Week 45: Under Capricorn (1949), Muted Tones, and September 12.

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Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

What a week.

The elections were on Tuesday, and I’m writing this on Thursday. The last 48 hours have been a whirlwind of texts, emails, and messages all revolving around the same themes: uncertainty, fear, disbelief, unease, and above all, sadness. Sadness that this could happen, sadness that fear and lies can win, sadness for our future, and sadness for who we are as a country.

There are some small kernels of hope; in an election with low voter turnout, only around 26% of the US voting populace voted for Trump. And yes, our electoral college system is a bizarre farce that should be replaced, but regardless of what Republicans might tell you, this is not a mandate. It is not the will of the people.

Still, that’s small comfort. Many of my friends seem traumatized, broken, and unable to move forward. It’s different from the 2000 election, which turned into a long drawn-out farce that gave us time to absorb the inevitable. This feels more like a national trauma, closer to September 11 than anything in recent memory.

Is that hyperbolic? Yes, absolutely. The election of one man shouldn’t be compared to the worst terrorist attack on US soil and I know that. But that feeling, the gutpunch out of nowhere, and the subsequent hopelessness and terror feel the same for a lot of people.

I’ve talked previously about my experience on September 11; I even watched Rear Window that night out of desperation. On the morning of September 12, I woke up unsure and uneasy like everyone else. I lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn, miles from the bombing, yet the acrid smell and our shared fear hung in the air. Not knowing what else to do, I walked to work. I wasn’t sure if the subways were running yet.

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The Brooklyn Academy of Music

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) had multiple theaters and a cafe, but the only thing that would normally be open on a weekday in September was the movie theaters. We had to decide what to do. Should we stay open? Close for another day? Obviously on September 11 we had closed and sent everyone home. But we had four movie theaters in operation, including our repertory Cinematek screen scheduled to show Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or as part of a monthly discussion series with film critic Elliott Stein.

The fear was everywhere. Would movie theaters, a public gathering place, be under attack? Should we try to get security guards? Metal detectors? What should we do?

Efi, our theater manager, ran the theaters with the discipline you’d expect from the Israeli army. He was adamant that we should open, that we’d be doing a disservice to our customers. I think he understood what I was still learning, that in moments of crisis, we have to keep going. We have to live our life. We have to fill our life with friends and art and music and movies and celebrate each other and ourselves. In the face of horror, the only choice is to live.

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Simone Signoret in “Casque d’Or”

So we did. We showed Casque d’Or that night and I went to see it, slightly nervous, but proud to sit there. Elliott Stein managed to get there from the Upper West Side, and a small shell-shocked group of us watched Simone Signoret and Serge Reggiani navigate a Belle Époque love triangle. To be honest, I don’t remember much of the film, or the discussion. But I remember that I was there. It gave me something to do, a way to participate in something, even for a small group of people. And for that day, it was enough.

***

Back to the business at hand. It’d be nice to say that Under Capricorn is a great example of escapism, the kind of film you want to watch to take your mind off hardships. Like Rear Window, or To Catch a Thief, or The 39 Steps. And Under Capricorn is an interesting mix of genres ranging from melodrama to horror to costume drama, with shades of Rebecca, Suspicion, and Notorious all thrown in. It also replicates and in some scenes surpasses the flowing cinematography of Rope in a number of brilliantly choreographed long takes. It stars Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten, who both previously worked with Hitchcock on some of his best films (Notorious and Shadow of a Doubt). It should be a recipe for greatness.

The problem is that it’s not very good.

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Joseph Cotten, Ingrid Bergman, and Michael Wilding

Historically it’s unclear why Hitchcock latched onto this creaky period drama for his next project after Rope, a film that he would produce himself and shoot mainly in England. Hitchcock friend Hume Cronyn labored on the screenplay with Alma Reville, along with help from writer James Bridie, but it’s clear that they weren’t up to the task of adapting such a baffling, convoluted story.

Set in Australia in 1831, the film starts with Michael Wilding, a ne’er-do-well from England looking for a new start in the colony. Despite objections from his uncle (the new magistrate) Wilding falls in with Joseph Cotten, an Irish businessman with a mysterious past. When Wilding comes to dinner he discovers Cotten’s wife is his childhood friend Ingrid Bergman, now comatose from sickness, booze, or both. Cotten urges Wilding to stay and help Bergman recover. Wilding does so while falling in love with her, then tries to undermine her marriage. After many overly dramatic scenes, it’s revealed that while Cotten was sent to jail for killing Bergman’s brother, it was actually Bergman who shot him in an attempt to save her fledgling marriage to Cotten. After an extremely convoluted ending involving a maid who is secretly in love with Cotten, Wilding comes to his senses and saves the day, Cotten & Bergman reunite, and everyone lives happily ever after in a wildly unbelievable finale.

Cotten and Bergman are both terrific actors, but neither make any attempt at an Irish accent, nor does the film attempt to explain away their Southern & Swedish lilts. Each does their best with the intricacies of the script but it’s clear that they’re lost. The has shadows of one of their previous films together, George Cukor’s excellent Gaslight, but it never approaches the brilliance of that psychological horror piece. Plus Bergman was reportedly unhappy with Hitchcock’s method of shooting extremely long takes on the film.

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Yes, as much as Hitchcock would later denounce the idea of trying to shoot a film in long shots as he did with Rope, Under Capricorn finds him unable to stop fiddling with the idea. Much of the film seems driven by his hubris, with Hitchcock later admitting that he was blinded by the idea of being able to cast one of the most popular actresses in the world in his own project.

Hitch doesn’t try to shoot all of Under Capricorn in one shot, thankfully, and many of the “normal” sequences, including the opening establishing shots of Australia, have a lovely period flair to them. The trouble starts once the film switches almost all of its action to Cotten’s mansion. Here is where Hitchcock’s need for a challenge raises his head. Inexplicably giving himself a film almost entirely devoid of suspense, shocks, thrills, or the kind of action sequences he’d become known for, he had to create a challenge for himself.

That challenge came in the form of opening up the kind of moving camera long takes he’d pioneered in Rope. Long before hand-held cameras and fluid steadicams, Hitchcock wanted to shoot long, eight or nine minute unbroken takes inside a giant mansion set, with a gigantic camera and lighting equipment following the actors around. According to everyone on set, the set was a nightmare. In Rope, some setpieces and furniture had to be pulled out of the way and actors whisked into place as the camera passes, but the whole film took place in a small, apartment-sized studio.

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“Just act natural and ignore this giant camera lumbering around behind you.”

Here, the set was gigantic. Walls would fly apart as the giant camera rumbled by. Crew members would rush a table into place just as the camera passed, in some cases resulting in candlesticks still wobbling from being placed down seconds before. The floor was littered with cables & camera tracks, and actors had to hit their marks precisely or risk being crushed by a dolly (in a bit of irony at one point the camera dolly rolled over Hitchcock’s foot and broke his toe). The noise was deafening, as Hitchcock and the crew called out to each other while actors tried to play their scenes. Then, once they had a shot for camera, the actors would act out the entire scene again, without the camera, just for the benefit of the sound man who could now record their voices without the chaos of shooting.

Bergman hated it, which may be why these long take shots, so prevalent in the first half of the film, are used less and less throughout the movie. And for the most part they’re unnecessary. A scene of Wilding and Cotten talking outside works fine as a dolly shot without a sudden swoop up to a balcony to see Bergman listening, and then another swoop back down. At their worst they’re distracting and take you out of the scene.

But at their best they work remarkably well. Hitchcock does evince a remarkable sense of how to move a camera through a long and developing scene, a reason why filmmakers like Martin Scorsese would look to him as they developed their own long take skills. Properly used, a long take can heighten the tension in a film, which is where the best shot in the movie comes into play.

Cotten is throwing a dinner party to welcome Wilding, and has invited a number of prominent men and women from the town. Wilding arrives amidst a furor over the party, and then the guests begin to arrive. It’s not overtly showy; there are no grand crane shots or high angles. Instead the camera and the actors perform a ballet as each male guest arrives and makes excuses as to why their wives had to cancel. Wilding makes conversation with each new guest as the camera dances around them, with Cotton doing a slow burn as it becomes clear that none of the women have deemed his home worthy of visiting (or they’re afraid to visit because of rumors about him and his wife; the film is unclear on this point). Finally the shot ends up around the dining room table, cutting only to show our first look at Ingrid Bergman.

In this one shot, we see the echoes of a much better film, the kind that Max Ophuls or Luchino Visconti would make, a tragic period drama infused with eye-popping camerawork to heighten the tension. Instead, Hitchcock and the script falter after this high point early on and never regain their footing.

Even more frustrating, Hitchcock had at his disposal Jack Cardiff, inarguably the best British director of photography alive in 1949. Want to fight me on this? Go see the Powell/Pressburger films A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, or the legendary The Red Shoes, films where Cardiff defied traditional notions about color photography to produce vivid, eye-popping hues and realistic skin tones that boggle the mind. Cardiff fused the technicolor bombast of Hollywood with a soft gentleness in color that made for some of the best shot films of any era.

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Seriously, “Black Narcissus” is goddamn unbelievably beautiful…

Yet here he seems handicapped, whether by the studio or Hitchcock it’s hard to know. The film is presented in a muted tone, with lots of grays and earth tones, only coming to vivid life at the beginning and end. This was only Hitchcock’s second color film and he was clearly experimenting, but hiring Jack Cardiff only to have him turn in a subdued, drab color scheme is like hiring Michaelangelo to paint the inside of your garage.

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…especially when compared to this muted dreariness.

Still, Under Capricorn has its share of great ideas, including the idea that once a man has served his time in 1831 Australia, it’s considered rude to ask him abut his past. It’s fun to picture a film populated by men and women trying to go straight while haunted by their unspoken criminal pasts. It also sets up an interesting role reversal between Wilding & Cotten, where they trade roles as protagonists several times during the film. Yet overall it’s a bit of a mess and it commits the cardinal sin for any Hitchcock film: it simply isn’t that entertaining.

This was clearly a difficult time for Hitchcock; he’d made the lackluster Paradine Case in 1947, the brilliant yet flawed Rope in 1948, and would follow Under Capricorn with the mediocre Stage Fright. It wouldn’t be until 1951’s Strangers on a Train that he would make a popular and critical comeback.

***

I’m finishing writing this at my favorite local bar, where people look weary. Scared and frightened. And just plain tired. Every conversation I overhear is about the election.

I share these feelings with them and with many millions of people. I don’t know what else to say, except for this: for now, take care of yourself. Watch a movie if you want, or listen to music, or read, or do something that brings you joy. Donate to charities if you have the money. There will be work to do, long hard work, and many fights to be had. But while I’m sad and frightened, I promise I’ll try my best not to despair, not to live in fear and dread. I keep coming back to a quote from playwright Tony Kushner, the author of Angels in America:

“It is an ethical obligation to look for hope; it is an ethical obligation not to despair.”

See you next week.

Under Capricorn is not streaming on any services, and can’t even be rented from Amazon or iTunes. It’s strangely unavailable; I got an old DVD copy from the library.

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