Hitchcock had always been adverse to what he termed “costume” pictures, or period pieces, and Under Capricorn only served to prove his deterrence correct. I went to lengths to acquire a copy of this film years ago after seeing and old poster for it. This, perhaps, was my first lesson in “good casting does not necessarily make for good movies.”
The plot reminds me more of a Tennesee Williams play than a Hitchcock mystery in that it contains secrets gradually revealed the viewer. Unlike a TW work, however, there are multiple secrets revealed fairly quickly that lack any sort of shock factor. The movie also fails to provide a real romantic plot, which is something Hitchcock always incorporated into his stories. The most we get is when Michael Wilding‘s character kisses Ingrid Bergman in her bedroom, seemingly only to give her “courage”. From then on out we are unsure if the man actually cares for the married woman in that way.
Set in New South Wales, Australia, Wilding is Charles Adaire, cousin to the country’s new governor who both have just arrived to the continent. He quickly befriends Joseph Cotton‘s Sam Flusky who is a former convict we later learn was imprisoned for killing his wife’s brother. The wife, Hattie Flusky, played by Bergman, is perpetually “ill” but she really is just drunk and delusional. People in Sydney are afraid of the vast Flusky estate saying “something’s not right” there, but that is never really explained. Adaire, who knew Hattie when he was younger back in Ireland, moves into the estate and tries to get the woman back to her old self. There is lots of talk about all the Fluskys have been through and all that has come between them over the years. Despite killing her brother, Hattie had followed Sam to Australia while he was imprisoned because she actually killed her sibling, and the single woman had to endure questionable things to survive during that time. Despite not being the same people they were when Sam is released after seven years, the two marry because they are essentially indebted to each other.
As part of her recovery, Hattie tries to take control of her household, which has been run by a nasty maid. She struggles to do so but eventually the maid opts to leave. Before she goes, however, the servant manages to plant the seed in Sam’s brain that something untoward happened between Hattie and Adaire when in the bedroom together. A row occurs between Sam and Adaire and the former accidentally shoots the latter. Because Sam would be a second offender in this case of “attempted murder”, he could be hanged whether the man lives or dies. Hattie confesses to killing her brother, which would mean Sam is not a second offender, but she cannot be tried without Sam’s statement to confirm the facts, which he refuses. And if that was not enough going on, we discover the maid had been planting a shrunken head in Hattie’s bedroom, thus causing her madness and “delusions”, and forcing her to booze up. She also attempt to poison her at the end.
The story is a horrid mess. The part dealing with the maid and Hattie’s psychosis is poorly developed –toward the beginning she mentions seeing something on her bed but not until the end do we add on and conclude that plot– and the sinister nature of Sam is not well illustrated. The performances are not bad, and I could say if some aspect was better executed it would be a fine film, but I do not think there is any redemption for Under Capricorn. This, the second project under Hitchcock’s Transatlantic Pictures, bombed at the box office and rightfully so. One of the writers, Hume Cronyn, recalled a session working on the script with Hitchcock when the director said, “This film is going to be a flop. I’m going to lunch.” Smart man that.
The MacGuffin: No MacGuffin here, which perhaps is another reason this film disappoints.
Where’s Hitch? At the start of the film he is in town square during a parade wearing a blue coat and brown hat. About 10 minutes later he is one of three men on the steps of Government House.
Source: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan
I will be posting reviews of Hitchcock movies every hour ending at 8 p.m. today, but other members of the Classic Movie Blog Association, which is hosting the blogathon, have plenty to offer also. Links to their articles is up at the CMBA site. Check them out!