Historical romances are not what audiences traditionally associate with Alfred Hitchcock. Yet in 1949, after returning from America, this was the story he decided to tell – although it almost never saw the light of day. If Under Capricorn is not Hitch’s crowning glory, it is undeniably his most underrated film.
The story opens as the new governor of New South Wales arrives in Australia with his dandy relative Charles Adare, played with a deliciously camp swagger by Michael Wilding. In an attempt to find his fortune, Adare meets the roguish Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten). He is married to Charles’s childhood friend Lady Henrietta, a woman who spends her days in a gothic colonial mansion, drinking her mysterious past away. Due to the wily schemes of the witch-like housekeeper Milly (a shockingly brilliant performance by Margaret Leighton), Flusky becomes jealous of Adare’s affections for his wife.
This was an unusual outing for Hitchcock, yet the themes are more than familiar. Many of Hitch’s films relish in the dynamic of men who control women and women who control men, and the fear caused by gender ambiguity (particularly in the case of the effete Charles). Under Capricorn is no exception.
The feature met with such negative reactions on its release that financiers repossessed the film, making it unavailable for many years – a reaction that seems, at the least, over the top. Others blamed the initial failure on the scandal caused by its star Ingrid Bergman, who was discovered having an affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini, shocking her fans.
Slowly but surely, however, Under Capricorn gleaned much-deserved critical praise, most notably from critic Peter Bogdanovich, who praised it as one of the director’s finest – a point of view I gladly share. It is a masterclass in technical proficiency, making great use of the long take, where scenes average between five and eight minutes in length. Such scenes challenge audiences, used to rapid cuts and edits, yet they are a cinematic wonder to behold. A heartbreaking eight-minute scene with Bergman in focus, confessing her past, is the crowning achievement of the story and, in my opinion, one of the finest performances of her career.
Under Capricorn was a victim of circumstance on its release, but why should it remain so? It contains a weight of beauty that should not be ignored. It’s time to revive one of Hitch’s most unusual and overlooked works.