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Under Capricorn

Under Capricorn(1949)

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Under Capricorn - NOT AVAILABLE

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Home Video Reviews

Unavailable for many years, with rare videotapes sold for high prices on ebay, Under Capricorn (1949), Alfred Hitchcock's rarest post-1933 film, has finally been released on DVD. Is it worth the wait?

Under Capricorn was the second and last film of Transatlantic Pictures, an independent film production company founded by Alfred Hitchcock and his financial friend Sidney Bernstein. Their intent was to make pictures in both England and America, hence the name of their company. Rope (1948), their first film, was shot in America, so the second, Under Capricorn, would be shot in England.

Set in Australia in 1831, Under Capricorn seems like an odd choice for a Hitchcock movie. Hitchcock had only made two period films before, Waltzes From Vienna (1933) and Jamaica Inn (1939), and both had been box-office duds. However, examined more closely, Under Capricorn has a number of plot points in common with other Hitchcock hits of the 1940's. There is a mysterious house with a domineering housekeeper as in Rebecca (1940), the effects of poisoning mistaken for alcoholism as in Notorious (1946) and a great lady who demeans herself for a lowly groom as in The Paradine Case (1947).

Hitchcock planned to carry over a technique as well. His previous film, Rope, had been shot to resemble one uninterrupted camera take and Hitchcock planned to film Under Capricorn with similar long takes, both as a technical challenge and a way to save money. Some of these shots resemble the flowing camera work seen in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980) and Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990). Unlike those filmmakers, Hitchcock had no Steadicam. Instead he had to use a huge crane wielding a Technicolor camera so large it dwarfed even the rotund director. Stagehands had to break apart sets and actors had to dive out of the way as the monstrous apparatus glided upstairs and through windows.

The tension became so great on the set that the actors nearly rebelled. Star Ingrid Bergman exploded in a temper tantrum about the difficult takes that would require long sequences to be repeated if any mistake was made. Hitchcock, never one to relish a confrontation, left the set and went home, later claiming he was told Bergman ranted on for another twenty minutes before noticing he was gone.

Bergman was under extraordinary pressure offscreen as well. She began her adulterous affair with director Roberto Rossellini towards the end of the Under Capricorn shoot and the scandal broke just as the film was released. In addition, reviews were scathing and, again, a Hitchcock period film flopped. The bankers behind Transatlantic Pictures seized all rights to the film, later refusing to include it in Hitchcock film festivals and limiting its video release.

Image Entertainment's new DVD release of Under Capricorn shows the movie to be, while not an undiscovered masterpiece, at least a sometimes fascinating and often strikingly beautiful film. Ingrid Bergman is lovingly photographed by famed cinematographer Jack Cardiff (The African Queen, Rambo: First Blood Part II) in a subtle and haunting use of Technicolor. Bergman's performance is one of the most daring of her career as she expresses her drunken confusion with delicacy and understatement. Another surprise is the performance of Margaret Leighton (The Best Man, The Go-Between) as the housekeeper. She was dismissed in reviews of the time as a weak carbon copy of Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca but, unlike Judith Anderson's almost supernatural quality in that film, Leighton gives this housekeeper a human, pitiable nature.

A gorgeous print with excellent sound, this DVD version of Under Capricorn supplies a heretofore-missing work of both a great director and a great actress.

For more information about Under Capricorn, visit Image Entertainment. To order Under Capricorn, go to TCM Shopping.

by Brian Cady