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So as you know, I stopped writing lengthy reviews on this site this year, keeping the blog as more of a film diary of sorts.  Lo and behold,...

Monday, November 01, 2010

Hitchcock Month - Under Capricorn

Under Capricorn (1949)
Starring Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Michael Wilding, and Margaret Leighton
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Under Capricorn is widely regarded as Hitchcock's biggest failure.  His Ishtar, Battlefield Earth, or Waterworld, if you will (on a significantly lesser budget).  While the film certainly isn't good, it isn't the worst I've seen from him over the past month.  What makes Hitchcock "Hitchcock" is his masterful way of combining technique and story to create something both visually appealing and thrillingly entertaining.  In Under Capricorn, the technique is present (and all too blatantly obvious as I'll discuss), but the story is a chore to schlep through.

Made a year after Rope where Hitchcock utilized ten-minute long takes to make his movie appear to be a seamless single shot, Under Capricorn employs a similar technique.  While not a "seamless" shot, the film is made up of scenes that are unedited long takes as well.  Not being confined to a single apartment as in Rope, it would have been impossible for Hitch to film this film in a "single" take.  However, nearly every scene is just a long shot.  And, I must say, the technique is showcased with a bit more elegance in Under Capricorn than in Rope.  Hitch moves the camera around to beautiful effect in some scenes, moving from room to room, up stairs, and in and out of windows.  It's actually fairly neat to watch...but I found myself only caring about the technique and not the stuffy costume-drama story in the slightest.  Rather than find a balance, Hitch relied much too heavily on his camera rather than successfully mining the script for any type of emotional resonance.

And it certainly is the screenplay that fails here.  It really makes me wonder why in the world Hitch chose to shoot this one as it is rather unlike anything in Hitch's oeuvre (which may very well be the reason he chose to shoot it).  The story is a love quadrangle that begins with hardened criminal Samson Flusky (Joseph Cotten) who was transported from Great Britain to Australia because he killed a man.  The man he happened to kill was his wife's brother, but, for reasons that we don't learn until nearly three-quarters of the way through the movie, his wife Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman who's laughably playing an Irish lass with her standard German accent) travels to Australia with him.  Flusky served his time and he's now living in a lavish estate with Henrietta who has essentially withered away into a forlorn alcoholic.  

The third member of the quadrangle is Irishman Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) who arrives in Australia to see the new land.  He meets up with Flusky by accident and, when he is welcomed into the Flusky estate, Charles realizes he knew Henrietta when they were young.  Charles is upset that Henrietta is in such a depressed state and he is determined to get her out of her funk which he does with much success.  Needless to say, this doesn't sit too well with Flusky's maid, Milly (Margaret Leighton) who is in love with Flusky and is worried that if Henrietta gets better her chances of being with Flusky will be thwarted.

Aah...soap opera drama!  In and of itself, I'd be okay with a story like the above, but the problem is that Under Capricorn is entirely too talky and ostentatious to be the least bit interesting.  The film itself is caught in a Catch-22 situation -- if Hitch didn't film in long takes, it may have placed more emphasis on the story, but the film, as it stands now, would have a complete bore without the long takes adding something moderately interesting.

I also think I've come to the determination that Ingrid Bergman is a very overrated actress.  Although I'm still harboring fond memories of Notorious and think that I perhaps graded that flick a bit too harshly, Bergman was the off-putting part of that film for me.  She just seems incredibly cold as I also witnessed in the horrible Spellbound.  In Under Capricorn, her character is admittedly silly, but she is also overacting to the nth degree.  

The star of the flick to me is actually Margaret Leighton as the devious housekeeper Milly.  Reminiscent of the evil maid Mrs. Danvers in Hitch's Rebecca, on the outside Milly is the ideal servant, but underneath the façade, she harbors her own motives and will stop at nothing to get her way.  Whenever Milly was onscreen, Under Capricorn seemed to come to life.

It's no surprise that Under Capricorn is not a widely known film.  The dvd was produced by some chintzy company I've never heard of before (you know it's bad when your studio, Warner Bros., doesn't even want to distribute a dvd).  While there's some minor moments of intrigue, it's much more of a drama.  Unfortunately, there's just a throwaway story here that doesn't have enough gravitas to work.

The RyMickey Rating:  C-

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