Released a year after the experimental one-shot wonder Rope, Under Capricorn sees Alfred Hitchcock retreating to the ostensibly more straightforward aesthetic of the melodramatic thrillers that cemented his legend, among them Rebecca and Suspicion. The film, set in colonial Australia, centers on a love triangle that forms between rakish aristocrat Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), his alcoholic old friend, Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman), and Henrietta’s rich, shady husband, Samson Flusky (Joseph Cotten). The interactions between the three are textbook Hitchcock, with front-and-center psychological clashes that gradually reveal the primal urges buried deep beneath the surface of the wealthy characters’ social etiquette.
Indeed, the film’s plot feels like a slight recalibration of Rebecca. Where that film charted its protagonist from her early infatuation to a troubled widower through to a marriage marked by possession and mistrust, here we meet Henrietta well into an unhappy romance with Samson, whose wealth cannot protect him from high society’s whisperings about his criminal past. Cloistered away in Samson’s rural villa, Henrietta lives in inebriated stasis, paralyzed by the stigma placed on her for her choice in partner. Roused from this somnambulant stupor by the reemergence of Charles in her life, Henrietta begins to comprehend that at least some of her depressive state is encouraged and abetted by Samson’s lovesick maid, Milly (Margaret Leighton), who seeks to ruin the wife in order to usurp her place.
Narratively, this is standard Hitchcock fare, but Under Capricorn aesthetically deviates from earlier riffs on the same theme through the director’s sophisticated use of Technicolor. The colors in this film are far more florid than they are in Rope, and Hitchcock employs contrasting shades to delineate, among other things, his characters’ traits, interior and otherwise. Charles, a nobleman dandy, wears flashy, bright clothing that broadcasts a life free of labor, while Samson, who made his fortune with his hands, dresses in drab colors that make him stand out sharply from the film’s transplanted British aristocrats. Henrietta dresses plainly like her husband, but the occasional streaks of color in her accessories offer a reminder of the more well-born background that hangs around her neck now like an albatross.
Under Capricorn also stands out for furthering the use of Rope’s experimental long takes and tracking shots. Inside Samson’s villa, Hitchcock uses crane shots that equally incorporate vertical and horizontal movement. Some of these shots are downright audacious, like one unbroken take that follows Charles as he sneaks around the exterior of the villa. Hitchcock first frames Charles spying through windows, then pushes in over the character’s shoulder to approximate the man’s vision as he spies on guests and servants. Effectively, Hitchcock turns an objective shot into a POV one without cutting.
And though Under Capricorn’s dark and twisty narrative eventually unearths everyone’s secrets, it’s the swooning camera that most fully taps into the class and sexual tensions that consume the characters. Throughout the film, Hitchcock leans on swirling, heated camera movements to convey how Henrietta lives in a haze of alcohol but also to signal the carnal desire that she still has for Samson; the camerawork often aligns the film to the sexual frisson of a Tennessee Williams play. For a film often dismissed as an indifferent kiss-off to the costume drama, Under Capricorn arguably marks less the end of one chapter in Hitchcock’s filmography than the start of his greatest and boldest run of formally adventurous psychological thrillers.
Sourced from a 4K restoration, Kino’s Blu-ray represents an undeniable upgrade from previous home-video releases of Under Capricorn. Colors pop far more noticeably, and formerly hazy details are now rendered with clarity. Yet it’s equally obvious that this restoration has left certain flaws intact, as debris and scratches are visible throughout. More importantly, some color separation between the strips of Technicolor film remain, resulting in shots afflicted with slight shades of green, as well as some haloing artifacts around the actors. The film still looks great overall, but these issues hinder some of the more revelatory delights of the transfer’s upgrade in color depth. The soundtrack lacks any noticeable issues, cleanly balancing dialogue and the occasional swells of florid, melodramatic music.
On her commentary track, film historian Kat Ellinger discusses at length production details about Under Capricorn and offers much formal analysis, arguing from the start for the film’s unfairly overlooked status and how it anticipated films like Rear Window. The disc also comes with audio excerpts of François Truffaut’s conversations with Alfred Hitchcock regarding the film, as well as an archival interview with Claude Chabrol, who discusses the French New Wave’s relationship with Hitchcock’s films and his own personal experience working with and being inspired by the director.
An inconsistent but nonetheless beautiful restoration makes for the best-looking home-video release yet of Alfred Hitchcock’s most underrated film.