Alfred Hitchcock is, for me, the cinematic equivalent of writers like PG Wodehouse or Georgette Heyer or Agatha Christie: I see their names on a work, and I know that this is something I can read (or watch, in Hitchcock’s case) and almost certainly not end up finding it a waste of time. The other day, trawling Youtube for something to watch, I came across Under Capricorn. I had heard of this one before, but besides being aware that it had been directed by Hitchcock, I knew nothing of the film. A good opportunity to watch a Hitch film I hadn’t seen.
This story begins in an unusual location (for Hollywood, that is): below the Tropic of Capricorn, in Australia. Set in 1831, Under Capricorn begins one day in Sydney, where the new Governor (Cecil Parker) of New South Wales, having just arrived on the continent from Ireland, is addressing the people. His welcome, while all gleaming brass and starched uniforms on the official side, is lukewarm when it comes to the general public. They aren’t especially impressed.
Accompanying the governor out here to Australia is his cousin, Charles Adare (Michael Wilding). Adare is a smiling, cheerful sort who frankly admits to a bystander who gets talking to him that he, Adare, has come to Sydney in the hope of making his fortune. Everybody—not the convicts transported here, of course, but everybody else—seems to be able to make a success of themselves in Australia. Why not Adare?
Soon after, Adare gets talking to another. This man is a banker, at the Bank of New South Wales, and he offers Adare an appointment: if Adare will come and meet him, perhaps he can be of assistance.
The next day, Adare dutifully goes off to the bank. Here, while they’re talking, a man is announced: Sam Flusky has come to meet the banker. While Flusky is being ushered in, the banker tells Adare about this man: An Irishman, who’s risen from nothing to being a very prosperous man, indeed. The name Flusky rings a bell; where has Adare heard it before?—because he’s sure he has, there’s something very familiar about it.
But Adare can’t remember. And when he discovers that this Flusky is an ex-convict, a man who had been transported here and has served seven years in prison, Adare becomes even more curious. His curiosity, however, is quickly dampened by the banker, who informs Adare that here, it is not at all the right thing to enquire about a man’s past. What crime Flusky committed is all in the past; nobody knows it, nobody need know it.
Flusky (Joseph Cotten, an old favourite of mine) enters. And, soon, he’s made Adare an offer: if Adare will invest a thousand pounds in a piece of land, Flusky will buy it off Adare for whatever sum Adare wishes. Adare wonders what the catch is, and Flusky explains: according to the law, every man is allowed to buy—from the Crown—only a certain amount of land. Flusky has already bought all he’s entitled to. He may buy more from a private owner, but no more from the Crown. There’s nothing illegal about it.
Adare agrees, therefore, and agrees, too, when Flusky invites him to dinner at Flusky’s home that night. Flusky lives outside Sydney, and when Adare draws up in a carriage that evening, it is to find the mansion all lit up, the dinner table laid—and the French windows open. Adare quietly slips along the side and peeks in.
First, he is privy to a brief conversation where Flusky asks his secretary (a young man named Winter) if, since Winter has dined with the nobs, he can confirm that everything is as it should be: the place cards, the wines, everything. Winter says yes, and wonders if he should go and check if Madam will come down and satisfy herself regarding the arrangements. This is when the third person in the party, the young housekeeper (Margaret Leighton) sharply tells Winter to let Madam be; she is the one who runs this house, not Madam.
This conversation is interrupted by screams, and Adare hurries along outside to the next window, where he again peers in, into the kitchen. Here, a woman is struggling and screaming, thrashing about on the kitchen table, where she’s being held down by three older, scruffy-looking women. Even as Adare watches, the housekeeper comes rushing in and grabs a whip from the wall. She hits out at the attackers, pushing them away. Flusky arrives on the scene as well, and with a curt order that these women be given the pink slip (a term, Adare has already discovered, which means that they will be sent back to whichever prison they’ve been loaned out from), says that new servants should be sent for.
The woman who had been victimized is helped, out and away, and Adare makes his presence known—he’s already been spotted, though Flusky does not seem to realize just how much Adare has seen.
It turns out, too, that this is no quiet little dinner for Adare and the Flusky couple. There are several other people invited, but all the men who arrive murmur something about a wife being indisposed, or otherwise engaged. It doesn’t take much to realize that the ladies of the area do not wish to socialize with Flusky and his wife.
In any case, Mrs Flusky does not appear inclined to join them at dinner. The housekeeper, Milly, informs Flusky that dinner has been served, and the men sit down to eat, and to talk of this and that. In the midst of it, the conversation grinds to a halt. A woman (Ingrid Bergman), dressed (or undressed) in an odd fashion, her feet bare, comes unsteadily down the stairs and makes her way to the dinner table, greeting the men in a dazed, languid style.
This, we realize soon enough, is Mrs Flusky. There is something obviously wrong with her: is she insane? Or just merely very, very drunk? Her eyes are unfocused, she seems prone to melancholy, and there’s a general air of detachment, neglect and despair about her.
The other men at the dining table look mortified, nearly all of them pretending they aren’t seeing what they are. Mrs Flusky walks to the foot of the table, and Adare—not as flustered as the rest of them, probably because he is the one man who is new to all of this—rises and draws out a chair for her. Mrs Flusky seats herself, and within moments, Adare realizes that this is no stranger, after all. Mrs Flusky was once Lady Henrietta, Hattie, the daughter of an earl. Adare’s sisters were Hattie’s friends.
Adare, excited, tells her, and to his gratification, Mrs Flusky recognizes him. Of course, Charlie Adare! She remembers him. With a laugh, too, for he had lamed one of her favourite horses with his horrible riding. We see a glimpse of what this exhausted, woozy, slatternly woman might once have been: animated, charming, genteel.
It doesn’t last long, however; within moments, Mrs Flusky has risen and is going upstairs to her own room. She enters, and starts screaming: there’s something horrible here, on her bed. Oh, please! Adare, hearing the panic in her voice, enters her room (he’s been standing just outside, having escorted her upstairs at her bidding). At a glance, Adare can see that Hattie is seeing things: there’s nothing on the bed that shouldn’t be there, but she’s still shrieking her head off, terrified. While she covers her eyes in terror, Adare takes out his pistol and fires it into the fireplace. See, he shows Hattie, pointing to the bed. Nothing there. Nothing to be frightened of.
Later, when the other guests have gone home and Hattie has retired to bed, Sam Flusky talks to Adare, out on the verandah. This time, having discovered that Adare knows Hattie, Flusky opens up and tells Adare about his past. He, too, has known Hattie for years; in fact, he was a stable boy in Hattie’s father’s service. Despite the seemingly unbridgeable gap in their social and financial statuses, they fell in love, and Hattie eloped with him. Their luck didn’t last; Flusky was soon arrested, and though he escaped the gallows, he was sentenced to transportation.
Flusky does not explain what crime he committed to deserve this punishment, but goes on to add that Hattie sold all she possessed and followed him of her own accord, coming to Australia so that when he emerged from prison, she was there.
One would expect that such deep devotion—on both sides, since Flusky is obviously still very much in love with Hattie—would mean that they must be exceedingly happy now that they’re together, and now that Flusky has made a fortune for himself in Australia. But why then is Hattie in the state she’s in? She’s taken to drink, she’s depressed, she sees things. She imagines things.
Between them, these two men soon come to a way of helping Hattie: if Adare moves to this house, Hattie—who knows and trusts him—can probably begin to come out of the depression she finds herself in. Adare promises to do all he can to help. In any case, as he realizes soon after, his association with an ex-convict has damned him in the eyes of Adare’s cousin, the governor. Adare has so far been living with his cousin at Government House; now his cousin boots him out. So it’s just as well that Flusky has invited Adare to stay at the estate.
Soon, Adare starts doing what he can to help. He gives Hattie a pep talk, encourages her to stand up for herself, reminds her of what a vivid, happy and strong-willed girl she used to be. For a start, he eggs her on to get back the house keys from Milly, and to assert her right to be the mistress of her own house (this—Milly’s usurpation of all the domestic duties and rights—is a sore point with Hattie, who frets that she is not allowed to do anything in the house, not even decide what she wants cooked for a meal).
Milly is not happy at this turn of events. She has been, all these years, pretty much the chatelaine, doing just as she pleases. Now, when Hattie tries to assert herself, Milly hits back in the one way she knows how: she uses Hattie’s own weakness against her. While Hattie goes (nervously, but still) down to the kitchen, Milly gets Winter to gather up the bottles of liquor from Hattie’s room and follow Milly down to the kitchen.
Just as Hattie starts giving instructions, in a quavery and unsure voice, to the women in the kitchen, Winter and Milly come in, and Winter, at a cue from Milly, opens the bundle he’s been carrying and spills its contents onto the kitchen table. The three maids burst out laughing and taunting Hattie, who flees, defeated.
But not defeated for long. Because Adare will not give up so easily. He persuades Flusky to get rid of Milly, and with some encouragement, Hattie tries again. This time, without Milly’s oppressive presence around, Hattie succeeds in holding her own in the kitchen. And from there, she begins to climb back up, recovering her lost composure, becoming once again (perhaps) something like what she had once been.
Where will this end? Because, unknown to everybody except Sam and Hattie Flusky, there is a dark, deep secret that can wreck their lives…
Under Capricorn is one of the very few historicals (the only one? I’m not sure) that Hitchcock made. In some ways, it’s an unusual film for Hitch (though not as unusual as, say, Mr & Mrs Smith), because the focus, for most of the film, is on the character of Hattie: the turmoil she’s in, the effect it has on her, and her slow emergence from the fog. Unlike the very fast-paced adventure films like North by North-West or The Lady Vanishes, or the brilliant whodunnits like Rear Window or Rope, this is less obviously, less predominantly, mystery. True, the secret that is revealed in the last 45 minutes of the film does have an interesting impact and turns the film topsy-turvy, but it still is not exactly what I tend to associate with Hitchcock.
What I liked about this film:
Ingrid Bergman as Hattie, and Joseph Cotten as Sam. Sam and Hattie are interesting characters, both deeply tormented in their own ways: Hattie by the secret she harbours, Sam by the sense of inferiority he feels because of the vast difference between his own past and his wife’s. He was a stable boy, not a gentleman; she was the daughter of an earl. In Australia, while most people may not care a jot for that (especially since Sam is now a moneyed man), it still rankles with Sam, and comes out every now and then in bitter words, in recriminations—and eventually, in something that can prove the undoing of both him and Hattie.
Cotten is excellent as Sam, and Bergman, in what some have called her best performance, is riveting: riveting as the sinking, constantly drunk woman deep in despair. Riveting as the beautiful, self-assured lady who only has to enter a ball room to have everybody turn to look at her. And riveting as a woman who blurts out the secret that has been gnawing at her all these years.
What I didn’t like:
The fact that the film meanders on, fuelled only by a lot of dialogue, for much of its length. Hattie and Sam’s past is something we come to know of only through their dialogue, for instance. There’s little action here, little to hold the interest, especially as much of the dialogue ends up being more monologue than dialogue. It isn’t even relieved by the suspense, the evil lurking in the background, that makes itself felt in films like Rebecca (which, also, by the way, had a similar motif of a husband and wife, and a vicious housekeeper hell-bent on not letting go). Hattie’s misery and how Adare gets her out of it takes up far too much time, leaving little time for anything else (and Adare’s growing fascination with Hattie is unnecessary for the storyline, really). Eventually, the last half-hour or so, which is the best part of Under Capricorn, ends up seeming too hurried and unsatisfactory.
Hitchcock is never outright awful, and this film isn’t bad. But it’s not one of my favourites, despite Ingrid Bergman’s brilliant acting.