Classic Film Talk: ‘Under Capricorn’ (1949)

The Joseph Cotten Blogathon

Today we reminisce about

Under Capricorn (1949)

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Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Michael Wilding, Margaret Leighton, Cecil Parker

Premise

Under Capricorn is a period-piece drama with thriller/mystery aspects sprinkled throughout the story. The film is set in 1831 Sydney approximately 60 years after explorer Thomas Cook discovered Australia. King William IV of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland has appointed Irish-born Major-General Sir Richard Bourke KCB (Parker) to be Governor of the territory. Accompanying him is his second cousin Charles Adare (Wilding) who is seeking to make a small fortune is this new land. The crowd is not very enthusiastic about the new Governor’s arrival especially since most of the people inhabiting Sydney are ex-convicts, referred to as “Emancipists”, looking for a new life. Charles decides to visit the local bank and while there meets Samuel Flusky (Cotten), an Emancipist who has become one of the richest men in the area. The two men start getting acquainted and before long, Sam offers Charles a great sum of money to buy a piece of land and re-sell it to him. Though at first unsure, Charles agrees when he realises that it is an honest transaction. They start to mingle socially at Sam’s house, in turn making the Governor wash his hands of his cousin as he judges Charles’ friendship with Sam as a disgrace to the crown. Soon after, Charles moves in with Sam and his wife, Lady Henrietta “Hattie” (Bergman). Hattie is not well as she drinks constantly and is direly homesick, prompting Charles to spend time with her talking about her past and reminding her of Ireland while simultaneously rehabilitating her physical and mental health. Although Sam is aware of their spending time together, his suspicions mount as his housekeeper Milly (Leighton) feeds him exaggerated information about Charles and Hattie’s behaviour. As Milly fights to keep her dominant position in the house, she will stop at nothing to ruin Hattie. What will become of the seeming love triangle between Sam, Hattie & Charles?

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Background

“A mixed press… more disappointment over the story than in the artists…” – Sidney Bernstein

Success is almost always closely tied with failure. Most people experience a generous amount of letdown before being able to enjoy better times. This is especially true in Hollywood where you are often only as good as your next hit. There is a constant battle to stay relevant and to keep attracting audiences. No one is immune from the backlash of showbiz, not even a master like Sir Alfred Hitchcock.

Hitchcock first became familiar with the novel Under Capricorn in 1937, the year it was published. He had worked twice before with its author, Helen de Guerry Simpson, on his films Murder! (1930) and Sabotage (1936). In fact, Murder! had been adapted from her 1929 novel Enter Sir John. Oxford-educated Simpson was a native of Sydney, Australia; her family having arrived in the late 1700’s around the time when New South Wales was established as a colony. It is likely that she had an interest in history which gave her motivation to research and thereafter pen Under Capricorn. She would not live to see it adapted into a film as she passed away from cancer in 1940 at the age of 42. (Oddly enough, the book Alfred Hitchcock: A Life In Darkness and Light reports that Simpson’s death occurred after the hospital where she had been recuperating post-surgery was bombed by the Germans during World War II. 1) When Hitchcock purchased the rights to the novel, he apparently got them for a very cheap price but cost was not the only factor in his decision as he was very fond of Simpson.

It was decided that the film would be produced by Transatlantic Pictures and released by Warner Brothers. Transatlantic had been formed specifically for Under Capricorn but pre-production took so long that Rope ended up being released first. The company was founded by Hitchcock and his business party Sidney Bernstein, only producing four films (Rope, Under Capricorn, Stage Fright and I, Confess) before the partnership was dissolved.

The screenplay treatment was taken care of by Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville and actor/writer Hume Cronyn. Hitchcock had wanted Arthur Laurents to write the script but he refused as James Bridie had done some time prior. Bridie eventually agreed to do it after Hitchcock promised to be as faithful as he could to the novel. Writing proved to be difficult as the story seemed to be going nowhere. There was specifically said to be no climax in the film. Very early on, Hitchcock felt that Under Capricorn would be a flop and as a result became more interested in his next project than overseeing his current one. (Fast forward to 15 years in the future and the exact same situation would occur during the filming of Marnie.)

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Casting the film was not an easy task. Hitchcock always had Ingrid Bergman in mind for the role of Henrietta and bought the rights knowing it would be a vehicle for her. He was shocked when she demanded the large fee of $200,000 (over $2 million today) plus 25% of the profits. Outraged, Hitchcock gave himself a raise by increasing his profit share to 30%, after which Bergman protested to get as much as the director. She won. In the end, neither would receive a penny from this deal. For the role of Sam, “Hitchcock sought Burt Lancaster, who he thought might credibly play a ‘horny, manure-smelling stable hand’ locked into a fatal chemistry with Ingrid Bergman”.2 Lancaster’s fee proved to be too high so Hitchcock chose to work with Joseph Cotten who was graciously lent by David O. Selznick. British actor Michael Wilding had been his first choice for the role of Charles. Filming took place in England because it was more financially interesting than going to Australia as Bergman had wanted. Nonetheless, the film’s budget exploded over its original $2 million budget (more than $21 million today) to end up costing nearly $3 million (nearly $32 million today). It took in a miserly half of that amount in box office receipts.

Actor Testimonials

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Ingrid Bergman

Bergman had worked with Hitchcock on his films, Spellbound (1945) & Notorious (1946) and had a great working relationship with the director. Privately, they were very good friends. Something had changed in her attitude towards him during the production of Under Capricorn and making the film became a miserable experience for her. There are a couple reasons why this could be. First, she had just completed the greatest film of her career, Victor Fleming’s Joan of Arc, and reached a zenith of personal gratification from the experience. Second, she was growing restless with Hollywood and had been in contact with Italian director Roberto Rossellini as she wished to do a film with him. Romantic feelings between Bergman and Rossellini were already budding, no doubt. She did not like the 10-minute takes that Hitchcock had used in Rope and found the set to be an unpleasant place. Even the crew was upset as she reports in an early August 1948 letter: “This is their second walk out. The camera crew and sound crew are nice. But it is a hostile feeling on the set that just kills you. People hardly look or speak to you.”3 Things were far worse by the end of the month.

Under Capricorn is half finished. The other day I burst. The camera was supposed to follow me around for eleven whole minutes, which meant we had to rehearse a whole day with the walls or furniture falling backwards as the camera went through, and of course that couldn’t be done fast enough. So I told Hitch off. How I hate this new technique of his. How I suffer and loathe every moment on the set. My two leading men, Michael Wilding and Joe Cotten, just sat there and said nothing, but I know they agree with me, and I said enough for the whole cast. Little Hitch just left. Never said a word. Just went home . . . oh dear . . .”4

By the time the picture came out, she was already onto a new project in Italy. During the filming of Stromboli, she had embarked on an affair with Rossellini and had become pregnant with his child. Still married and with a young daughter, Bergman was torn apart by the American press and much bad publicity came to Under Capricorn as a result. She never appeared in another Hitchcock feature film.

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Joseph Cotten

Cotten came to prominence playing in Citizen Kane alongside his best friend Orson Welles. He was cast in Hitchcock’s 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt brilliantly playing family friendly Uncle Charlie who had previously moonlighted as a murderer. Hitchcock was eager to work with Cotten again and vice versa so the initial contact regarding the film was positive. He was mostly disappointed with post-war England, as food and liquor were still being rationed. As time went on, he grew restless with the lengthy filming process and, in his opinion, subpar material. (Not helping matters, his wife Lenore attempted suicide by overdosing on pills after she discovered that Cotten had been sleeping with an actress he knew from California who happened to be living in London. She survived and the whole affair was hushed up by the studio.) In a tense moment, he declared the new title of the film to be “Under Cornycrap”, which greatly offended Hitchcock. They would never work together on another film although Hitchcock later invited him to star in an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

“Shooting proceeded smoothly. I never heard Hitchcock raise his voice on a set. He often spoke in whispers, and his quiet authority commanded concern deportment from all aboard. He knew exactly the moment when the thick atmosphere of silent concentration was ready to explode, and he always doused the fuse with low, often bawdy, comic relief.”5

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Michael Wilding

Wilding was well-known in his native Britain though was a complete unknown on the international scene when Hitchcock decided to cast him in Under Capricorn. He visited the Hitchcock’s in New York where he went sightseeing with the director for several days before being offered the role. Compared to Bergman and Cotten, with whom he got on famously, Wilding had a wonderful time making the film. In his opinion, Hitchcock was a grand director who was a lovely man who was complimentary towards the actors. During filming, Hitchcock spoke to Wilding about his desire to cast him in his next project called Stage Fright, which he eventually did go on to complete. Interestingly enough, he met his future wife Margaret Leighton on the set although she was very cold to him, snubbing his conversation. It was hinted in his book that he and Bergman were involved with each other during the beginning of production. According to his recollections, Cotten’s infamous insult to Hitchcock was calling the film “Under Crapricorn”.

“But as for Hitch’s qualities as a director, a kinder, gentler man never stood behind the camera. Hitch, however, wasn’t always behind the camera; he projected his bulk above, below, behind, in front of it, or often directly in its path. He had this bug about ‘ten-minute takes’. Just coping with the sets would have floored most directors. Walls parted and we acted with miles of cable underfoot so that the camera could travel through three or four sets in one take. All the sound was dubbed in afterwards and during scenes Hitch would shout directions to his cameramen like the captain of a fishing fleet exhorting his crew to pull in the nets.”6

Focus on Joseph Cotten

I mostly associate Joseph Cotten with the romantic dramas and comedies in which he starred. Handsome, modest and always charming, it is easy to fall in love with his portrayals. At the same time, he was entirely convincing when playing darker characters. In Shadow of a Doubt, he used his appealing looks to blend into small town life and fool anyone who would ever think him capable of any wrongdoing. He succeeds – for the most part – and the effect of Cotten taking on a role like that is still felt today amongst those who consider Shadow of a Doubt to be one of Hitchcock’s best films. I suppose the only thing Cotten may not have been able to master is comedy. He was a rather proper fellow who mingled with a specific intellectual crowd. Linda Darnell, his co-star in Two Flags West (1950), referred to him as being a “stuffed shirt” and found that while he was a consummate actor, he was no fun off-set.

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Cotten’s role in Under Capricorn is not complimentary to his physical appearance as Sam Flusky appears to be quite rugged and gruff though he obviously has means to dress well. The same could be said about Sam’s personality, as he was a mysterious man who was very dispondant with most everyone and seemed to be irritated a great deal of the time. Hitchcock had suggested that the inhabitants of Sydney were supposed to fear Sam but this “fear” comes off as aversion due to a social stigma with his past. You see, most Emancipists were granted a completely new life in Australia if they stayed out of trouble and one of the conditions of starting afresh was that their past crimes/offences would never be mentioned in public. To quote from the film: “We do not discuss such matters in Sydney. A man’s past is his own business. Out here we let bygones be bygones.” Most people had this accorded to them but since Sam’s story had been so scandalous and perhaps also because he had gained much wealth, he was labelled (and treated) as an outcast. Sam knew what everyone thought of him yet continued on expanding his business ventures and even inviting people to his home for dinner, often getting stood-up by his invitees. We discover that Sam is harmless and is a generous person despite his harsh outer shell.

His performance is not one of his greatest and certainly not one of his most memorable but he is solid and enduring in a film for which he did not care. Had he been more interested in the material and had not suffered such personal pain during filming, I am quite sure that he would have been a little livelier on-screen.

My thoughts

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Over the years, I have discovered that many of the films that were labelled as bombs upon their initial release are in actuality not as bad as they were first evaluated. In fact, some now rank amongst the most appreciated pictures in film history, such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Vertigo. Re-watching Under Capricorn for this article was a pleasant experience and I found even greater appreciation for the film this time around. Visually, it is beautiful to look at with deliciously conceived costumes and sets. Knowing that it is has recently been re-mastered and released on Blu-ray even makes me interested to purchase it because it is a certainty that the Technicolor effect will be stunning. The story does not really have flaws but it does lack purpose on the whole. I was perfectly content just watching the story go along though when reaching the end of the film, I asked myself what the whole purpose of the story had been. There is no clear answer. The only explanation that I can give is that Simpson’s story was a look back at a unique period in Australian history and that it should be valued for being as such.

I am apt to say that the critics were wrong about this film. It was financially disastrous, yes, but this is not so surprising considering that it is a two hour period-piece. One must be patient with a film of this nature and not expect immediate gratification. Hitchcock was never one to serve entertainment on a platter. He obligated you to use critical thinking and to think outside of the box which is why he is one of cinema’s most enduring and most beloved filmmakers. Under Capricorn is worth your time.

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Michael Wilding chatting with Alfred Hitchcock and others on the set of ‘Under Capricorn’.

SOURCES

Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

1 – page 384 / 2 – page 421

Ingrid Bergman: My Story by Ingrid Bergman

3 – page 197 / 4 – page 204

Vanity Will Get You Somewhere by Joseph Cotten

5 – page 91

The Wilding Way by Michael Wilding as told to Pamela Wilcox

6 – page 58

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6 thoughts on “Classic Film Talk: ‘Under Capricorn’ (1949)

  1. Great review. I think that if this had been directed by anyone else other than Hitchcock, then it would be considered to be a pretty good film. The trouble is that I think we expect so much suspense and darkness from Hitch, that this one just feels like something of a letdown. I think the film gets better towards the end. I think Ingrid is quite good, but everyone else either isn’t really that good, or just seems miscast.
    I never knew that about Joseph’s wife! No wonder he didn’t enjoy making the film and wasn’t in the best of moods. Shame that he and Hitch never worked together again on a film, I would have loved to see Joseph play more against type in his films.
    Thanks for joining us to celebrate Joseph and his films.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Maddy!
      I agree with your sentiments. This isn’t the first time Hitch focused on romance but American and other international audiences primarily expected him to be always be the master of suspense. Seeing that ‘Under Capricorn’ followed both ‘Notorious’ & ‘Rope’, it was tough timing.
      I thought Wilding was the best part of the film and Bergman got burned in reviews as being dreary and overdramatic. How els could she be in such a role? As for Cotten, it was obvious that he was not in his element but ever the consummate professional, he tried to give the best performance he could. I read that he and Hitch managed to remain friends after this which is a slight bit odd considering that he seemingly blacklisted him from future projects.
      It was a pleasure to write about this film and to also re-read parts of Joseph’s grand autobiography. 😊

      Like

    1. I appreciate your kind words, Patricia! 🤗
      It would definitely be worth a revisit and I hope that you will find the experience rewarding. I was quite impressed by the 10-minute takes, like in ‘Rope’. There is a moment when the camera is following Michael Wilding outside of the Flusky estate and it travels with him as people inside the house go from room to room. It makes me wonder if David Lean didn’t take inspiration from this particular tactic in ‘Doctor Zhivago’ (the scene when Komarovsky discovers that Lara’s mother has taken an overdose).

      Like

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