Category Archives: Hitchcock

Under Capricorn (1949)

“You took part in an unsavoury debauch.”

Whenever I watch a film that deals with the old convict days of Australia, I wonder how modern-day Australians feel about this part of their history, so that thought cropped up as I watched the lesser-known Hitchcock film, Under Capricorn. Based on the novel by Helen Simpson, this should be a torrid tale of passion–the classic love triangle–or quadrangle– that takes place in the heat of 1831 Australia amidst the snobbery and hypocrisy of British rule. The film isn’t entirely successful as it never seems to go quite far enough into the dark corners of human nature, but it’s still well-worth catching.

Appropriately the film begins with the arrival of the new governor played with a perfect touch by Cecil Parker– a man who’s quietly appalled by the conditions he’d rather not see. The Governor has a poor relation in tow, second cousin Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), and there’s the unspoken idea that while the penniless Adare is supposed to somehow or another make his fortune in Australia, he’s also been sent there as some sort of last-ditch effort in recuperation. Adare, who’s Irish, is very open to the notion of making new acquaintances, and his merry countenance indicates an openness that’s lacking in the prim-and-proper Governor and his staff.

Adare almost immediately strikes up an acquaintance with Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten)–a so-called “emancipationist” which is a delicate term for ex-convict. Although Flusky has served his 5-year sentence for murder and is now a wealthy landowner, he’s ostracised from the upper echelons of Australian society. Flusky invites Adare to his home for dinner, and the Governor warns Adare that under no circumstances must he ever dine at the home of an ’emancipationist.‘ This is a country in which newcomers are advised not to talk about the past, and while that may indicate that the past is supposedly forgiven and forgotten, that’s not true. An intense snobbery reigns about origins–it’s just not discussed. This lack of discussion is mirrored throughout life in 1830s Australian society, and consequently we see no small amount of neurotic and sadistic behavior that takes place behind closed doors. Flusky chafes at the fact he’s not good enough for the ball at the Governor’s Mansion, and yet he treats his convict servants like a pack of wild animals. Several times throughout the film, he threatens his staff with their “pink slips.”

Adare, intrigued by Flusky, and in direct defiance of his cousin, arrives at the Flusky estate at dusk. The coachman who delivers Adare to the gates, refuses to go inside the mansion “Minyago Yugilla” which is translated to mean: “why weepest thou.” The coachman’s reluctance to enter the estate seems to be a wise move, for Adare, unable to gain entry to the mansion peers through to the kitchen where he spies one servant being held down while she’s whipped by another.

Things inside the Flusky household don’t get any better. The dinner party turns out to be a bizarre event, and while various local men of substance attend, all of their wives beg off with various excuses of ill health. It’s an “epidemic” Adare notes as he grasps the social consequences.  Even Flusky’s wife Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman)  is absent–ill supposedly–until she makes a dramatic appearance barefoot and drunk.

As fate would have it, Adare remembers Henrietta as a glamorous figure from his youth, but the Lady Henrietta he once knew no longer exists–Henrietta Flusky is now an alcoholic who hoards bottles of booze in her bedroom, and while she’s largely confined to her room, the treacherous viper of a housekeeper, Milly (Margaret Leighton) rules the roost with delectable sadism and religious hypocrisy. It’s obvious that there’s an unhealthy undercurrent to the Flusky household , but what went wrong? A young vibrant and defiant Henrietta eloped with Flusky who was her family’s groom, and while this may explain the giant chip on his shoulder, there’s obviously something unhealthy simmering beneath the surface.

Under Capricorn has gothic elements which are never fully realized–there’s the build-up around Adare’s arrival, for example, the business with the shrunken heads, and then there’s Henrietta’s madness… she’s unhinged at the beginning of the film but then seems to undergo repair under Adare’s encouragement. The plot also hints at some darker elements which are never explored. At one point, for example, Adare asks Henrietta how she survived financially in Australia during the 5 years she waited for Flusky. This question seems to cause some mental anguish, so we are left to guess the answer to that one.

Hitchcock first became interested in Under Capricorn when he was sent a copy of the novel. He claimed that he made the film for Ingrid Bergman, yet ironically the filming placed some strain on the relationship between Hitchcock and his leading lady. Before shooting finished, scandal swamped Ingrid Bergman due to her much publicised affair with Italian director Robert Rossellini. Bergman and Rossellini subsequently left their spouses in order to live together–a relationship that led to Bergman’s ostracism from Hollywood for several years, and the bad publicity at the time did little to help Under Capricorn at the box office.

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Rebecca (1940)

“Last Night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.”

In the film Rebecca Joan Fontaine, a paid companion to an obnoxious, bombastic society woman, meets handsome widower, Maxim de Winter (Lawrence Olivier) in Monte Carlo. It appears that the first Mrs. de Winter died in a tragic and mysterious boating accident. An unlikely romance develops between the companion and Maxim, and they marry. After a brief honeymoon, the newyweds return to Maxim’s splendid mansion, Manderley, in Cornwall. The second Mrs. De Winter finds that she is under the shadow of Maxim’s first wife, the paragon–Rebecca.

The interesting thing to me about the film is that Rebecca is just a memory–but such a powerful one. She no longer exists when the film begins and yet her presence is felt throughout the film. This is underscored by the fact that the second Mrs de Winter is never called by her first name, so she just ‘borrows’ Rebecca’s identity, in a sense. By the time the film concludes, I had a very strong sense of Rebecca’s character, and even though the film included no flashback sequences and no photographs of Rebecca, nonetheless she was as strong a presence as Olivier or Fontaine. Everyone who knew her has a different memory–and no two memories of Rebecca are quite the same.

My favourite performance in the film came from George Sanders. He is splendid as roguish, slimy cousin Jack. He drips with malevolent sarcasm, and clearly thinks very little of the simpering new Mrs. de Winter. Another excellent performance comes from Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers. Danvers serves as the prototype of all future evil housekeepers (I particularly thought of Frau Blucher–played by Cloris Leachman in Young Frankenstein).

The film Rebecca is based on the excellent novel by Daphne Du Maurier. The film remained faithful to the novel–the only criticism I have of the film was that I thought Joan Fontaine played the role with too much emphasis on being a total ninny. Alfred Hitchcock as the director guarantees suspense, and he delivers it again and again in the subtlest of ways. It’s no wonder that Criterion selected this film for DVD.

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The Paradine Case (1947)

“You always forget that punishment is part of the scheme.”

Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Paradine Case begins with a beautiful woman, Maddalena Paradine (Alida Valli) calmly playing the piano right before she is arrested for the murder of her husband. At one point, she pauses and looks up at the portrait of her husband hanging on the wall next to the piano, and a shadow of a different emotion passes across her face. Is it sadness? Grief? It’s impossible to tell. That single shot of Valli’s perfectly sculptured face registers something…but what? And that scene is just one example of this perfectly constructed Hitchcock film.

The Paradine Case revolves around the question of whether or not Mrs. Paradine murdered her elderly, blind wealthy husband. Highly skilled barrister Edward Keane (Gregory Peck) is employed to defend her, and in spite of the fact he’s happily married to Gay (Ann Todd), in the course of the pre-trial consultations, Keane falls under the spell of Mrs. Paradine–the fascinating, enigmatic, elusive dark beauty. She frankly admits that she had a shady past, and makes no apologies for it. She also admits that her life improved immeasurably when she married the elderly and extremely wealthy Colonel Paradine. There is no real sense of what sort of person the Colonel was, or what their marriage was like, but Keane immediately begins building a case that Mrs. Paradine was the devoted, lovely wife who sacrificed herself to her husband’s many needs.

The film’s pre-trial build-up is perfect. Two separate domestic scenes illustrate the decline of Keane’s marriage as his fascination with Mrs. Paradine deepens. In the first domestic scene, Keane comes home late at night, and he’s met by his lovely devoted wife who fusses him into bed with wifely attentions. But their relationship deteriorates rapidly once he takes the case, and the next domestic scene between the Keanes is evidence of the toll the case has taken on their marriage. The film touches on the idea of class. Keane moves in affluent society, but there are hints that his life has not always been like this. Mrs. Paradine is a newcomer to the upper classes, and this fact rears its head at several points during the film–especially when she’s questioned regarding her husband’s loyal valet Andre (Louis Jourdan).

One of Keane’s greatest flaws, apparently, is to get too emotional during a trial. This is his Achilles’ Heel, and perhaps the explanation for this can be found in the fact that Keane is essentially an idealist. The sagacious Paradine family solicitor Simon Flaquer (Charles Coburn) hopes that Keane won’t have to argue his case in front of the cantankerous but formidable Judge Horfield (Charles Laughton)–a man who dominates his timid wife (Ethel Barrymore) with nasty comments about the female sex and who casts his lascivious eyes on Keane’s sadly neglected and under appreciated wife. The drama between these strong characters–Mrs. Paradine, Edward and Gay Keane, Judge Horfield, and Simon Flaquer (splendid performances by all) plays out against the question of Mrs. Paradine’s guilt. If she did indeed murder her elderly frail husband, then she is capable of a monstrous act, and as Keane becomes increasingly involved in the case, he leaves his good sense and judgment behind while struggling in the vortex of his passion.

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The Lady Vanishes (1938)

“We’re not in England now.”

In an overcrowded inn in the Alps, a motley assortment of travelers gather waiting for the next train. There’s a sweet elderly governess, Miss Froy (May Whity), a young girl, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) who’s returning to England to get married, 2 bored Englishmen, an adulterous couple, and a free-spirited young musician Gilbert Redman (Michael Redgrave). The travelers board the train, and Iris strikes up a friendship with Miss Froy. However, when Iris wakes from a short nap, Miss Froy has disappeared, but fellow passengers deny that Miss Froy even existed. Stuck on the fast-moving train with no one who believes her story about the missing governess, Iris insists that something has happened to Miss Froy. With everyone implying that Iris hallucinated or dreamt the existence of Miss Froy, Iris turns to Redman for help.

The Lady Vanishes is a splendid classic Hitchcock film. It begins with the bucolic simplicity of the inn and then the film’s focus gradually shifts to the sinister realization that Iris is surrounded by people she can’t trust. The film’s sinister atmosphere is heightened by the atmospheric, desperate train journey. The film includes some of Hitchcock’s favourite themes: the ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances and the reliability of the visual. The inexpensive Delta DVD is decent quality and a fair print for its time. Extras include an introduction by Tony Curtis and some additional footage.

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