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It's not really clear why Hitchcock wanted to make Under Capricorn (1949). Hitchcock publicly admitted he was baffled as to why he, "The Master of Suspense" wanted to do a costume drama set in colonial Australia, based on a novel he barely liked, using the same difficult extended take technique he had just used on his first color film Rope (1948). The only thing he was certain about, he admitted in retrospect, was that he wanted to hire Ingrid Bergman and experience the ego-boosting thrill of "returning to London with the biggest star of the day."
That top box office star demanded a salary of $200,000 plus 25 percent of profits, a higher sum than the director's fee - an oversight that Hitchcock soon corrected, straining the coffers of his newly formed independent production company Transatlantic Pictures. But that was a minor speed bump compared to how Hitchcock envisioned the shoot. Not only would his crew have to scurry around rearranging props and sets out of camera view during extended takes, just as they did on Rope, but Rope's single level apartment interior set was minimalist in comparison to the two-story mansion with interiors and exteriors that Hitchcock envisioned for Capricorn. Wisely, he called in an expert.
At the age of 35, cinematographer Jack Cardiff already had 31 years of experience working on film sets. His traveling actor parents got him started in films at the age of 4, and he soon made the transition to behind-the-scenes work - first as a "clapper boy", then as a camera operator. When technicians from the United States visited England to select a cinematographer worthy of learning how to use the new and formidable Technicolor camera, Cardiff got the job - not because of his technical knowledge, but because of his background as a painter and aficionado of fine art. That body of knowledge served him well in creating moody chiaroscuro compositions in Black Narcissus (1947) and mad riots of dreamy color in The Red Shoes (1948), so impressing director Michael Powell that he declared Cardiff was "the best color cameraman in the world."
Yet even the best in the world was barely up to the convoluted shooting scheme Hitchcock dreamed up for Under Capricorn. Following an actor up and down the grand staircase, in and out of second story windows and down lengthy hallways in unbroken takes required building a mammoth crane on a tank-sized dolly. Anything flimsier wouldn't hoist the gigantic Technicolor camera Cardiff nicknamed "The Enchanted Cottage". This enormous construction barreled through the set "like a tank at Sebastopol", Cardiff recalled, as "whole walls cracked open [and] furniture was whisked away by panting prop men." (In one scene the still-wobbling candelabras on the dining room table betray how recently the table had been moved.) The din was incredible, and each successful take had to be redubbed by the actors because the location sound was completely unusable. Bergman lost her temper on several occasions, unnerved by how "a chair or a table for an actor appeared the minute before a cue". And even the director was not immune from the chaos. During one take Hitchcock suddenly cried out during a quiet scene, then said calmly "Please move the camera a little to the right." The enormous rig had run over his big toe, breaking it.
Cardiff described the Under Capricorn shoot as "a technical nightmare", but all that huffing and puffing resulted in a fluid, mobile, and very contemporary mise en scene that prefigures the effortless gliding of Steadicam shots by 27 years. Cardiff's painterly eye creates atmospheric lighting schemes ranging from dappled sunlight to foreboding inky midnights. Nevertheless, despite the successful, eye-pleasing outcome of a challenging shoot, the film was a box office failure that led to Transatlantic's demise, and Hitchcock's pleasure at snagging "the biggest star of the day" was quickly overshadowed by Bergman's scandalous affair with Roberto Rossellini. However, French critic and director Alexandre Astruc championed the film in Cahiers Du Cinema, and in 1958 that publication voted Under Capricorn not only Hitchcock's best film to date, but one of the 10 greatest films of all time. In Francois Truffaut's book length interview Hitchcock by Truffaut, Hitchcock disavows Under Capricorn, lamenting "With all the enthusiasm we invested in that picture, it was a shame that it didn't amount to anything." But Truffaut, acknowledging Cardiff's substantial contribution, replies "If Under Capricorn wasn't a good movie, it was certainly a beautiful one."
Producers: Sidney Bernstein, Alfred Hitchcock (both uncredited)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: James Bridie (screenplay); Hume Cronyn (adaptation); John Colton, Margaret Linden (play); Helen Simpson (novel)
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff
Art Direction: Thomas Morahan
Music: Richard Addinsell
Film Editing: A.S. Bates
Cast: Ingrid Bergman (Lady Henrietta Flusky), Joseph Cotten (Sam Flusky), Michael Wilding (Hon. Charles Adare), Margaret Leighton (Milly), Cecil Parker (The Governor), Denis O'Dea (Mr. Corrigan), Jack Watling (Winter), Harcourt Williams (The Coachman), John Ruddock (Mr. Potter), Bill Shine (Mr. Banks).
by Violet LeVoit
Truffaut, Francois. Hitchcock by Truffaut. Simon and Schuster, 1967
McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life In Darkness And Light. Harper Perennial, 2004.
McCall, Craig (dir). Cameraman: The Life And Work of Jack Cardiff. [DVD] Strand Releasing, 2011
Sloan, Jane E. Alfred Hitchcock: a filmography and bibliography. University of California Press. 1995