Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Not Quite Big Enough

When I was much younger, in some film book or another that one or another member of my family had brought into the house, I saw a still image from Alfred Hitchcock's now little-known 1949 picture Under Capricorn. That image must count now as a pretty massive spoiler, but at the time it only struck me as evidence that this was a film I, always trying to stoke and strengthen my morbid attitude and aesthetic (such as it was then; at least I have better taste now), had to see ASAP. I didn't realize that Under Capricorn was then one of the harder Hitchcock films to get one's hands on, certainly from that period, after he'd become a kind of superstar director. It would be literally decades before I'd finally be able to lay eyes on it (well, it is, or was, on YouTube, but that was a last resort option, one I happily didn't have to take). But I never forgot the image from that book, or the title, which itself had, to me anyway, a kind of sinister tone to it.

The other thing I couldn't have known those many years ago is that had I been able to see Under Capricorn then, I would have hated it. The film, now out on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, is a visually and emotionally colorful period melodrama that takes a pretty sharp turn into the Gothic in the final stretch. In Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitchcock insists, and Truffaut agrees, that this section is one of the film's great weaknesses (it was a financial disaster, which is a big reason why it's been hard to come by for so long), but I must say, I rather liked it. This stands to reason, I guess, since it's from here that the image burned into my head in childhood comes; and on my list of things I like in movies, this part also ticks a box or two. And Hitchcock did know how to handle such material.

For a decent amount of its runtime, the story is not obviously leading us in this direction. It's about a cocky young Englishman named Charles (Michael Wilding) who travels to Australia to make his fortune. There he meets, Sam (Joseph Cotten) an Irishman who came to Australia as a convicted murderer but has since paid his debt to society and established himself as a successful landowner. Charles and Sam enter into a business partnership, and a budding friendship, which is strengthened when it turns out that Charles knew Sam's wife Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman) when they were younger. But Henrietta is now a moody alcoholic, Sam's own criminal history casts a pall even over his success, and Charles and Henrietta begin to become closer than seems wise.

It all boils slowly, though. Along the way, Under Capricorn distinguishes itself by its bright pastel colors and very sharp camerawork. This was Hitchcock's second Technicolor film, the first being Rope, which directly preceded it. As in that earlier movie, in Under Capricorn Hitchcock messes around with long takes. Rope is a personal favorite of mine, but his use of the long takes ranges from elegant while the camera drifts through the apartment in which that film is set, to clumsy and blunt as the lens pushes into the back of an actor so Hitchcock can cut out of the shot. But Under Capricorn is not laboring under the same conceit as Rope -- Hitchcock isn't trying to make you believe it's all one long take. This frees him up to experiment with the long take, to figure out what it can bring out in terms of style and emotion, and how it can establish an environment. For the latter, look at the shot of Wilding walking down a long hall and through several rooms to get to the office of the governor (his cousin). It's not that long in terms of time, but in any other film in 1949 it would have either involved several cuts, or it wouldn't have bothered with showing him get there at all. Here, though, we understand the kind of building Charles is in, and the kind of powerful connections he has, and how blithely he floats through it all. The best long take is later, at a dinner party thrown by Sam, which packs in so much about the society in which Under Capricorn is set, and runs through so many tones that it transitions the whole film from the somewhat light-hearted air it began with into the more somber, sinister cloud that will follow it the rest of the way.

As you'd imagine, Joseph Cotten is very good, and charming in that odd, Joseph Cotteny way, as is Margaret Leighton as Milly, Sam's housekeeper. Ingrid Bergman, on the other hand, is pretty tremendous -- she's tragic and pathetic, brave, tormented, hopeful, passionate. She does a lot in this role, for a film now mostly forgotten. Less strong for me is Wilding, who seems to me to be punching above his weight. Bergman has a big, show-stopping monologue, the end of which Wilding blunders onto like a big, oblivious dog. But he's rather strong at the end, especially in that bit of the movie that Hitchcock and Truffaut like the least. The very end, which they agree is too pat, I actually found quite moving. And you know what? I'm right. I guess that's why they're two of the greatest film artists who ever lived, and I have my own blog!

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