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Under Capricorn

Alfred Hitchcock's 1949 Under Capricorn is one of the lauded director's least-seen films — and not just because it's one of his most notable failures. Only the second film he financed with his own production company, Transatlantic Pictures, the movie cost a then-staggering $2.5 million. Failing to recover anything near that figure at the box-office, the film rights were then possessed by the financing bank, and Hitchcock's Transatlantic was bankrupted by its second project. Since then, Capricorn has had an intermittent life in the public eye, earning a few repertory showings here and there and a VHS release in the 1980s, but it's never been a TV staple and has gone virtually ignored for half-a-century. Thus, the initial DVD release from Image Entertainment will give many Hitchcock buffs their first chance to see the picture. Ingrid Bergman stars as Henrietta Flusky, an Irishwoman who has moved to Australia to live with her husband, Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten) — years earlier, Sam was convicted of murder in England and sent "under Capricorn" to serve his time, where his loyal wife followed. Long since finished with his prison term, Sam has prospered in recent years as an Australian businessman, while Henrietta has become a sheltered alcoholic who cannot look after even the most basic household matters. But when Sam meets a newly arrived English gentleman, Charles Adder (Michael Wielding), and invites him to dinner, Charles takes a particular interest in Henrietta's condition and urges her on a path of self-improvement. It isn't long before Henrietta assumes control of the household, to the irritation of housekeeper Milly (Margaret Leighton). But Sam has trouble concealing his jealousy of the high-born Charles, and the growing conflict between the two men leads Henrietta to make a terrible confession. Serious Hitchcock fans will unearth a lot of interesting details in Under Capricorn, particularly in how it relates to his overall body of work. Several of his most common themes are present, including a leading character who is stricken by a sort of induced psychosis, a gruff but noble leading man, and the existence of a deeply entrenched secret. There are other small Hitchockian details to ponder as well, such as a sinister housekeeper, a lavish social gala, the use of keys as a symbol of empowerment, and even a visual joke about eggs (a foodstuff Hitch loathed). But for all of this, Capricorn remains a curio for fans, and a colossal misfire for the director (who later admitted he was overly infatuated with Ingrid Bergman's celebrity). Coming off the critical success of Rope (1948) and its use of long takes with smooth camera movements, Hitch employed the same techniques in this film, where they did not work — put simply, Rope was a real-time, one room stage play where the action was emphasized by the camera's fluidity. Capricorn is a 19th century melodrama that takes place over a few months (it would seem), making the technique less effective. Certainly, there are some remarkable long shots to marvel over (including Hitch's ability to effortlessly sweep a camera between the Flusky home's two floors), but the long-winded script (by Hume Cronyn and James Bridie) has an actorly flair to it, giving way to fine-sounding speeches rather than pushing the story onward. The drama does pick up reasonably in the middle-third before stumbling to an oversimplified, rather forced conclusion, and perhaps if the film had been directed by anyone other than Alfred Hitchcock, it would not be as dismissed as readily as it has been. Indeed, François Truffaut and others have insisted the picture has been unfairly maligned — a hypnotic poetry does seem to linger beneath all of the period costumes and florid orations. It's not the first film Hitch neophytes should see, but serious students of The Master are bound to find several hidden delights within — when viewed as part of Hitchcock's entire oeuvre, Capricorn can be enjoyed as a sonorous footnote to his greater accomplishments. Image Entertainment's DVD release of Under Capricorn features a solid full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a reasonable source-print — the stock is not in perfect shape, but it's acceptable for casual viewing and the Technicolor has held up reasonably well. However, the monaural audio (DD 2.0) exhibits an unwelcome amount of ambient noise. No extras, keep-case.
—JJB



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