The Heart of the Matter
Dan Callahan on Under Capricorn

A cut in a film is like a paragraph break in a novel. It gives the eye a rest and allows the author/auteur to make a switch of locale or point of view. Simply keeping the audience’s attention also factors in the use of short scenes; long takes in films have never been fashionable. Alfred Hitchcock used lengthy shots to heighten the theatricality of his tense, experimental Rope, and he employed longer takes again to lesser effect in another filmed play, Dial M for Murder. In between those movies, for 1949’s still generally maligned Under Capricorn, Hitchcock used long takes not to give the impression of live theater but to burrow deeper into character psychology. Like all Hitchcock films, it shifts point of view complexly, so that you feel the collisions of sensibility similar to those that run through the novels of Zola, Stendhal, and Henry James.

Under Capricorn is still viewed by many as a failure, not least by its participants (one of its stars, Joseph Cotten, dubbed it “Under Crapicorn”). But it has received the serious critical attention of Hitchcock specialists, from Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol to Robin Wood, all of whom call the film a masterpiece. It was a commercial disappointment for obvious reasons: it was not a thriller, it was a costume piece, and it was talky. But the biggest reason for its failure (then and today) is also its triumph—the use of takes that typically last from five to eight minutes. Capricorn is unlike any other Hitchcock film in the relative freedom it gives the audience to decide what to look at and what to respond to, which is why it always seems to change slightly after every viewing. Hitchcock made the film for his star, Ingrid Bergman, and he was never more alert to a performer, letting her dictate where his camera will go. There are no Hitchcockian storyboards here, only the cinema’s greatest glory: the symbiosis of a director and a performer, lubricated by enormous amounts of sublimated sex.

For the first forty-five minutes or so, Irish black sheep Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) is our identification figure, and presumably the director’s surrogate. Charles is a dandified dilettante, constantly smirking at the awkward social climate of Australia, where he’s come to visit his cousin, the Governor. Charles is also a voyeur, blithely staring into the windows of the ominous house of former convict Sam Flusky (Cotten), then enjoying an awful dinner party that is interrupted by the appearance of Sam’s barefoot, drunken wife, fallen Irish aristocrat Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman). Slowly, Charles is drawn into Sam and Henrietta’s sadomasochistic relationship, which seems to revolve around unspecified mutual sacrifice and is exacerbated by a vicious, hypocritical but somehow sympathetic servant (a virtuosic Margaret Leighton).

There are half-hearted signals that Charles is supposed to be falling in love with Henrietta, but his rehabilitation of her plays more like a gay dress-up fantasy; when he kisses her at one point, he could be kissing a mirror. Charles doesn’t want her, he wants to be her. (This earlier re-making of a woman couldn’t be more different from the harrowed re-creation of the dead Madeleine in Vertigo). Charles’s rather weak but amusing point of view is summarily abandoned an hour and 17 minutes into the movie for Bergman’s superb confessional, a single shot that lasts eight minutes and 47 seconds without a cut.

There is not a long take in cinema that is more emotionally complex than this, and its quality has as much to do with Bergman as a performer as it does with Hitchcock’s direction. He’s working very closely with her, and together they create a sequence that is frequently transporting in its intense evocation of past events. Though Bergman was unhappy with the long take methods during the shoot, in her autobiography she admitted that “some of those damned long scenes work out very well.” About the eight minute-plus confession she wrote, “I must admit, much better than being cut up and edited.”

Sam has humiliated his wife at a Governor’s ball, and Henrietta begins the take seated, angrily shouting about her husband’s bad manners, with Charles’s shoulder visible to the right of the frame (he is just an audience now, as we are). She goes out of focus for a moment, and Charles turns to face the camera, telling her she should go back to Ireland. We return to Henrietta, who starts to list the wrongs she has done to her husband, how she shouldn’t have married him, how she gave him no children....the confession has begun. “Why should he not hate me?” she asks, all her self-loathing emptying out her face. She crosses past Charles, who has taken a seat, and begins to talk about how she is a part of Sam. Her eyes retreat into the past, and it is clear that Bergman is seeing and creating specific things: Sam’s face, his hands, the horses they rode, the large home of her youth, and, most potently, the early promise of sex. “We used to ride for miles and miles,” she says, closing her eyes, savoring the memory.

Henrietta turns her back to the camera, and her left hand rises delicately, signaling how stable hand Sam always used to ride behind her (just as Charles is behind her now). She laughs a little with pleasure, remembering how she shivered with delight knowing how much Sam wanted her. It’s clear that her power over Sam socially and sexually acted as a aphrodisiac (on-screen and off-, Ingrid Bergman tacitly endorses giving in to temptation, whether she’s drinking and sleeping around in Notorious or giving up her Hollywood career to have a child out of wedlock with Roberto Rosselini.) Richard Addisell’s plaintive love theme comes on the soundtrack, with just a single violin to point up Bergman’s voluptuous auto-eroticism. She describes sitting on heather with Sam, looking at Galway Bay, her arms going up to create the Bay and the ocean beyond, the endless fluids, the sex of it all.

Henrietta lightly caresses the back of a wooden chair, her healthy sensuality awakening finally from its blocked slumber. She circles back to Charles, looks him in the eye and says, “Dear Sam, then I’ll save you.” Charles couldn’t be more different than Sam, which underlines the fact that Henrietta simply wants a man’s attention, and any man will do. If she can’t have a real man watching her, Bergman can conjure one up out of thin air. It doesn’t matter if it’s Cotten, Wilding, Hitchcock....someone in the audience... Rossellini: her masterful and highly erotic emotional striptease is for everyone.

Henrietta describes their elopement, staring straight ahead, closing her eyes and thrilling to uninhibited sexual abandonment, sinking into a chair and sighing, “And oh, but I was weary,” making the word “weary” quite clearly mean “horny,” and miming her eventual satisfaction, shaking her head slightly to denote the amazing fucking that went on. (Who is Bergman thinking of? My guess is Gary Cooper). Henrietta stares at Charles again, bringing him into bed with them, making him Sam, including him generously. Then she turns her head, and her voice hardens when she reveals that her brother interrupted their bliss, certain that Henrietta’s honor had been stained by consorting with a mere stable hand (Hitchcock’s attention to class is always acute). Bergman shows that she loathes her brother with just an averted profile and by taking all the music out of her throaty Swedish voice. When she admits that she shot her brother, the camera moves in for a close-up as she looks down, seeing the corpse. Her bosom heaves while excitement and remorse mingle unashamedly in her eyes. She covers half of her face with her hand to show her shame, then touches her mouth and her neck, a sensual woman comforting herself. When she tells the worst part of her story, how Sam took the blame for her murder, Bergman’s face grows severe, almost ugly. She turns, covers her face and weeps near two candles on a fireplace, the symbol of her debasing love for her husband.

She speaks of her long illness, how Sam told her not to confess in letters from prison, and how she went to Australia to be with him. “How did you live, all those years?” Charles asks, as she sits. She stares at him, her eyes shifty with disgust. “What does that matter now?” she asks. With that one look and one line, Bergman hints at all kinds of unspeakable things, prostitution the least of them. The horror overwhelms her as she describes the little hut she lived in, the awful smells. She leans back in her chair, and Addinsell’s music becomes ominous. “The drunken, screaming women!” she cries, bringing her hand to her forehead.

This is Bergman’s boldest stroke: she takes an old-fashioned theatrical mannerism and re-invigorates it by stuffing it with raw, uncomfortable, modern suffering. The hand becomes a fist (her strength), then glides down her neck (the pleasures of sex, alcohol). “All that misery became me,” she insists. She’s almost reached the height of the scene, the catharsis. Paradoxically, it involves her going as low as possible. “Even now I sometimes long to go down, down, down to where I can go no further!” she shouts, her voice choked and broken. Her head is bowed all the way to the floor, and Charles pulls her back up into an embrace. The confession is finished and Henrietta is free. Later, when she finally confesses her guilt to the Governor, she says, “Oh, God, the relief, the blessed, heavenly relief!”

In this astonishing shot, which captures a world-class actress at the peak of her inventiveness, Hitchcock the carnal Catholic demonstrates that the only way to be free of Dostoyevskian devils is to look everything straight in the eye, to pay close attention for as long as it takes to let guilt go. The point where Hitchcock and Bergman match up most splendidly as artists is on the necessary issue of guilt, its causes, its spasms of pleasure, and the way it can be burned away. Hitchcock also understands the real thinking behind a narcissist like Henrietta and her need for an audience: “Don’t forget me,” is her last line to Charles, as he sails away back to Ireland. She wants to be known, heard, seen, fucked....looked at. In Under Capricorn, Hitchcock gave up the tyrannical constraints of montage and embraced the long-form concentration of the 19th-century novel. His achievement, still rejected by audiences who refuse to learn how to look at a film and how to feel it in the duration of its shots and the rhythm of its cuts, proves the value of long, patient takes better than any other movie I know.