, until it stops on Flusky in close-up.  The low babble of conversation suddenly ceases, and the sound of scraping chairs is heard – and now, finally, there’s a cut, showing the bare feet of Lady Hattie (below) who has entered the room behind her husband in order to place her hands on his shoulders.  ‘Please be seated, gentlemen!’ she tells them.

What Donald Spoto called Hitchcock’s genius is surely encapsulated in this remarkable sequence which incorporates so much –coordinating visuals and sound and motion and, eventually, a cut - into a seamless whole that makes the film’s central point about Lady Hattie’s need for rehabilitation.  A Hitchcock screenwriter once expressed his astonishment at how the director could discuss the outlines of a scene or succession of scenes one day, and return the next with everything fully blocked out, down to the smallest detail. It only remained for the humbled screenwriter to add dialogue!

“….holding an audience in suspense…”

Nor did Hitchcock ever forget – seemingly – what had worked in a previous film (his own or someone else’s) and seek to improve on it.  This was another sort of creative challenge that he welcomed, like the challenge of carrying a film in his head or the challenge of holding an audience in suspense. Michael Walker (‘Hitchcock’s Motifs’, 2005) reminds his readers of the considerable emphasis on keys in Notorious (1946), a motif which is then extended in Under Capricorn where it expresses the ‘power of the keys’ wielded by the ruthless Milly.  She wears them hanging from her waist, ‘like a badge of office’ as Walker puts it, and is extremely reluctant to turn them over to the true mistress of the house, Lady Hattie.  At one point, she even threatens to use them as a literal weapon against Hattie, who has finally understood what Milly is up to: feeding Hattie’s alcoholism and scheming to have Flusky herself.  When a humiliated Milly shapes to hit Hattie with the keys, Flusky intervenes, and tears them from her grasp.  In Walker’s words, ‘This robs Milly of her symbolic power; defeated, she flees downstairs and out of the film’.

But, as indicated, there are several further twists before the film’s resolution, involving Adare’s wounding by Flusky and then Adare’s flirting with the facts, to save Flusky from the gallows and frustrate Corrigon (though the Governor senses that something is amiss, saying, ‘I’ll have you know I don’t believe a word of it!’).  Note, though, that scenarist/playwright James Bridie had a reputation for writing weak Third Acts, which probably wasn’t helped by his work on Under Capricorn.  On the other hand, some of the film’s extended  monologues are absolutely wonderful, and notably the one where Hattie tells Adare the film’s backstory: how she and Flusky had eloped to Gretna Green and how her brother Dermott had followed her there and was about to shoot Flusky, so that Hattie seized his pistol and shot him instead.  If Hitchcock was bound to make one ‘picture of people talking’ – just to show that it could be done with a master filmmaker helming it – Under Capricorn proved both of his points: a top director could still make something of such an exercise, with his master-touch constantly evident, and yet there’s something depleted about such a talkie form passed off as ‘the movies’.

Nonetheless, my love and admiration for Hitchcock’s filmmaking was certainly not diminished after I watched Under Capricorn; nor, reader, should yours!


1.  Howard Maxford, The A-Z of Hitchcock (2002), p. 271.  I might add that Alma Hitchcock was heartbroken by the generally cool reception the film received on its initial release – she saw how fine a movie it is.        

2.  In the novel, Adare is ‘only twenty’.  See Book Two, vi.

3.  An appreciative Hitchcock would cast Wilding in his next film, Stage Fright, as the capable young Detective Inspector Wilfred Smith, aka ‘Ordinary’ Smith (because of his surname) .

4. I might also mention such other incidents from the novel as: (1) the amusing scene in which Flusky’s three cooks compete to please him, serving up eggs in varying degrees of runniness (cf. Book One, xvi); and (2) the Governor’s Ball, where an uninvited Flusky arrives and embarrasses Lady Hattie who has been escorted there by Adare (cf. Book Two, i).  Likewise, the film makes use of motifs from the novel, such as (1)  Lady Hattie’s resumed embroidery, a sign that her rehabilitation has begun under Adare’s tutelage (cf. Book One, ix); and (2) the tune that Adare frequently whistles to encourage her progress, namely, the nursery rhyme ‘Here we go gathering nuts in May’.  Granted, this isn’t quite the same thing as the tune in the novel which had been played by the mischievous band to farewell the unpopular previous Governor, ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ - and which is heard again among parts of the crowd when the new Governor arrives (Book One, iii). In the film, some wag calls out ‘Sing us a song, guv'nor!” and he murmurs to Adare “Not a very warm welcome!’ 

5.  I felt bound to offer my best pointers, as the ABC had made their print available to us, no doubt unofficially.  I suspect that the print was due to be shortly returned overseas – I’m not sure where.  For a while, there was doubt about the film’s ownership.  Nowadays, I note that there are some good DVDs and a Blu-Ray of Under Capricorn listed online, one including a commentary by a film historian and with footage of remarks by Claude Chabrol


Editor's Note: This is the seventh essay by Hitchcock scholar Ken Mogg to have been published on Film Alert 101.

The other essays can be found if you click on these links.

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