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Film / Under Capricorn

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Under Capricorn is a 1949 Costume Drama film adapted from the 1937 novel of the same name by Helen Simpson, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Michael Wilding, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, and Margaret Leighton.

The story is Historical Fiction with both romantic and tragic elements. It takes place in 183132 New South Wales, then the primary British colony in the Land Down Under. The film opens with the arrival of new governor Sir Richard (Cecil Parker) in Sydney. The novel specifies that the date is December 3, 1831 and the governor is Sir Richard Bourke (term 183137). He is an Irishman (Bourke was from Dublin) and has brought along his second cousin, Charles Adare (Wilding). Charles, the youngest child of a Lord with no claim to the family's wealth, has come to Australia to seek his fortune. He meets bank manager Cedric Potter (John Ruddock) to discuss his prospects.

Potter has nothing to offer him. But Charles has a chance meeting with Samson "Sam" Flusky (Cotten), a prosperous landowner. Sam has a business proposal for him. He has a certain problem of his own. He is unable to purchase further land properties from the government. He wants to finance Charles in purchasing land as his proxy. Flusky invites Adare to his house to seal their deal. The Irishman already knows that his new patron is an ex-convict and Self-Made Man. His visit helps him realize that Sam is a brooding loner with a Dark and Troubled Past, shunned by polite society.

He is introduced to the two women important to Sam. The first is his wife. Adare is surprised to recognize Lady Henrietta "Hattie" Considine (Bergman), a fellow aristocrat and family friend of his, who had eloped with her riding instructor. Evidently Samson is said instructor. He learns that Samson's crime was killing her brother Dermot in a duel. He had been sentenced to seven years of imprisonment in Australia. Henrietta left her family and fended for herself while waiting for his release. The years of hardship took their toll. She is still beautiful but a Lady Drunk. Lately she has been suffering from Hallucinations and might be losing her sanity, The other woman is Milly (Leighton), the housekeeper. She is a Hypercompetent Sidekick type who keeps the household staff in order. Her employers have come to rely on her more and more over the years. She is devoted to Sam but openly disdainful of Henrietta. She has also largely supplanted Henrietta as the Lady of the House. Milly is infatuated with Samson and would like to be his second wife. The hallucinations of Henrietta may be the result of an old-fashioned Gaslighting operation.

Adare reminds Hattie of happier times and keeps her lucid. Sam invites him to settle in the Flusky mansion, effectively hiring him to help Hattie get back on her feet. This involves Charles playing dress-up with his own living doll, getting her to clean up nicely, restoring her confidence in herself and formally introducing her to Sydney society. There are signs of a Pygmalion Plot, with Charles stealing a kiss from his reluctant "student". Within the household, Henrietta wants to resume her domestic duties and gets into a power struggle with Milly. Milly does her best to point out to Mr. Flusky about Henrietta and Charles spending quality time in Henrietta's bedroom. And how that new dance, waltz, involves the Lady spending time in her partner's embrace. Samson turns into a Crazy Jealous Guy. There is conflict about to erupt.

The film was a box office flop at the time of release. The main reason being that it is not the thriller audiences had come to expect of Hitchcock. There are certain elements of it. Minyago Yugilla, the Flusky mansion, may be luxurious. But it is also ominous-looking and it gives locals the creeps. There is also a Gaslighting operation in effect, a decapitated head is left at Henrietta's bed and there is a poisoning scene. But otherwise it is a verbose drama. But its use of long takes makes for frequent lovely images. The performances of Bergman and Leighton have been praised. For the French New Wave creators of the 1950s, it was a highly influential film and a darling of the critics. Opinion remains highly divided on the film's quality. It has been hailed as a masterpiece and dismissed as a flop. Ranked by serious critics both among the best and the worst of the director.

The film provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness:
    • There is little real description of Milly in the novel, other than being a "large woman". She is played here by 27-year-old Margaret Leighton, a tall willowy actress. Leighton had a reputation for playing highly sophisticated characters and does so here. She could actually compete with Bergman in the looks department.
    • Subverted in the case of Henrietta. Going by the novel, she is supposed to be a great beauty. "She looked like a goddess careless of human clothing, or some heroine of antiquity run nobly mad."
  • Adaptation Dye-Job: Henrietta is an Irishwoman and her hair is red in the novel. The first description of her includes the phrase "red hair hung free on her magnificent shoulders". There are repeated mentions of her beautiful red hair. Bergman simply uses her natural light brown hair while playing the role.
  • Black Sheep: Charles to his family. He is not exactly morally upright. He finds it easy to forge an invitation on the film, he is an amateur burglar in the novel.
  • Creator Cameo: Hitchcock appears about five minutes into the movie in the town square wearing a coat and a brown hat. Ten minutes later he is one of three men on the steps of government house.
  • Happy Ending: By the last half of the film: 1)Charles gets into an argument with an enraged Samson. Sam's handgun goes off and seriously wounds the younger man. Charles seems to be dying and Sam is about to be arrested for murder. 2) Because Sam's previous convinction is working against him, Henrietta is motivated to confess to commiting the previous murder. She is to be shipped off to Ireland to face a trial of her own. 3) Milly is caught redhanded while trying to kill Henrietta. That is attempted murder. The Happy Ending has Charles suddenly recovering and his testimony exonerating Sam, the governor deciding not to persecute Henrietta, the Fluskys allowing Milly to walk away from their house with no further consequences.
  • In-Universe Catharsis: Surviving a murder attempt and having confrontations with both Milly and Samson has this effect on Henrietta. She is much healthier character by the finale.
  • Love Triangle: More of a Love Square. Samson and Henrietta still love each other, though having trouble expressing said affection. Charles has fallen for Henrietta and is a source of temptation for her. Milly has fallen for Samson and would like to marry him.
  • Only One Name: Milly has no mentioned last name, both in the novel and the film. The novel even mentions "surname forgotten long ago".
  • Promoted to Love Interest: While Charles does retrain Henrietta in the novel and helps her get back on her feet, he doesn't fall for her. His own love interest is Sue Qaife, ommited in the film.
  • Pygmalion Plot: Charles helps Henrietta stand back on her feet and in a sense retrains her. But falls for her in the process.
  • Self-Made Man: Samson "Sam" Flusky has worked his way from impoverished convict to among the richest men in Australia. Though this earns him no social acceptance.
  • Taking the Heat: Henrietta shot her own brother in self-defense. Sam got jailed for the crime.