Under Capricorn (1949)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by James Bridie

We jump back in time for this one, as I skipped it initially due to availability, but after seeing it, perhaps Under Capricorn proved hard to come by for a reason. Not even available to rent on any streaming service, and not included in the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece collection I own, I was forced to place a hold at my local library, which actually is my preferred movie acquisition method when there isn’t a pandemic on. So of course I had to wait a little longer to get a chance to watch it, and while I can’t fully say I regret the decision, especially as an all around completionist, I can say that it currently resides in what I would describe as the bottom tier of Hitchcock.

With a new Governor (Cecil Parker) in place in Sydney, Australia, the second cousin of said Governor, Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) arrives in the bustling frontier town in 1831 seeking to make his fortune. Upon arriving, he’s introduced to successful businessman, and ex-convict, not uncommon in Australia, Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten), who has a business proposition for Charles to make him rich quick. Taking Adare under his wings, Flusky invites him back to his estate where his wife Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman), a childhood friend of Adare, is slowing going mad. Adare’s cousin Governor objects to the relationship with Flusky, but Charles seeks to help his old friend Henrietta back on her feet, falling further and further into the web of the mysterious Flusky, whose motives may or may not be entirely noble.

What immediately struck me about this film was that it was a period piece. Albeit set in Australia, in and of itself a unique thing to see Hitchcock explore, the period drama is also somewhat new for him. Certainly, the film follows a lot of the same tropes and themes as any Hitchcock film: a mysterious death years ago, the waning sanity of one of its characters, the dark and questionable past of one of the lead characters. But seeing it not set in present day, as so many of his films of the time were, threw me for a loop. And I think its a pitfall for Hitchcock, because Under Capricorn is surprisingly boring throughout. There is quite a bit of potential with setting this in Sydney and in the 1830s, but Hitch takes advantage of none of it, focusing instead on the standard mystery around the story. I craved those specific details of time and place and got none of them. A missed opportunity.

The cast was largely a disappointment as well. Bergman is mostly fine as Lady Henrietta, but certainly not her best. But the biggest disappointment was just how checked out and uncomfortable Joseph Cotten felt in the lead role of Sam Flusky. He was just blank instead of reserved and hidden, as he should have been, which also is at odds with Michael Wilding’s Adare, who is a little more ambitiously over the top. Not to the point that it sticks out, expect against the blandness of Cotten. And poor Cecil Parker is pushed so far to the back that we don’t get enough of the joy of his scenes.

The one thing the film has going for it, as usual, is some interesting camera movement experimentation. Hitchcock is not afraid to whip the camera around and try out some longer takes, so tracking shots on multiple levels, through multiple rooms. It’s a struggle to find something good to talk about, and that’s about it. Not even great use of color (it looks drab), framing (it looks standard), or pacing (it lags throughout). Just the movement of the camera. We’re about halfway through this marathon of Hitchcock films, and I’ve seen a few I didn’t like, but unfortunately Under Capricorn ranks right down there as perhaps the worst. I hope that lasts and the rest are rosy, but having not seen a lot of the later Hitchcock after his run from Rear Window to Psycho, I won’t hold my breath. But the bar has been set…fairly low.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

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