Under Capricorn (1949)

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.

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28 thoughts on “Under Capricorn (1949)

  1. Under Capricorn is , well, an “Under”-rated film. Pretty interesting buildup, especially the climax, which if revealed will be a spoiler. I find the movement similar to Suspicion, only the Suspicion has more style due to the presence of Cary Grant – and his Machiavellian ways.

    • Yes, Grant makes Suspicion more stylish. Personally, though, I think the end of that too contrived – it’s obviously not what Hitch wanted.

      I do agree that the buildup – towards the end – of Under Capricorn is interesting; I just think it could have begun earlier. Rebecca, for instance, has the suspense beginning to mount fairly early on. Here, it’s not till fairly late into the film that the secret surfaces.

      • Na Madhu, that was exactly the end Hitch wanted. He was the master of red herrings and started this cock and bull story that Grant was actually the villain and he kills her and then goes to war blah blah – after the film flopped .You see, if that was the story which Hitch claimed later, then there is no twist in the tale. We have already assumed that Grant is an irresponsible crook and will stop at nothing including killing his best friend.

        Reality – he was a confused lot, smitten with his wife and trying his best to earn her confidence and failing all the time.That he was a habitual liar and gambler create circumstances whereby we assume that he is a murderous bad guy.

        This was disproved by critics over the ages. Hitch’s story was taken at face value initially, till Donald Spoto who researched Hitch like nobody before or after, shattered the myth, and came out with the reasoning I mentioned. Reason why Hitch’s family did not acknowledge his monumental work on the master,and even got Jimmie Stewart to say something like – I didn’t know he had a dark side – or something like that, to castigate Spoto and especially the title of his Hitch bio – The Dark side of a genius, without even bothering to read between the lines or appreciate that the “Dark Side” was actually the unknown side

        Hitch,like Kishore Kumar and RD, is my favorite subject and hence apologies for the mindless ranting :)

  2. Many thanks for this review of a Hitchcock film I’ve long been meaning to see. Re: Hitchcock and historical films, I believe that “Jamaica Inn” (based on the Daphne Du Maurier novel) is set in the early 19th century. It’s worth watching, but is also not one of Hitchcock’s best films.

    • Ah, I hadn’t known Jamaica Inn had been made into a film by Hitchcock. I have heard of the book (though I haven’t read it). Will look out for that, now. Thanks for telling me about it, even if it’s not one of his best.

  3. I haven’t even heard of this film, much less watched it! It sounded interesting, and I was waiting for the actual whatever-it-was to kick in, but it seems like an anti-climax? I hated Suspicion for that ending, even though the rest of it was quite chilling. This seems to be somewhat the same….

    Liked reading your review, nevertheless. :)

    • Yes, the ending of Suspicion was so awfully contrived, wasn’t it? Apparently Hitchcock had wanted a very different end, but was pretty much bullied into agreeing to something more ‘acceptable’.

      “This seems to be somewhat the same….

      It’s actually got an interesting and surprising revelation. ;-) The problem is that the route to it is long and without much to hold one’s attention.

      Glad you liked the review, Anu!

  4. Hitch wanted exactly the ending he had in Suspicion. Nothing else. He tried to find out a cock and bull story when the film failed. Donald Spoto disproved Hitch’s terrible red herring.

  5. This sounds good, but somehow I never managed to watch it, although I’d seen that it is on youtube. I like Ingrid Bergman a lot and also Joseph Cotten. Someday….
    Hitchcock has directed atleast two mor historicals, Waltzes of Vienna and Jamaica Inn. I had started watching Jamaica Inn, but got bored very soon and left it at that.

    • Another reader mentioned Jamaica Inn too (I hadn’t known Hitchcock made a film out of it, though I’ve heard of the novel). Waltzes of Vienna I hadn’t even heard of. Let me try to find them and give them a try, someday…

      • Well, I watched it today evening. Very unusual Hitchcock, I would say. It is as if different genres were mixed together to give a masala, but mixed genres not giveth one.
        The secret was not hard to guess and as you said “the film meanders on, fuelled only by a lot of dialogue, for much of its length”. The story has all the ingredients for a good suspense film, but no build-up. A pity really!
        Ingrid Bergman was superb. I like her dialogue delivery and she is good at being frail as she is good at being determined and not going over the top for that.
        I noticed Joseph Cotten first in The Shadow of Doubt, he was good there and he is good here too.
        I just couldn’t warm up to Michael Wilding though. He had the most sympathetic character, but his self-pleased smile put me off him. Leighton was trying too hard to be evil, that she got on my nerves, there was no subtlety there. By the way, don’t you think she looks like Alida Valli (The Paradine Case)?
        I will be so happy, if you take a look at Jamaica Inn. I don’t think I’ll manage to watch it ever. Waltzes of Vienna is a film about the Strauss dynasty, so it is bound to be very syrupy. So, I didn’t even bother to have a look at it, but I might be wrong.
        So, another Hitchcock film off my list.

        • Yes, I agree: it has all the ingredients for a good suspense film, but the build up just doesn’t happen. A shame! (Australia is a country I have a soft spot for, so I was eager to see what Hitchcock would do with a story set there).

          I think my introduction to Joseph Cotten was in The Shadow of a Doubt too! He was good there – and has proven to be consistently so in all the films of his that I’ve seen. Incidentally, he didn’t like Under Capricorn – he used to refer to it as Under Crappy Corn.

          “Waltzes of Vienna is a film about the Strauss dynasty, so it is bound to be very syrupy.

          Ah. So not a suspense film, then?

          • I haven’t seen it, but the name itself sounds so corny, doesn’t it? And all the films on composers are all so sweet, but one might want to just watch it to see how Hitchcock would treat such a plot, but I’m not that curious.
            BTW, Murder was also made simultaneously as a German movie (Mary) with Hitchcock as director. The first few minutes of the German version though convinced me that the German version wasn’t really his pet project and it is way shorter than the English version.

            • “BTW, Murder was also made simultaneously as a German movie (Mary) with Hitchcock as director.” I find that interesting – was Hitchcock fluent in German? Or had somebody managed to convince him that this was a good idea?

              • I think he had already directed a German movie till then and I think somebody must have told the producer that it would be a good idea, considering that the German market was big and the German films were worthy competitor to the British films a that time.

                  • Thank you for taking the trouble, Harvey! That’s interesting… and I hadn’t known that German films were that good (though I should’ve guessed, considering I have seen Metropolis, and some of the earliest Hindi films that still survive were made by Germans…

  6. I think I might have been the one who recommended “Under Capricorn” to you, Madhu. Relieived to read that you thought it was worth watching. :-)

    Your review pretty much echoes my own thoughts on the film. I like the principals (Bergman, Cotten) involved, am always game for a Hitchcock movie, and some of the psychological elements *were* interesting, but the historical setting is clearly not Hitch’s forte and this will never be among my favorites of his.

    This may be hard to believe, but I didn’t love Ingrid Bergman’s performance in “Under Capricorn.” It *is* a fine performance and I don’t think anyone plays the gaslighting victim better than her, but…I confess to feeling quite impatient with her Hattie, especially in the first half of the movie. I suppose it’s more a consequence of how the character is written, but, God, did she have to be *such* a fragile creature. :-(

    • I hadn’t really thought about it, but yes, I agree, Shalini: Hattie is so very fragile in those first few scenes of hers. It’s actually perhaps a little uncharacteristic, too, considering that there are glimpses of just what a strong-willed woman she had once been. The contrast seems a little hard to believe.

  7. Madhu,
    Your excellent interview made me curious to look up the film. I was not disapppointed. It is not among Hitchcock greats. His tightnesd is missing, because he combines two separate tropes, which have been done to death in numerous films, and even Ekta Kapoor’s soaps. ‘Rebecca’ has been mentioned. Finally, it is an uplifting love story with the selflessness and sacrifice of some characters showing traces of ‘Casablanca’. The Governor as the crown’s rep, embarrassed by his cousin’s behaviour and the housekerper Milly are also very credible characters.

    I have one crib about calling it ‘historical’. It might be set in 1830s, but unless there is some history in it, should we call it a historical?

    • I agree with you about the ‘tightness’ being missing, AK. Very true.

      “I have one crib about calling it ‘historical’. It might be set in 1830s, but unless there is some history in it, should we call it a historical?

      As someone who writes historical fiction and is fairly abreast of that, I can safely contribute my two cents here. A historical can be a work that does not feature any actual historical characters or events, but is set in a period that predates the life time of the author (or, in this case, I suppose auteur). There are varying definitions of how old a work should be to qualify as historical – I personally don’t think of the 80s as ‘history’, even though strictly speaking, it is – but 1800s would certainly qualify as historical.

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