Archive for August 26, 2009

The Lost Continent

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2009 by dcairns

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Featuring Ingrid Bergman as the continent of Australia!

Australia doesn’t seem to have been much of a box office draw, not until the native industry really got on its feet in the ’70s. Anything that happened in the outback would be more pleasing if it happened in the Wild West, seems to have been the attitude of audiences. So Ealing’s THE OVERLANDERS was a costly flop (see comments, below, for a correction here) , and when Michael Powell had a hit in the ’60s with THEY’RE A WEIRD MOB, it just seemed to confirm the suspicions of British producers that his career was on the skids.

UNDER CAPRICORN, Hitchcock’s only down-under movie (although THE BIRDS gets Aussie points for featuring Antipodean icon Rod Taylor) is also one of his two Irish-themed films, following distantly on from JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK. We can’t be sure if the Irish connection was an attraction or a handicap, since Hitch kept his ancestry pretty secret until after his death. (I can only assume biographer Patrick McGilligan was delighted to uncover the facts.)

Of course, nobody’s Irish or Australian in the film — Michael Wilding and Joseph Cotten make improbable Irishmen, and Ingrid Bergman is a hilarious bit of casting, although unlike them she does actually try to put on an accent, for her first couple of scenes. After that, on the assumption that everybody will have stopped listening anyway, she quietly drops it and goes full Swede.

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For this, Hitchcock’s first British shoot since JAMAICA INN, he enlisted Scottish playwright James Bridie (The Anatomist), which he later came to regret — Bridie’s third acts were never much good. And, like so many previous British Hitchcocks, UNDER CAPRICORN lacks a clear POV character to focus Hitch’s subjective effects. The romantic triangle (a regular Hitch obsession, best handled so far in NOTORIOUS) causes us to leap around, starting from Michael Wilding’s perspective — but Wilding is too diffident a player, and his character too lightly invested in the story, even as he falls in love, to hold the centre — then switching around between Cotten — seriously grumpy and taciturn, with no theatrical exaggeration to colour the gloom — and Bergman — whose story is magnificently dramatic once it actually kicks in, which is late in the day indeed.

Hitch’s long takes seem to bring out my long sentences, don’t they?

Apart from the long takes, a hangover from ROPE which the director came to consider a serious blunder in this movie (the fluidity emphasizing that this isn’t a thriller: though that might have been useful clarification for the audience), the main stylistic factors of note are the artificial, studio-bound 19th century Australia (it was interesting to see this after the location-work of Bill Douglas’s COMRADES) and the photography of Jack Cardiff, which adds a romanticism which ROPE, Hitch’s only previous Technicolor production, had not required (although that miniature ’40s skyline had an allure of its own). David Wingrove, meeting for a milkshake and handing over a stack of rare Jacques Demy DVDs, suggested that Ingrid’s entrance, barefoot and distracted, was almost worthy of Tennessee Williams.

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Oh, actually, Richard Addinsell’s music is very nice, lightly Celtic and lushly romantic and melancholy. A shame he never worked with Hitchcock again — in fact, he rarely seems to have had a repeat engagement with any director, despite working for Lean, Reed, Powell, Olivier, Jennings, Roy Ward Baker…

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Ah, that head! Havings shunned the suspenser for an hour, UC abruptly nosedives into horror movie terrain, with Margaret Leighton as a down-under Mrs Danvers. This is the second-scariest severed head on a pillow in cinema (the scariest, of course, being Arthur Lowe in THEATRE OF BLOOD, which freaked me out for months.) Leighton’s plot to drive Ingrid to alcoholism (a considerably more practical scheme than driving someone to madness, though perhaps not the way she goes about it) is pure GASLIGHT, reminding me I need to run the Thorold Dickinson version.

Remarkable how the film really shakes itself awake once Hitchcock has a clear POV character, a conspiracy, suspense, horror, a woman in peril, and lots of sharply-cut close-up. Well, maybe not “remarkable” — what’s the word I want? Oh yes — natural. But in essence, the most pleasing aspect of the film is the same as its most glaring flaw — it doesn’t know what it is. So it’s somewhat unpredictable and strange. Hitchcock may be ill at ease in period garb, and his attempts to get humour into the story may backfire (the blustering Cecil Parker, always good value, ends up as part of the third act menace, which robs the drama of force), but as curate’s eggs go, the film has a lot more going for it than, say, WALTZES FROM VIENNA.