Under Capricorn is a movie that even Alfred Hitchcock’s most fervent admirers seem to dislike. It cost a fortune to make in 1949 and was a financial disaster for Transatlantic Pictures which went bust as a result. It was certainly not what most people expected from Hitchcock at that time, although it was by no means his only non-suspense film. He had made several non-suspense movies early in his career, including the fascinating Rich and Strange. And it was one of his very few attempts at a costume picture (the other notable example being Jamaica Inn, which is almost as reviled as Under Capricorn. It’s also worth noting that it was one of several British films he did at around this time (Stage Fright was another).
The only fair way to approach Under Capricorn is to take it on its own terms. It’s unashamedly and unequivocally a romantic melodrama. A feckless young nobleman, the Hon. Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) arrives in Sydney in 1831, hoping to make his fortune. He becomes involved in a slightly dubious deal with Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten), an ex-convict who is now a wealthy businessman. And he discovers that Flusky’s wife Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman) is an old acquaintance of his, a childhood friend. She was a noblewoman and Sam was a servant with whom she fell in love and eloped, but her brother tracked down the lovers and was subsequently shot, a crime for which Sam was sentenced to seven years’ transportation to the penal colony of New South Wales. She followed him to the colony, but the marriage is an uneasy one. The household is ruled by the housekeeper Millie (Margaret Leighton), not quite as sinister a character as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca but she’s certainly sinister enough.
Of course young Charles falls in love with Henrietta. She has taken to the bottle, but he is determined to save her from what he has decided is a totally unsuitable marriage to a totally unsuitable husband. The usual plot complications ensue.
The movie cost a fortune to make and once the production company went belly-up it never really had a chance commercially. No-one was interested enough to promote the picture properly, and it flopped. I’m not going to claim it’s one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, but it’s actually not a bad movie. Hitchcock was still obsessed with his experiments with using very long takes (this was only a year after Rope), and they work quite well. The camera roams about restlessly, follows the action through doorways, down corridors, up staircases and through windows, and jumps from one scene of action to another. It helps to build the atmosphere of frustration and sexual tension. The three leads, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten and Michael Wilding, are all good, especially Bergman (and her Irish accent is better than one might have feared).
In some ways I think it suffers from having been perceived as a women’s picture (I think Rebecca has suffered from this as well to a lesser extent) at a time when that label was very nearly the critical kiss of death. Its reputation has not been helped by Hitchcock’s own unfortunate tendency to turn against any of his own movies that failed to find favour with the public and the critics. It’s also, like several of Hitchcock’s early films (notably The Skin Game) very concerned with class.
If you can forget its poor reputation and approach it with an open mind and accept it as a romance rather than a suspense film it’s definitely worth a look.