#10 in my Ranking of Alfred Hitchcock’s films.
I think this movie is a victim of expectations. Hitchcock was well established as a director of thrillers, and his reputation has long cemented as such. So, he comes along at one of the lowest moments of his Hollywood career (both Rope and The Paradine Case were financial failures and met with, at best, limited critical success) and instead of leaning into what people considered his strengths, he continued his experimental streak with long takes in a drama that had only minimal thriller elements he was known for. It really didn’t help that the marketing department of Transatlantic Pictures didn’t know how to market it, relying heavily on the small thriller elements that mostly appear in the later parts of the film. Audiences were sold a movie they didn’t get, and modern audiences latch onto that original assessment while expecting something more traditionally Hitchcockian. It seems to be a rather unfortunate situation because Under Capricorn is a very effective drama that handles its low stakes very well with well drawn characters and using the long take like in Rope but more effectively.
Charles Adare arrives in Sydney, Australia in the time when the country was still a convict colony. He meets Samson Flusky, a wealthy man with a past no one will speak of (it being bad manners to discuss the past of a former convict). Flusky is no favorite of the elite, represented by the governor, and Adare’s attachment to Flusky ends up ruffling some feathers. At Flusky’s, Adare meets Flusky’s wife, Henrietta, a woman he knew in childhood back in Ireland who has become a drunk and a recluse. Flusky seems uninterested in finding a solution for his wife’s issues, but Adare quickly attempts to find ways to make her feel better, the first of which is to fire his gun into her fireplace, humoring her about shooting a rat she is convinced is in the room but without actually being there.
I think some of the criticism arises from the relationship between Adare and Henrietta. There are soft motions towards something like an affair, but it never really moves towards it fully, instead focusing on Adare’s friendship towards the beautiful woman he knew in childhood. There are accusations of infidelity coming from Flusky’s head maid, Milly, but they never really materialize as some great melodramatic fight. Instead, Flusky allows Adare to spend time with his wife, and the way Adare ends up going too far is by taking Henrietta to a ball (without a proper invitation) that the governor had thrown. Flusky, in frustration and anger, accidentally shoots Adare right after he had to shoot his own mare with a broken leg, sending Flusky into new trouble because of his status as an ex-convict. It’s here that the revelations come out about the truth of Flusky’s crime and Henrietta’s involvement, Flusky’s sentence and how Henrietta coped. It changes everything that came before it, casting everything we’ve seen in a brand new light. Flusky becomes far more sympathetic, his general disdain for Henrietta and her poor condition more understandable. Henrietta becomes more pitiful, and Milly is revealed to be a bit of a villain (something hinted at earlier).
It’s the reveals around Milly that contain the thriller elements that Hitchcock was known for, particularly as evidenced by a shrunken head. It’s the extra sort of push that helps to define Henrietta’s behavior over the film while providing some last minute thrills for the film’s climax, the reveal of which provides the final catharsis Henrietta requires to get into her final state.
The filmmaking as evidenced by the long camera takes are really bravura examples, but they also highlight why Hitchcock largely stopped using them. Before the invention of the Steadicam, the long take had to be accomplished through very complex set ups of tracks for the camera to dolly on as well as the ability to manipulate sets to accommodate the camera’s placement. It was one thing to do it on the relatively simple set of Rope, but the mansion in Under Capricorn is much more complicated and the camera moves all the more complicated along with it. Hitchcock apparently broke a toe when the camera dolly ran over his shoe during one of the longer takes. The takes themselves work, though, because the focus of them is the characters and their dialogue, often moving from one subject to another and even to those just on the edge of the scene to highlight certain narrative elements. It wasn’t showy for the sake of showiness, it was a concentrated technique done to enhance the narrative, and it works to help focus on the drama at play, the drama of two men and the broken woman in between.
I ended up loving this film. The stakes are small, but well-defined. The characters feel alive and imbued with all their own unique motives and personalities. The camera work is great and really does help define the drama. It’s evidence of Hitchcock’s long history of working as a contract director, able to move from project to project regardless of the type of story, and telling it well.