Monday, May 28, 2012

Under Capricorn

Alfred Hitchcock's Under Capricorn is one of the director's more divisive films, but it certainly doesn't deserve its unflattering reputation. This lavish period melodrama, set in 1800s Australia, might be deliberately paced, but it's as emotionally, psychologically and formally complex as any of the director's best work. The core of the film is a twisted three-way relationship that develops between the wealthy ex-convict Sam (Joseph Cotten), his disturbed, alcoholic wife Hattie (Ingrid Bergman), and Charles (Michael Wilding), who had known Hattie as a boy in Ireland and claims to Sam that he can awaken Hattie from her self-destructive, near-insane mental state. Indeed, the charming Charles is able to shake Hattie out of her stasis and mental collapse, but he also preys on her, seducing her away from her husband even as he cures her. Sam watches this situation unfold, glowering and brooding, under the watchful eye of his maid Milly (Margaret Leighton), who obviously desires Sam and resents his wife. There's a dark history here that slowly, patiently unfurls, but the emphasis throughout is not really on narrative, past or present, but on the churning, potent emotions of the protagonists and the engulfing visual style that Hitchcock springs like a trap around the characters.

Hitchcock made this film immediately after the long-take formal experiment of Rope, and he applies a similar aesthetic here, albeit not quite as rigorously. This was Hitchcock's only collaboration with Powell/Pressburger cinematographer Jack Cardiff, whose sumptuous use of color and glossy, unreal aesthetic is a perfect complement to Hitchcock, and especially to the particular qualities of this lush period drama. Using the unbroken take style of Rope, Hitchcock and Cardiff hold shots for minutes at a time, the camera unmoored, drifting around the rooms of Sam's palatial home, its gentle movements subtly but definitively defining the relationships between the characters. Who's in the frame and who's not means everything in this film, particularly in terms of the central love triangle, as Charles' friendship with and seduction of Hattie increasingly pushes her own husband out of the picture, shunting him off to the side.

In the first scene where Charles and Hattie meet, she wanders, drunk and dazed, into one of her husband's dinner parties and sits down at the head of the table. Charles holds her chair for her and then sits next to her, leaving his own spot at the table. Once Charles sits down by Hattie's side, it's as though there's no longer anyone else at the table; Hitchcock maintains a two-shot of them as she reminiscences about the past, occasionally glancing across the table, presumably at her unseen husband, but Hitchcock doesn't cut away, doesn't show the reaction of the others to this immediate intimacy, doesn't show anyone else or have anyone else even talk again until Hattie stands up and the camera tracks to follow her, past the others at the table, as Charles walks her to the staircase leading back to her room.

Later, when Hattie dictates a letter to Charles' sister, Hitchcock again keeps the camera on the two of them, Sam forgotten outside the frame, until the camera begins tracking away from Charles and Hattie, past her husband's now abandoned place setting, through the empty room, finally finding Sam, walking away, his back to the camera, in the hallway, as the image fades to black. It's as though, when Charles and Hattie are together, everything else fades away, forgotten, the triangle becoming a two-shot, the room emptying off-camera. Hitchcock and Cardiff have a way of shooting the scenes between Hattie and Charles so that even if someone's standing right next to them, it feels like they're all alone.

In a subsequent scene, Milly, who'd been fired, returns while Charles and Hattie go out to the ball together, again leaving Sam behind. Hitchcock holds a very long and mostly static take as the maid chatters away, delivering her passive-aggressive patter about Hattie, her voice full of gossipy insinuation. The frame slowly constricts and expands as Sam wanders in and out of view, sometimes glowering in the background, sometimes strolling towards the camera, his face dark. All the while, Milly's barely disguised bile dominates the soundtrack, and she remains the visual center of the shot, but it's Sam's darkening expression and stalking walk that actually serve as the scene's viscerally felt focus even when he's peripheral or outside the frame altogether. Only at the very end of the scene, the end of the shot, does Sam finally step forward into the foreground of the frame, and Milly's voice fades away, his anger finally blotting out her words.

There's another fantastic long take when Hattie tells the story of her past with Sam. The camera maintains a medium distance as she paces around the room, and the camera glides with her, often with Charles' head in the foreground of the frame, placing the spectator in his position as he listens to her. She often resists facing him, though, showing the camera her profile more than her full face, which makes the sudden closeup, when she confesses to shooting her brother, all the more startling: the camera suddenly floats upwards and presses in at precisely the moment when she steps forward and leans into the shot, nearly facing the camera for her confessional moment. It's especially striking because immediately afterward she returns to avoiding this direct, forward-facing manner, turning her profile to the camera or turning away altogether, looking up, down, anywhere but straight-on.

This patient, elegant style pays off especially well in the final act, when all the long-bubbling resentments and conflicted emotions come to the surface in an eerie, dreamlike climax. Hattie, returning to her drunken hysteria after a series of dramatic twists and turns, sinks back into her isolation, terrified of the horrifying things she imagines seeing around her room. As Sam tucks Hattie in and comforts her, there's a long, rumbling roll of thunder that sounds like a blown-out speaker, and it continues to roar throughout the nightmarish scenes in which Hattie discovers a ghoulish shrunken head in her bed and collapses, with Hitchcock suggesting the passage of time afterwards with a gorgeous image of a rain-streaked window superimposed over the unconscious woman's face. This whole sequence is haunting and gorgeous, with every detail heightened: the single beaded tear glistening on Hattie's cheek, the tracking shot along the rough terrain of the pillowcase and bedsheets, the continued rolling of the thunder, the sinister tinkling of Milly's keys as she creeps around the room, the light glinting off the poisoned glass that's so resonant of other sinister drinks in Hitchcock's oeuvre.

It's a dream, a nightmare, and the subsequent scenes in which the plot begins reversing gears to move inexorably towards a happy resolution have the feeling of waking up from a dream, finally shaking off the narcotized slumber that afflicted these characters and kept them trapped in a recurring cycle of self-destruction and recrimination. Under Capricorn is a stylish and beautiful movie, its aesthetic seductive and hypnotic, with a psychological complexity that makes it enthralling throughout.


Moanerplicity said...

I love/admired Ingrid Bergman as a woman & actress. This is the only American-made film of hers I've yet to see. But given the players involved & Hitch's imaginative direction, it's definitely one I plan on viewing very soon.

Thanks for opening our eyes to this often forgotten gem.


Peter Lenihan said...

For me, Hitch's holy trinity is made up of this movie, Shadow of a Doubt and Notorious. It's an incredible film--perhaps because of its gayness Rope is more discussed (and that film's homoeroticism IS fascinating; I'm not taking anything away from it), but this is the most successful of his extreme formal experiments, even moreso than Rear Window.

DavidEhrenstein said...

"Cahiers du Cinema" was very big on Under Capricorn, partially because its very existence demonstrated that Hitchcock was interested in more than "mere thrillers" but alos because of Bergman's climatic "confession" scene which gave the CdC Catholics a stiffy.

Hitchc says the big mistake was casting Joseph Cotten as Sam Flusky. Who could possibly object to Bergman falling in love with a man "beneath her station" who was embodied by Joseph Cotton. Hitch said he SHOULD have cast Robert Newton.

YUCK -- and point taken.

Ed Howard said...

Moanerplicity, this is an excellent Bergman showcase and an unfairly forgotten Hitchcock. Glad you'll check it out now.

Peter, wow, better than Rear Window? I can't say I feel quite that strongly about it, but I do like it a lot and agree that, as a long-take formal experiment, it's better than Rope, and indeed takes the ideas of Rope to a whole new level.

David, yeah, the Cahiers crew loved this one, and it's not hard to see why. Cotten's great in this, but Hitchcock may have had a point there, even if it's not much of an issue when actually watching it.

Sam Juliano said...

Not at all one of my favorite Hitchcocks, but I will admit the criticism that has dismissed it is way off the mark. Agree with all the discussion here about the similar ROPE aesthetic. Terrific review.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. I thought I remembered you saying you didn't like this one. But you're right, love it or hate it, it definitely can't be dismissed outright.

Sam Juliano said...

Ed, I'll admit I'm not really a fan, but I was eager to be diplomatic in the spirit of never underestimating Hitch after the earliest films. But I completely agree with what you say there.