Blu-ray Review: Under Capricorn

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: June 19, 2018

Region: Region A

Length: 01:57:14

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 16-bit)

Subtitles: English

Ratio: 1.33:1

Bitrate: 35.93 Mbps

Notes: This title was previously given a bare bones DVD release.

Title

Under Capricorn was made for Ingrid Bergman… but if I’d been thinking clearly, I’d never have tackled a costume picture. You’ll notice I’ve never done any since that time. Besides, there wasn’t enough humor in the film. If I were to make another picture in Australia today, I’d have a policeman hop into the pocket of a kangaroo and yell, ‘Follow that car!’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Many scholars have pontificated as to why Hitchcock chose to adapt Helen Simpson’s Under Capricorn as what was originally intended to be the première Transatlantic Films production. The major studios had all wisely passed on optioning the property. In fact, they had also passed on the other properties purchased by Sidney Bernstein and Alfred Hitchcock for Transatlantic. Under Capricorn, Rope, Stage Fright, and I Confess were all considered inappropriate material in which to build a suitable film script. Few if any of these historians seem to have given any consideration to the possibility that these “passed over” properties may have been the only ones that the budding production company could afford. It is doubtful that they would be able to outbid the major studios on more promising subjects (although Rope and I Confess are both incredibly underrated). This is only conjecture but it seems a reasonable possibility and one wishes that this avenue could be explored in more depth.

Alfred Hitchcock always claimed that he chose the property because he felt that Ingrid Bergman would respond to the material and that he was so absorbed with signing the actress to a film that this became his only consideration.

“I had no special admiration for the novel, and I don’t think I would have made the picture if it hadn’t been for Ingrid Bergman. At that time, she was the biggest star in America and all the American producers were competing for her services, and I must admit that I made the mistake of thinking that to get Bergman would be a tremendous feat; it was a victory over the rest of the industry, you see. That was bad thinking, and my behavior was almost infantile. Because even if the presence of Bergman represented a commercial asset, it made the whole thing so costly that there was no point to it. Had I examined the whole thing more carefully from the commercial angle, I would not have spent two and a half million dollars on the picture. At the time, that was a lot of money, you see… Anyway, I looked upon Bergman as a feather in my cap. We were making it with our own production company, and all I could think about was, ‘Here I am, Hitchcock, the onetime English director, returning to London with the biggest star of the day.’ I was literally intoxicated by the thought of the cameras and flashbulbs that would be directed at Bergman and myself at the London airport. All of these externals seemed to be terribly important. I can only say now that I was being stupid and juvenile.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

This makes sense when one considers that the director was enjoying his first taste of freedom after being emancipated from the shackles of his contract with David O. Selznick. It was more important for the director to distinguish himself as a producer than to satisfy his own creative interests (at least when it came to his material). Under Capricorn was to be a star vehicle to rival those that Selznick was so fond of producing, and the fact that Bergman had already refused to sign another contract with Selznick would have made this victory even sweeter.

Ingrid Bergman in a Publicity Still for 'Under Capricorn'

Publicity Still of Ingrid Bergman: “The film was done more or less for the benefit of Ingrid Bergman. That was a case of trying to find a subject to suit the star, which I don’t believe in. So, it was really a compromise…” –Alfred Hitchcock (John Player Lecture, March 27, 1967)

 WRITING THE SCRIPT

Unfortunately, Selznick had been able to procure prestigious properties and Hitchcock was stuck with a rather tedious novel that borrowed heavily from much better pieces of literature. Hitchcock’s film is thankfully much different than the convoluted mess that Simpson originally concocted. Her story is divided into three sections, and Hitchcock’s film only follows the first of these before providing a more coherent denouement. His final act has been criticized for being rather weak, but it must be said that reading the original novel gives one new respect for Hitchcock’s conclusion.

As mentioned, the film follows the first section of Simpson’s text rather faithfully, but the stories diverge at the Governor’s ball (which is a St. Patrick’s Day dance in the novel). This dance begins the second section of Smith’s novel, and it is at this point when her story becomes much more convoluted and tangential. Constantine Verevis gives a more detailed comparison between the film and the novel in an essay entitled, “Under a Distemperate Star” (although she takes a more appreciative view of the original novel than it really deserves). Her account of the rest of the book is a concise and more enjoyable way of comparing these two very different stories than actually having to read the book:

“The beginning of [section] two takes up the story—some three months after Adare’s arrival—on the occasion of the St. Patrick’s Day dance, the event Adare chooses to present the restored Lady Henrietta to social life… The Irish dance becomes the point of Hitchcock’s departure, setting up Henrietta’s emergence at the ball (as Adare’s first artistic creation) as the occasion of Flusky’s public reclamation of his wife. This event provokes—in the celebrated 9.5 minute sequence shot—Henrietta’s confession to Adare that it was she (not Flusky) who killed Dermont [James in the novel] in self-defense and sets up a number of confrontations that lead ultimately to the restoration of the married couple, Flusky and Henrietta. In order to effect this, Hitchcock excises from the novel Adare’s encounter at the dance with a young working-class woman much nearer his age—the locally born Susan Quaife—to whom he takes an immediate liking…

…Adare proceeds to court Susan, visiting her at her father’s barbershop on George Street. Around the same time, Adare enlists the help of ‘Ketch,’ the aboriginal leader introduced (none too sympathetically) following Adare’s first dinner with Flusky, to embark upon a treacherous journey north to Port Macquarie and then inland to unknown territory in search of gold. Milly has spread vile rumors that Adare and Henrietta are lovers, and Flusky (mildly suspicious of Adare) is quick to agree to fund the expedition. Convinced that Flusky has effectively delivered Adare (in repetition of her brother’s fate) to his death, Henrietta becomes despondent and turns to drink.

[Section] three thus begins with Henrietta again fighting her demons. Five months have passed with no word of Adare. Milly returns to assume control of the household, and this time it is Winter, the gentleman servant, who challenges Milly’s authority. Winter is soon expelled (given his ticket back to convict prison), but before leaving he passes to Henrietta a message left by Adare prior to his departure. The letter asks Henrietta to look up Susan Quaife, and upon doing so she invites Susan for an extended stay at the Flusky mansion, where Henrietta proceeds to groom the illiterate colonial girl in manner and appearance. Around the same time, Flusky is told that Adare has been found close to death but that he is recovering and is expected back in Sidney in December. After some weeks, Adare returns, declaring his love for Susan and [his] desire to stay and work honestly in the colony. This along with Susan’s exposure of Milly’s attempt to usurp Henrietta’s place, conclusively disrupts the romantic triangles and paves the way for a restored relationship between Henrietta and Flusky…

…Simpson does this by substituting the character of Susan Quaife for that of Charles Adare, whose search for gold happens entirely off-stage. Upon relocating to Minyago Yugilla, Susan not only proves herself an able match for the wily Milly, but also comes to function as a surrogate daughter to the childless Henrietta. Adare returns from the expedition matured by his experience on the land… [And] at this point, [he] asks for Susan’s hand in marriage and declares his dedication to the new continent. Simpson sets up the working-class Susan and the nobleman Adare as a parallel (cross-class) couple to Henrietta and Flusky, the latter stating (in anticipation of the young folks’ union), ‘It would be like us, only t’other way round,’ to which Henrietta replies: ‘With a better chance. Better hope. Both free.’” –Constantine Verevis (Under a Distemperate Star, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Although, it goes without saying that Under Capricorn isn’t amongst Hitchcock’s best work, it is impossible not to admire how he transformed this convoluted mess into something that resembles a reasonably coherent narrative—although he may have been aided by an earlier dramatization (most likely written for the stage but never produced) by John Colton and Margaret Linden. Their play had also seen fit to jettison some of the book’s later subplots but also confined the action to the Flusky mansion. Having never seen or read this adaptation, it is best not to make any assumptions as to any similarities between it and the film version.

In any case, one completely loses interest after the first section of Simpson’s meandering novel, but Hitchcock and his writers were able to trade this nonsense for a resolution that examines some of Hitchcock’s pet themes regarding an innocent carrying the burden of a wrong that isn’t their own. It comes as no surprise that the French critics loved it! Unfortunately, the film’s pacing is constricted by the kind of long monologues that plague so many of the era’s costume dramas. The director was never able to find an appropriate writer and settled on inappropriate collaborators.

“My second mistake was to ask my friend Hume Cronyn to do the script with me; I wanted him because he’s a very articulate man who knows how to voice his ideas. But as a scriptwriter, he hadn’t really sufficient experience. Still another error was calling on James Bridie to help with the scenario. He was a semi-intellectual playwright and not in my opinion a very thorough craftsman. On thinking it over later on, I realized that he always had very good first and second acts, but he never succeeded in ending his plays. I still remember one of our working sessions on the script. The man and wife had separated after a series of terrible quarrels, and I asked Bridie, ‘How are we going to bring them together again?’ He said, ‘Oh, let them just apologize to each other and say, ‘I’m sorry, it was all a mistake.’” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Hume Cronyn cited Hitchcock’s obsession with the film’s visual design as the source of the weaknesses inherent in the script:

“…I learned a lot from him and I have enormous admiration for him. He put together Under Capricorn image by image, and with all due respect, I think this method sometimes led him astray. He became so fascinated by these images that sometimes the direct line of the narrative would get lost or be bent, or there would be an awkwardness telling the story. He had of course been very revolutionary in the way he approached Rope, and it had been written to be shot in tremendously long takes. But when he came to his next film, it was to cover the vast panorama of colonial life in Australia. The difference in the quality of the two stories was the difference between a miniature and an enormous landscape. Yet, he decided to use the same approach, and I feel that was a mistake and got him into trouble.” –Hume Cronyn (as quoted in ‘The Art of Alfred Hitchcock,’ 1976)

This tendency to blame Hitchcock’s visual approach for the film’s failure is ridiculous, but there were certainly issues that should and could have been addressed and the director was well aware of them when the team was working on the script.

“In the year following Rope, Hitch asked me to do another treatment, this one based on Helen Simpson’s novel Under Capricorn… I went to London with Hitch to work on Capricorn. We would meet for our story conferences at Sidney Bernstein’s offices in Golden Square. From the beginning, the work was fraught with problems. On one particular morning, with Hitch at the end of the table and Sidney and I on the either side of him, Hitch suddenly reared back in his chair, scowling like an angry baby, and announced, ‘This film is going to be a flop. I’m going to lunch.’ And he stalked out of the room, pouting. I was appalled; Sidney was immediately solicitous. ‘Now, Hume, don’t be upset. You know Hitch: he’ll have a good lunch, come back, and everything will be serene.’ It was true; I’d seen Hitch suffer these tantrums before. He never had them on the set; by the time we got there, the whole film was already shot in his head, down to every cut and camera angle… But during a film’s preparation, he could become very mercurial; his emotional thermometer would soar to over a hundred degrees in enthusiasm, only to plunge below freezing in despair. We were alike in that, and I should have been more philosophical about the morning’s upset. The trouble was that in this particular instance I had the awful, nagging suspicion that Hitch’s premonition was accurate.” -Hume Cronyn (his memoirs as quoted in ‘Hitchcock’s Notebooks,’ 1999)

Interestingly, the director originally tried to engage Bridie to write the script to Under Capricorn after finishing his work on The Paradine Case (a Selznick production that has its own script issues) and turned the project down.

“I don’t mind helping to turn The Paradine Case from a bad book into a good film, but it is another story when the book is a good book but based on a philosophy that means nothing to me. If you get the right script writer, Under Capricorn ought to be really memorable. But it is not up my street.” –James Bridie (as quoted in ‘Alfred Hitchcock: A Light in Darkness and Light,’ 2003)

How anyone could judge Simpson’s novel as anything better than mediocre is a mystery, but perhaps this isn’t important since he later relented and agreed to work on the project.

THE PRODUCTION

The script wasn’t the only aspect of the film’s production that gave Hitchcock headaches and the director felt that the film’s casting compromised the film’s verisimilitude.

Under Capricorn was again the lady-and-groom story. Henrietta fell in love with the groom, and when Joseph Cotton was shipped to Australia as a convict, she followed him there. The main element is that she degraded herself for the sake of her love. Cotton wasn’t the right type; Burt Lancaster would have been better.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

This statement about the inappropriateness of Joseph Cotton in the role of Flusky isn’t merely the lamentations of a disappointed filmmaker who suddenly becomes aware of something after the fact. During the film’s pre-production, Hitchcock actively sought Burt Lancaster, but the actor required too much money and had other obligations. The production couldn’t be pushed back, and Bergman’s salary had already taken a considerable chunk out of the budget. He would have to find someone else, and that someone ended up being Joseph Cotton.

Joseph Cotten VS. Burt Lancaster

Hitchcock had originally sought Burt Lancaster for the role of Sam Flusky as he believed Cotton too distinguished and charming to portray an ex-stable hand.

One can understand why audiences may have been unable to accept Cotton as an uneducated, manure smelling, brutish groom—but this isn’t such a problem for modern audiences. Frankly, Cotton’s portrayal frees the character from the sort of stereotypical trappings of such characters. Is it outside the realm of possibility that a poor stable-hand might also be intelligent and charming? In any case, this has never been one of the more troubling aspects of Under Capricorn. After all, it is rare to hear anyone complain about Ingrid Bergman’s accent as Lady Henrietta Flusky which isn’t convincingly Irish—a fact that wasn’t lost on the actress. Her inability to give her character a proper Irish brogue plagued Bergman throughout the film’s production and exacerbated an already stressful situation.

Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed a warm friendship that lasted their entire lives, but the production of Under Capricorn put a strain on their relationship. Bergman blamed the contention on various stresses created by the director’s long mobile takes, an approach he carried over from Rope. A series of letters to Ruth Roberts gives one an intimate glimpse into the troubled production. The first and lengthiest of these letters is dated August 06, 1948:

“…Oh dear! This is my seventh week waiting. [Under Capricorn] started O.K. [on] the 19th, but with Hitch’s ten-minute takes they were behind one week after one day’s shooting. The technicians here have very little or no experience—and they don’t seem to care. I have been waiting and waiting, but every day it is the same: ‘We didn’t get the shot today, but for sure we’ll have it tomorrow morning.’ Finally after four days I was told [that] Hitch had abandoned the shot and would start with my entrance. I was so happy. [We] rehearsed and at two o’clock the same day had the first take. During the second take all the lights went out, the electricians walked down the ladders and left. Strike! All afternoon we waited for them to finish their meeting, but they never came back. This morning I was up at six; at nine I was told they had not come back yet: ‘Just relax in your dressing room!’ I am outraged but the others seem to take it relaxed. Nothing new. After the war they always have a couple of strikes. The reason for the strike was that two men were fired because of bad work and coming late to work several times.

Hitch is trying to find an entirely new electricians’ crew. Until then, we’ll have no peace. This is their second walkout. The camera crew and sound crew are nice, but it is a hostile feeling on the set that just kills you. People hardly look or speak to you. When I had the first test, the crew were whistling and making funny remarks. I was stunned because you know how very good people have always been. Don’t think everybody is bad but you know if it is just a few they color the whole set. The script is interesting now [and] we’ve got a pretty good end but Hitch’s new technique I don’t like. I have had no experience with it yet, for my first entrance was just a normal shot. But I have watched him with the others. It is so frightening for actors and crew. If the least bit goes wrong, you know … I think Hitch and I will have some arguments. He wanted to shoot a whole roll of film, the camera following me everywhere and the sets and furniture being pulled away. It meant we had to rehearse a whole day without shooting and then shoot the scenes the following day. It made everybody nervous but he insisted. We already had one little argument about my entrance and I got my way. I know I always can with him, but I dislike the argument… To top the rest of the mishaps I have a slow hairdresser. I have to be here at seven thirty. Makeup is very fast—hardly any—and very grey: no lipstick, no ice-towels, and the rest of Jack Pierce’s fun. All the time is for hair, so already at nine a.m. I am sore, not only my behind… Look what a long letter the strike will give you. It is now eleven thirty. No move in any direction…” –Ingrid Bergman (My Story, Apr 01, 1983)

The long takes that she mentions in this letter did create a few problems—some of which were not an issue during the production of Rope. However, any objective analysis of these troubles will reveal that most were beyond Alfred Hitchcock’s control. Could he be blamed for the various strikes that halted production (or the time lost when Michael Wilding took ill with pleurisy)? Absolutely not.

However, the long takes did create many logistical problems that took a lot of ingenuity to solve. Jack Cardiff would often discuss his work on the film, and his memories weren’t happy ones.

“I had been much more involved than usual in the production planning. Usually, I tried to dream up ideas for dramatic lighting, but on Capricorn, I had for the most part to work out how on earth I could possibly light so many sets at once! I worked more closely with the director than usual… Practically all of Hitchcock’s dramatic ideas were visual. If a cameraman is supposed to ‘paint with light,’ Hitchcock painted with a moving camera…

…We would rehearse one whole day and shoot the next day. Good recorded sound was impossible: the noise was indescribable. The electric crane lumbered through sets like a tank at Sebastopol, whole walls cracked open, furniture was whisked away by panting prop men and then frantically replaced in position as the crane made a return trip. The sound department did exceptionally well just to get a ‘guide track.’ … When we had made a successful ten minute take, everyone had to leave the studio except the sound people, Hitch, the script girl, and the cast, who would then go through the motions with dialogue without the camera. Amazingly, by sliding the sound tape backward and forward, it all came together.” –Jack Cardiff (as quoted in ‘Hitchcock’s Notebooks.’ 1999)

This strategy took the cooperation and agility of everyone on the set and this included the actors.

“…Required to light as many as six sets for a single take, English cinematographer Jack Cardiff attached lights to cranes, dollies, boom mikes and even crew members to make them mobile enough to light a shot and then get out of the way of the cumbersome crane as it followed the actors to another part of the set. ‘It was a fantastic sight,’ he wrote in an article for American Cinematographer, ‘to see a lamp silently glide in through a window, or even in through a hole in the wall, twist and tilt and pan in several directions, then just as mysteriously disappear again.’

…The Regency table that production designer Tom Morrahan built for Under Capricorn [were] cut into fourteen sections. It came apart to permit the camera to pass through. ‘The actors often helped,’ Cardiff writes, ‘and as the camera approached them seated nonchalantly enough, it looked positively weird to see them suddenly grab a section of the table, with a candle or plate of food fixed on it, and fall wildly out of picture … with their own parts of the table clutched in their hands.’ Mattresses were placed strategically behind the actors to catch them when they toppled backwards.

A bed was made for Ingrid Bergman that could be made to tilt up at a 45-degree angle, permitting the camera to shoot ‘down’ at the actress. Despite the contortions this setup imposed, Bergman succeeded in conveying so many conflicting emotions in one shot where, lying in bed, she realizes she is being systematically driven mad by a jealous servant, that Eric Rohmer wrote he would give all of Stromboli (1950), her first film with Roberto Rossellini, for that shot, if cinema were ‘only’ the art of plumbing the depths of the human soul.” –Bill Krohn (Hitchcock at Work, 2000)

Needless to say, this kind of chaos can be a great handicap for actors trying to lose themselves in their role, and this eventually all became too much for Bergman and led to an infamous outburst which was discussed intimately in another letter written to Ruth Roberts towards the end of August, 1948:

Under Capricorn is half finished. The other day I burst. The camera was supposed to follow me around for eleven whole minutes—which meant we had to rehearse a whole day with the walls or furniture falling backwards as the camera went through—and of course that couldn’t be done fast enough. So I told Hitch off. How I hate this new technique of his. How I suffer and loathe every moment on the set. My two leading men, Michael Wilding and Joe Cotton, just sat there and said nothing—but I know they agree with me—and I said enough for the whole cast. Little Hitch just left. Never said a word. Just went home… oh dear…” –Ingrid Bergman (My Story, Apr 01, 1983)

Years later, Hitchcock himself remembered this exchange in his famous interview with François Truffaut:

“Ingrid Bergman got angry with me because of those long shots. And, since I never lose my temper and I hate arguments, I walked out of the room while her back was turned to me. I went home, and later on someone called to inform me that she hadn’t noticed my departure and was still complaining twenty minutes after I’d gone.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

She would try again while having drinks with the director and her two male leads. Somehow the conversation shifted to the long takes and she began complaining about the approach once again. Unfortunately, she made the mistake of turning away and he took this opportunity to leave her company. “That’s the trouble with Hitch,” the actress lamented, “he won’t fight!” This was true. Hitchcock loathed conflict and felt that drama should be reserved for the screen.

Even so, it should be made clear that Hitchcock didn’t always ignore Bergman’s protests. When it was possible, he preferred to placate her by offering some sort of compromise that would allow him to have his way while seeming to bend to her will.

“…They were shooting a drunk scene on the stairs and Bergman could not, or would not keep her marks. ‘Why should she anyway?’ she asked. She was supposed to be drunk. Couldn’t they just let her act the scene the way she felt it and follow her? This time, Hitch decided on a little demonstration, so he agreed to shoot the scene her way if she would play it his, and leave the decision of which version to use up to her. Once she saw the rushes of their respective versions she was in no doubt that Hitch’s was better and generously admitted as much.” –John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Luckily, none of this had a lasting effect on their friendship, and Bergman would even admit that his approach had merit after seeing some of the footage. This admission first appeared in a follow-up letter:

“The picture is nearly finished. Some of those damned long scenes work out very well. In one nine-and-a-half-minute take, I talked all the time; the camera never left me and it worked fine. I must say much better than being cut up and edited.” –Ingrid Bergman (My Story, Apr 01, 1983)

This same sentiment would be repeated publicly in an essay written for the Toledo Blade that was published on August 27, 1949:

“…I know I put myself completely in [Hitchcock’s] hands. In the making of that picture Hitch was the boss—and, within the four walls of the sound stage, his word was law… Merely acting for ten minutes at a stretch is no problem to anyone with stage training, but doing a ten-minute tense emotional scene without a break for the screen is a different matter. Your positions and your movements must be correct to the fraction of an inch for camera focus. Walls and doors are constantly disappearing to make way for the camera as you move from room to room, Property men are crawling under foot removing obstacles in your path. And a Technicolor camera on a 30-foot crane is constantly pursuing you, coming in swiftly for a close-up and then sweeping away—all these make demands upon an actress that go far beyond the realms of mere acting. But a lot of people do exhausting work and are happy to do it because the results are gratifying. And that’s how it is with me. I have seen Under Capricorn and I know the experiment, if you care to call it that, has succeeded. Hitch sees, and commits to paper, every movement of the cast and camera six months before hand. He has the whole production in mind, from beginning to end, on the day the camera starts turning. And it is not only a general idea; it is the detailed development, with every camera angle and every movement, worked out to the last quarter.” –Ingrid Bergman (Ingrid Bergman Cables Story of Technique Used in Under Capricorn,’ Toledo Blade, August 27, 1949)

Joseph Cotton was more worried about weaknesses within the script and his dialogue. As a matter of fact, he referred to the project as “Under Crapricorn” or “Under Cornycrap” (depending on which version of the story you want to believe) within earshot of his director and James Bridie (who had come to the set to adjust some of Cotton’s dialogue). Of course, it is quite possible that this comment was born out of his insecurities as an actor (he was never able to handle an authentic Irish lilt) and personal issues that were not at all related to the production as he was going through quite a lot in his personal life. The lengthy takes only exacerbated these simmering issues.

The director himself may have privately cursed his sequence shots after having his toe crushed by the camera and the crane that held it. Perhaps this was a negative omen.

Alfred Hitchcock and the mamoth camera during the production of 'Under Capricorn.'

Alfred Hitchcock and the mammoth Technicolor camera used for the production of ‘Under Capricorn.’

RELEASE, RECEPTION, & LEGACY

Under Capricorn became the first British feature to have a world première at Radio City Music Hall on September 08, 1949 and had already accumulated $1,875,000 by this time on account of its world distribution rights. On September 17th, The Gloucestershire Echo reported that the film had already accumulated $2,000,000 but is unclear as to whether this amount includes the amount earned by selling these territorial rights (it is likely that it does). Either way, it seems that the film’s New York engagements were reasonably successful as the film played to “capacity audiences” for four weeks if newspaper reports can be believed. One assumes that the film was given a substantial boost due to the names of Alfred Hitchcock, Ingrid Bergman, and Joseph Cotton in the first week or two of release only to fall off in the following weeks. Whatever the case, Under Capricorn didn’t do enough business and was eventually repossessed by the bank that financed the project.

In The Alfred Hitchcock Story, Ken Mogg proposes that Ingrid Bergman’s presence in the film may have contributed to its eventual failure.

“…Then another setback occurred. The previous year, when Under Capricorn was being shot in England, Bergman had flown to Paris with her husband Petter Lindstrom to meet the Italian neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini. The meeting lasted two hours. There and then, Bergman agreed to appear in Rossellini’s next film, and joined him in Stromboli just before Under Capricorn was released. In fact, it was also a rendezvous of another kind. News of their affair and the scandal it caused spread quickly. Catholic organizations in America reacted by banning the Hitchcock film, and many cinema owners were sufficiently outraged to follow suit. Hitchcock blamed Rossellini for what had happened and always remained bitter towards him…” –Ken Mogg (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999)

This may have some merit. However, it seems likely that the film had probably already failed by this point (at least in America). It was March 14, 1950 when—at the height of the scandal—Senator Edwin C. Johnson denounced the actress on the floor of the Senate calling her a “powerful influence for evil” who had instigated a violent “assault on the institution of marriage.”

“Mr. President, now that the stupid film about a pregnant woman and a volcano has exploited America with the usual finesse, to the mutual delight of RKO and the debased Rossellini, are we merely to yawn wearily, greatly relieved that this hideous thing is finished and then forget it? I hope not. A way must be found to protect the people in the future against that sort of gyp!” –Edwin C. Johnson

Of course, the senator had an agenda as he was proposing a censorship bill based on the “moral compasses” of those who work on any particular film. Such a bill sounds like an excuse to take away the inalienable rights of those who do not think or believe the same as Mr. Johnson and others like him, but this neither here nor there. The point is that this was months after the film’s initial release and it is doubtful that it had any effect on the film’s box-office earnings. It may have been a factor in the bank’s decision to repossess the picture but this is merely conjecture.

Critics and audiences tend to excoriate films that don’t meet their expectations and have difficulty judging them on their own merits, so Under Capricorn never really stood much of a chance. Alfred Hitchcock often made mention of this in his interviews.

“[The French critics admired Under Capricorn] because they looked at it for what it was and not what people expected. Here you get a Hitchcock picture which is a costume-picture and not approached from a thriller or excitement point of view until towards the end. I remember some remark by a Hollywood critic who said, ‘We had to wait 105 minutes for the first thrill.’ They went in expecting something and didn’t get it. That was the main fault with that picture… Also I used a fluid camera—mistakenly perhaps because it intensified the fact that it wasn’t a thriller—it flowed too easily.” –Alfred Hitchcock (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

This is probably a reference to William Brogdon’s awkwardly composed review for Variety:

Under Capricorn is fortunate in having a number of exploitable angles that can be used to parlay sturdy initial grosses. On the long pull, though, box-office will be spotty. Ingrid Bergman’s name will be a potent help and there are Technicolor, Joseph Cotton, and Alfred Hitchcock as added lures to get ticket sales going, even though it doesn’t appear likely [that] momentum will be maintained in the general market.

It is overlong and talky, with scant measure of the Hitchcock thriller tricks that could have sharpened general reception. A moody melodrama, full of long speeches and obvious movement, it uses up one hour and fifty-six minutes in developing a story that would have had more impact had not Hitchcock dwelt so tediously on expanded single scenes. He gives it some air of expectancy, but this flavor eventually becomes buried in the slow resolution of tangled human relationships into a happy ending… Miss Bergman’s scenes have their own particular brand of thespian magic. On their own, they glow, but when combined with the other lengthy sequences, the effect is dulled…

…In an opening sequence, Hitchcock plants the fact that Australian aborigines shrink the heads of their victims. One hundred minutes later he uses a mummified head as the single shocker in the footage. It will cause a round of horrified gasps. In between, he is just as obvious in the development, resulting in a regrettable lack of the anticipated Hitchcock subtleties… Margaret Leighton does the housekeeper, an unrelieved heavy so obvious that the other characters should have seen through her…

…Photography is another example of Hitchcock’s bent for an extremely mobile camera, playing long scenes in one take, but the moving camera is not a substitute for the dramatic movement that would have come with crisper story-telling…” –William Brogdon (Variety, September 14, 1949)

Other critics shared his opinion and echoed his sentiments, and British critics followed suit. This review in The Times sums up the majority opinion:

“Miss Ingrid Bergman, Mr. Joseph Cotten, Mr. Michael Wilding, Miss Margaret Leighton, and, as director, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock — there is clearly a team here, if not of all the talents, at least of a considerable number of them; and the question is, are they going to play well together? The answer, in the end, must regretfully be that they do not… and only occasionally is Mr. Hitchcock’s cunning and dramatic hand visible in the direction. The colour, especially while the camera is indoors, is admirable, but Under Capricorn lasts far too long and has far too many loose ends.” –The Times (Mr. Hitchcock’s New Film, October 05, 1949)

Many critics enjoyed the film but qualified their praise by pointing out that the material wasn’t up to the director’s usual standards. Usually, these reviews credited Hitchcock and his all-star troupe of actors for elevating the material. This review published in Harrison’s Reports is a case in point:

“Lavishly produced and photographed in Technicolor, this period melodrama with psychological overtones is an impressive entertainment of its kind. The story… is not unusual, nor are the characters, with the exception of the heroine, particularly sympathetic. Yet the acting of the entire cast is so competent that one’s interest is held well. Ingrid Bergman, as the wretched dipsomaniac who is victimized by a murderous housekeeper in love with her husband, comes through with another striking performance. The story is not without its weak points, particularly in that much of the footage is given more to talk than to movement, but Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial skill manages to overcome most of the script’s deficiencies by building up situations that thrill and hold the spectator in tense suspense…” –Harrison’s Reports (September 10, 1949)

Helen Smith wrote a similarly positive review for the Yorkshire Post:

“Mr. Alfred Hitchcock has exploited to the full the dramatic possibilities of Under Capricorn, Helen Simpson’s romantic story of Australia in 1831… He is ably supported by a brilliant cast… The probabilities in this melodramatic tale may not bear analysis, but the excellence of the acting and Alfred Hitchcock’s direction carry the film to a triumphant close…” –Helen Williams (New Film by Mr. Hitchcock, Yorkshire Post, October 07, 1949)

Of course, the French critics were enamored with the film and would eventually vote Under Capricorn into a list of the ten greatest films ever made in Cahiers du Cinéma. It’s hardly one of the ten greatest films ever made. Frankly, it isn’t even one of the ten greatest films in Hitchcock’s filmography. Unlike Vertigo, few Hitchcock scholars try to elevate the film’s reputation in the public consciousness. Books covering the director’s filmography tend to see it as a forgettable blemish on the face of the director’s career, and this is actually a pretty fair assertion. Unfortunately, the scholars making these assertions don’t seem to have any real understanding as to why the film doesn’t measure up to his greatest work.

A perfect example of this appears in The Art of Alfred Hitchcock:

“…The impressive long takes that sometimes move from floor to floor, through lengthy corridors, and several rooms make this a sporadically beautiful movie, but the obsession for this technique also inspired lengthy monologues and dialogues that became perilously arid. Too often motionless, the camera seems indifferent, as if actors had to keep talking until the film ran out… This results in very talky motion picture-making without a prevalent viewpoint. The conversation simply isn’t engaging or suspenseful, and the lack of cutting short-circuits tension and necessary visual narrative rhythm.” –Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Spoto makes the mistake of assuming that the lengthy monologues were inserted to cater to the director’s lengthy takes, but they really only complicated them. If one will think back to The Paradine Case (which was also adapted by James Bridie and then given another polish by Selznick), they will recall that the film had a similar tendency of employing longwinded monologues and constant dialogue. This is a characteristic of Bridies writing. Unlike Rope, Hitchcock wasn’t trying to get through an entire roll of film without cutting. He simply employed this technique when it best suited the material.

Robert A. Harris and Michael S. Lasky similarly complained in their book about the film’s excessive dialogue but do not blame the sequence shot for this weakness:

“If [Under Capricorn] proved anything, it was that Hitchcock was literally making ‘talkies.’ Ostensibly [it] is a costume epic with a suspenseful side story. It was Hitchcock in a terrain in which he did not belong… The plot of the film was as uninspiring as [the] nearly two hours of dialogue.” –Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Patrick Humphries doesn’t elaborate on the film’s weaknesses, but he makes it clear that his opinion follows suit:

“At best Under Capricorn is an unholy cross between Jane Eyre and Rebecca, with the three witches from Macbeth thrown into the kitchen for good measure. At its worst, it is a turgid historical potboiler.” –Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

Stephen Whitty goes even further in his condemnation of the film:

“…The production design is cheap and unconvincing—the Flusky mansion a more-than-usually obvious matte painting, the waterfront and pier a cramped mock-up—and although Bergman is given a nice, dramatic entrance, there’s no standout sequence or memorable moment. It’s the sort of picture that Hitchcock always said he hated—pictures of people talking—and it marks the lowest point in a dull period of halfhearted efforts that stretched from The Paradine Case to Stage Fright.” –Stephen Whitty (The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia, 2016)

Surprisingly, Ken Mogg seemed to disagree in his analysis of the film and gives it his enthusiastic praise:

Under Capricorn is one of several Hitchcock films of the late 1940s and 1950s that pleased few people at the time, but now seem full of interest… The result is a moody, stylized film where people talk endlessly while their real points stay unspoken. A key line is given to Flusky, who complains about the unfeeling legal process, which goes ‘on and on and on.’ The line is significant because beyond all the legality—and the talk—lies hope of something else, a return to a lost paradise. Under Capricorn may be Hitchcock’s finest film to explore that theme… [It] is more than a key Hitchcock film: it is one of his most lovely pictures. Its fluid design suggests life itself, sometimes wasting, sometimes being savored.” –Ken Mogg (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999)

The truth—as is often the case—lies somewhere between these two extremes. Some films are neither brilliant nor terrible, but Under Capricorn was certainly a failure in the mind of its director, and Hitchcock’s tendency to adopt the prevailing critical opinion of his films has poisoned objective reevaluation.

FINAL ANALYSIS

“I made Under Capricorn because I wanted to apply the concepts of Rope to a different sort of story to see what that would yield.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Cahiers du Cinéma, February 1955)

Obviously, many scholars seem to believe that the failure of Under Capricorn was due to the fact that Hitchcock insisted on carrying over the sequence shots he utilized in Rope, and these people aren’t thinking past the semi-formed opinions of other critics that plagued newspapers and magazines in 1948 when the film was released. The fact is that his approach to Under Capricorn is fundamentally different than the technique used in Rope, because: a.) This film wasn’t shot to look as if it was shot in real time, b.) Under Capricorn includes traditional cutting in conjunction with sequence shots while Rope consists only of sequence shots, and c.) it doesn’t make any effort to camouflage the film’s edits.

In short, the technique used in Capricorn is a refinement of the experiment that he used for Rope. He is searching for the proper equilibrium between two opposing techniques and some of the director’s future work proves that he found it (even if it wasn’t perfected in this particular film). Hitchcock realized that there were flaws in his approach to Rope and is testing the sequence shot as an added tool to use in conjunction with other techniques. One can see a difference in his aesthetic before he made the two Transatlantic films and those that he made after them. He grew from these experiments and never completely abandoned the sequence shot. He confessed that he still admired the technique in a 1955 interview with Cahiers du Cinéma and this won’t come as a surprise to those who truly pay attention to his later work.

“Certain people thought it was a mistake and that it wasn’t truly cinema. Yet it’s pure cinema because you must do the editing in your head in advance. Then the movement between the scenes is made continuous by the movement of the actors, not of the camera alone, but of the actors and the camera together. Thus the camera roams about while the actors change positions, and together they establish various framed compositions. In my opinion, it’s a purer cinema but not enough people agreed.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Cahiers du Cinéma, February 1955)

This is an important point that seems to be lost on most critics and scholars. Hitchcock incorporates a wide array of shots into these long takes. The wide master, the two shot, the close-up, the extreme close-up, and the insert shot are all utilized. It isn’t as if he were simply pointing the camera at the actors and allowing the scenes to play out as if this were a play. What’s more, his use of this technique adds power to a number of the film’s traditional edits.

Some of the cuts in Under Capricorn are dramatic solely because they happen to follow a sequence shot. Take, for example, Bergman’s introduction. We follow Adare as he meets other guests after arriving at the party, Flusky gives instructions to Milly regarding Mrs. Flusky (which makes the viewer curious about her), and the men finally sit down to enjoy a meal and say grace. Soon the guests notice something that is happening just outside the scope of the frame, and Flusky notices their attention and nervously begins turning his head to see what has captured their gaze. We then cut to Bergman’s bare feet as they move into the room and carry us back to Sam Flusky as she places her hand on his shoulders. Finally, we move to the intoxicated face of Ingrid Bergman. It’s quite the introduction.

Hitchcock never abandons his devotion to the visual in this experiment, he simply expands and adds to the language of the medium. If Under Capricorn fails, it is due to the weak script and an arguably less interesting subject. It does not stand with Alfred Hitchcock’s best films—or even his second-tier titles—but it was an essential phase in his artistic evolution. What’s more, it isn’t any worse than a number of other overwrought and syrupy costume melodramas being made at around that time. One wonders if the film wouldn’t have a different reputation if another director’s name were written on it.

SS01

The Presentation:

4 of 5 Stars

Kino houses their Blu-ray in a standard Blu-ray case with a reversible sleeve that offers a choice of film related artwork.

Reverse Cover Artwork

The default art is taken from the film’s original American One Sheet while a more lurid foreign poster was used for the reverse as an alternative. The American one sheet is the superior choice.

Menu

In fact, Kino must agree with us on this point since it is this artwork that has been carried over for the disc’s static menu.

SS02

Picture Quality:

4 of 5 Stars

Kino’s 4K restoration transfer is a huge improvement over the previous DVD editions of the film, and the improvement isn’t merely due to the added resolution. However, it must be said that the final result is less that completely satisfying and will probably disappoint some collectors. This doesn’t seem to be the fault of the restoration or the transfer but is instead the unfortunate symptom of the ravages of time. Damage and debris is evident, but the most significant problem here stems from the various color elements in the Technicolor print which has resulted in slight haloing. Luckily, this never becomes distracting. In fact, most people won’t notice it and will instead pick up on the obvious improvement over earlier transfers in terms of both vibrancy and clarity. Motion is also greatly improved upon here (something especially important considering the mobile nature of the image). Best of all, we get quite a bit more information in the frame in this new transfer. This is likely the best this film is going to look on home video at this point.

SS03

Sound Quality:

4 of 5 Stars

The 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio is an admirable representation of the film’s original source elements. It doesn’t offer the dynamic sonic experience one expects from more recent films, but no one should really expect this. The film’s dialogue is well prioritized and clearly rendered and the music is given adequate room to breathe thanks to the high definition transfer. Fans should be pleased.

SS04

Special Features:

3.5 of 5 Stars

Audio Commentary by Kat Ellinger

Kat Ellinger has provided commentaries for a wide variety of films in recent years. As editor-in-chief for Diabolique magazine, she has a reasonably deep well of general knowledge to aid her in this track—but those expecting any in-depth information will be somewhat disappointed. Some of her analysis is interesting enough to keep the listener engaged, but it isn’t an especially focused discussion about the film (which she insists is underrated). She has a tendency to overlook important points and there are a few questionable statements along the way. This is par for the course with third-party “scholarly commentaries.” It is nice that she has included some general information about the careers of various cast and crew, and this is really the best reason to give the track a listen.

Hitchcock/Truffaut: Icon Interviews Icon (Audio) – (12:23)

Absolutely essential is this excerpt from Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous interview with François Truffaut as it finds the director speaking candidly about Under Capricorn. Those who have already read the book won’t learn anything, but it is nice to hear the director discussing this often overlooked film. It is illustrated with a still photograph of the two filmmakers that was taken during the interview sessions in 1963.

A Cinema of Signs: Chabrol on Hitchcock – (26:42)

The disc’s best supplement is probably this half-hour program that finds Claude Chabrol discussing a variety of Hitchcock related topics, including Cahiers du Cinéma’s infamous Hitchcock issue that would help change critical opinion of Hitchcock’s work, the equally important book that he penned with Éric Rohmer (Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films), an analysis of a scene from Under Capricorn (which was taken from the text of this book), Truffaut’s book-length interview Hitchcock, and his own analysis of scenes from Marnie and Frenzy. Fans will find this material fascinating even if they find themselves in disagreement. It offers food for thought and is a welcome addition to Kino’s package.

Theatrical Trailer – (02:04)

While trailers for other Hitchcock titles are much more interesting and original than the rather standard approach used to market Under Capricorn, it is certainly nice to have the trailer for this film finally available on home video.

We are also given a number of other trailers, including one for Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947), Bergman’s Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939), Cotton’s A Portrait of Jennie (1948), and a remake of The Lodger (1944).

SS05

Final Words:

“If I seem doomed to make only one type of picture, the movie audience is responsible. People go to one of my films expecting a thriller, and they aren’t satisfied until the thrill turns up.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Core of the Movie—The Chase, New York Times Magazine, October 29, 1950)

This quote frames our parting thoughts admirably. Those who expect a typical Hitchcockian suspense story are bound to be disappointed. Under Capricorn is probably one of the director’s five weakest American films but it certainly wasn’t a waste of his time. In fact, it was an extremely important step in Alfred Hitchcock’s creative evolution.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray includes the best transfer of the film currently available on home video and a very nice supplemental package.

Review by: Devon Powell

One Sheet

Source Material:

Ingrid Bergman (Ingrid Bergman Cables Story of Technique Used in ‘Under Capricorn, Toledo Blade, August 27, 1949)

Staff Writer (The Times, August 31, 1949)

Staff Writer (Harrison’s Reports, September 10, 1949)

William Brogdon (Variety, September 14, 1949)

Staff Writer (Gloucestershire Echo, September 17, 1949)

Staff Writer (Mr. Hitchcock’s New Film, The Times, October 05, 1949)

Helen Williams (New Film by Mr. Hitchcock, Yorkshire Post, October 07, 1949)

Staff Writer (Amusements: Ingrid Bergman in Australian Romance, Western Morning News, February 14, 1950)

Staff Writer (The Cinema World, Yorkshire Post, February 28, 1950)

D.J. (Derby Daily Telegraph, March 14, 1950)

David Brady (Core of the Movie—The Chase, New York Times Magazine, October 29, 1950)

François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol (Interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Cahiers du Cinéma, February 1955)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Bryan Forbes (John Player Lecture, March 27, 1967)

Donald Spoto (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

Robert A. Harris & Michael S. Lasky (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1976)

John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Michael Haley (The Alfred Hitchcock Album, 1981)

Ingrid Bergman (My Story, Apr 01, 1983)

Patrick Humphries (The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, 1986)

Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood, 1987)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock, 1995)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks, 1999)

Ken Mogg (The Alfred Hitchcock Story, 1999)

Bill Krohn (Hitchcock at Work, 2000)

Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Barton Palmer and David Boyd (Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Constantine Verevis (Under a Distemperate Star, Hitchcock at the Source, 2011)

Lesley L. Coffin (Hitchcock’s Stars, 2014)

Sidney Gottlieb (Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Volume 2, 2015)

Stephen Whitty (The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia, 2016)

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Blu-ray Review: The Paradine Case

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: May 30, 2017

Region: Region A

Length: 01:54:16

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 1556 kbps, 16-bit)

Subtitles: English SDH

Ratio: 1.37:1

Bitrate: 23.92 Mbps

Notes: This is the film’s North American Blu-ray debut.

Title

“Robert Hichens [who wrote the original novel] also wrote ‘The Garden of Allah,’ ‘Bella Donna,’ and many other novels; he was famous in the early part of this century… Let’s go over some of the apparent flaws of that picture.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

This quote from Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary interview with François Truffaut reveals an underlying dissatisfaction with The Paradine Case that probably has as much to do with the painful experience that he had making the film for David O. Selznick than with any perceived deficiencies in the finished film. The project was an assignment that Hitchcock chose out of a number of possible properties for the simple reason that it was the least objectionable. To put it simply, he owed the producer one more film before he could escape what he saw as the producer’s tyranny. Luckily, the director found certain aspects of the story appealing.

“What interested me in this picture was to take a person like Mrs. Paradine, to put her in the hands of the police, to have her submit to all their formalities, and to say to her maid, as she was leaving her home between the two inspectors, ‘I don’t think I shall be back for dinner.’ And then to show her spending the night in a cell, from which, in fact, she will never emerge. There is an echo of that situation in The Wrong Man. It may be an expression of my own fear, but I’ve always felt the drama of a situation in which a normal person is suddenly deprived of freedom and incarcerated with hardened criminals. There’s nothing to it when a habitual law breaker, like a drunk, is involved, but I am intrigued by the contrast in shading when it happens to a person of a certain social standing.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Such material relies heavily on appropriate casting which was an element of the film’s production that Hitchcock found particularly problematic.

“First of all, I don’t think that Gregory Peck can properly represent an English lawyer… I would have brought in Laurence Olivier. I also considered Ronald Coleman for the part. For a while, we hoped we might get Greta Garbo to make her comeback in the role of the wife. But the worst flaw in casting was assigning Lois Jourdan to play the groom. After all, the story of The Paradine Case is about the degradation of a gentleman who becomes enamored of his client, a woman who is not only a murderess but also a nymphomaniac. And that degradation reaches its climactic point when he’s forced to confront the heroine with one of her lovers, who is a groom. But that groom should have been a manure-smelling stable hand, a man who really reeked of manure… [Selznick] had Louis Jourdan under contract, so I had to use them, and this miscasting was very detrimental to the story.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

The director claimed that Robert Newton would’ve made a much better André Latour, and one can immediately understand how his casting would change the dynamic. What’s more, it is impossible not to agree that Peck isn’t particularly believable as an English solicitor. More interesting, however, is a point that sometimes becomes confused in various writings about the film. Readers should pay close attention to the fact that Hitchcock mentions that he wanted Greta Garbo to portray Gay Keane (Anthony Keane’s wife)—and not Mrs. Paradine. Books, articles, and essays are split as to which role she was offered, and it seems like the confusion lies in the fact that MGM had tried in vain to bring the Robert Hichens novel to the screen in the early to mid-thirties as a vehicle for Greta Garbo. Greta Garbo was the biggest star in the Hollywood galaxy at that time, and she would have no doubt been offered the role of Mrs. Paradine at this point in her career. It seems reasonable that this is the source of confusion. When Selznick dusted off the property over a decade later as a potential project for Alfred Hitchcock, Garbo had retired from acting and was a decade older. On this occasion, she would’ve been more appropriate for the role of the wife. In other words, she had been offered both roles at two very different stages in her life. Of course, this is conjecture based on everything that is currently known about the production.

In actuality, Hitchcock preferred to cast Ingrid Bergman in the role of Mrs. Paradine (and Selznick probably would’ve agreed). Bergman had a special fondness for Hitchcock, but she had grown to bitterly resent Selznick and didn’t want to work with the producer again. It was up to Selznick to manufacture another Bergman and Alida Valli was the product of those efforts. Valli actually does a rather good job in her role as does the star-studded supporting cast.

As the film’s casting was already being compromised by Selznick’s “tradition of quality” meddling, Hitchcock and Alma were busy working on a draft of the screenplay so that the producer could see how much the film would cost. Luckily, the Hitchcock team had eighteen inches of abandoned screenplays that were written a decade earlier to guide them. In fact, Patrick McGilligan suggests that their draft was essentially a 195-page amalgam of these previous scripts. In fact, in Hitchcock’s Notebooks, Dan Auiler provides a detailed chart chronicling the evolution of the script, and it suggests that the final draft of the screenplay maintains much that was in the original Hitchcock draft. However, other writers were instrumental in bringing The Paradine Case to the screen.

“…I recommended James Bridie, a Scottish playwright who had a big reputation in England as well. He was in his early sixties and a very independent man. Selznick brought him to New York, but when he wasn’t met at the airport, he took the first plane back to London. He worked on the script in England and sent it over to us; the arrangement wasn’t too successful. But Selznick wanted to do the adaptation himself; that’s the way he did things in those days. He would write a scene and send it down to the set every other day—a very poor method of work.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Hitchcock doesn’t mention that Ben Hecht made some minor contributions to the script before Selznick took over, but it seems more than likely that his contributions were undone by Selznick’s insistence on adding paragraphs upon paragraphs of constant decorative dialogue directly from the original novel.

“The Selznick rewrite inevitably slowed production. Hitchcock would ‘see those blue pages in the morning and he would just retreat to his bungalow,’ Gregory Peck recalled; ‘in all fairness to Hitch, the dialogue was invariably worse, not better.’ As the actors memorized their new lines, Hitchcock revised his prearranged setups to accommodate the changes. Meanwhile, a studio car sped the rewrite, four and five pages daily, to Joe Breen; only after the censorship office approved the alterations could Hitchcock begin. ‘So very often we didn’t shoot anything until eleven o’clock or twelve o’clock or even until after lunch,’ Peck said. Hitchcock naturally resented the violation of his sense of order. Moreover, the tension between producer and director cause an undesirable imbalance between director and actors, director and crew.” —Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick, 1987)

To make a long story short (something that Selznick rarely did), the script had a lot of unfortunate issues that were only compounded by the Selznick rewrites. The source material was already rather convoluted and efforts should’ve been made to simplify the complicated murder plot that served as the backstory. Hitchcock admitted in later interviews that he “was never too clear as to how the murder was committed, because it was complicated by people crossing from one room to another, up and down a corridor. I never truly understood the geography of that house or how she managed the killing.

Instead of allowing such things to overwhelm him, Hitchcock concentrated on elements of the production that were of greater interest to him—especially those concerning the Old Baily sequence.

“In London, Hitchcock and Ahern asked a prominent judicial wig and robe maker to add Paradine to his case load. Hitchcock also attended a session at Old Bailey, sketchbook in hand. He intended to rebuild the most famous of English criminal courtrooms and, like Selznick, insisted on accuracy; he even persuaded the Keeper to permit a camera crew to film the vacant court. Talking with reporters later, Hitchcock emphasized the preparation that he would bring to the picture. ‘As I watched the judge,’ the director said, ‘I even knew what lens I would use to photograph him.’ Hitchcock projected imperturbability, utter confidence, [and] supreme knowledge.” —Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick, 1987)

Unfortunately, some of the verisimilitudes that Hitchcock tried to work into the film were undone by Selznick’s insistence upon glamor at the expense of realism.

“Selznick wanted both Valli and Ann Todd smartly dressed in The Paradine Case. Hitchcock cautioned Selznick that English audiences would laugh at Mrs. Paradine if she wore clothes obviously beyond the means of a wealthy English woman in postwar London; the producer snapped that he would not drape Valli in suits that a moviegoer could find ‘in Dubuque and in Dallas.’ Hitchcock conceded the point, partially because he shunned confrontation. When Selznick chose an enormous brocade dressing gown for Ann Todd, which she deemed inappropriate, the director suggested that she take up her dissatisfaction with the producer.

‘I marched into Selznick’s office,’ Todd later recalled. ‘Mr. Selznick, I don’t think I want to wear this dressing gown; a husband and wife in their bedroom alone. I wouldn’t be wearing a brocade.’ ‘Yeah, you would.’ ‘Well, I don’t like it and you brought me all these thousands of miles from England and told me, “We’re very real with our films.”’ So he said, ‘People in Arizona have got to know you’re rich.’” —Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick, 1987)

The producer’s insistence on a glamor also compromised Hitchcock’s intended chiaroscuro lighting designs for the film. For the director, the proper mood was more important than presenting an actor in a flattering manner.

“Director of photography Lee Garmes felt caught between Selznick’s increasing involvement in bringing glamor to the picture and Hitchcock’s demand for harsh tonality. Although in earlier years Selznick let the director guide the cinematographer, the producer himself had written pointedly to Garmes about elements of footage that needed correction. He paid fastidious attention to his nascent stars. Striving for a chiaroscuro effect, Hitchcock ordered Jourdan photographed in shadow (Latour being a shadowy figure); Selznick ran the rushes and ordered the Frenchman brought into the light, especially so that filmgoers could see his best feature, his eyes. Garmes tried to strike a middle path but succeeded only in bringing both Selznick and Hitchcock down on him. In a memorandum to the director about the flat photography, Selznick wrote:

‘There is no shading or attempt to photograph Jourdan interestingly as there was the first few days, and if we’re not careful this will be true of Valli. In filling in light for the eyes, [Garmes] failed at his objective and lost what he had before. I can’t figure out for the life of me why he can’t give us eyes that are not black sockets that give us nothing.’

The problem may have been that Selznick perceived Garmes as Hitchcock’s man, while Hitchcock perceived him as Selznick’s man.” —Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick, 1987)

The producer and director were constantly at odds as their agendas and creative visions clashed, resulting in scenes having to be re-shot to the producer’s specifications (often with yet another re-write including dialogue that was even more ornate than the previous pages). Ann Todd remembered one particularly difficult sequence that never made it into the final picture in its original form.

“In one scene, as Ann Todd recalled in her memoirs, a camera tracked her smoothly as she entered the front door of her house, called up to her husband (Peck), doffed her coat and kicked off her shoes, ran upstairs two flights, entered her sitting room, and made a long telephone call, all the time speaking nonstop to Peck, ‘who was off-screen with his feet up reading his few lines.’ Thereupon—with the camera still rolling—Peck entered the frame, and ‘we had a long and elaborate love scene to play…’

‘We had to film all [of] this thirty-five times! First the front door kept sticking,’ the actress recalled, ‘then there were many difficulties with the camera crane that had to follow me all the way up the stairs, then the trouble for camera, microphone, etc., getting through the doors—either I went too quickly or the camera was too slow, and various people on the set had to crouch on the floor to pull away the furniture as the camera and I passed. Last of all, on the twentieth take, I started to forget my lines and we had to go right back to beginning again. I think it was a marvelous notion of Hitchcock’s because it gave [a] flow of continuity to the scenes. Unfortunately, it was mechanically very nearly impossible to hold for so long.’

Also, unfortunately, the producer hated it. After seeing the dailies, Selznick stormed down to the set screaming, ‘we’re not doing a theater piece!’ The Hitchcockian approach was ordered re-shot ‘conventionally.’ For this and other attempts at bravura camera work, the producer took pains to curtail Hitchcock’s vision during filming and editing.” —Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

The director was obviously already experimenting with longer takes—an approach that he exercised exclusively in Rope and rather liberally in Under Capricorn. In fact, other scenes that were similarly complicated also went unused.

“Hitchcock’s favorite effect, he told Charles Higham, had been planned since the inception of The Paradine Case. Keane (Peck) and Sir Simon Flaquer (Charles Coburn) walk toward the camera as they enter Lincoln’s Inn, part of the venerable fourteenth century London Law complex. The two are seen entering the building, closing the door, walking up the stairs, turning a corner, heading along a landing into an office, and then continuing into the office, all without a single cut. It was one of Hitchcock’s signature composites, using background projection and a treadmill, elaborately planned and prepared in advance by his second unit in London. Opposed to the long take, and oblivious [to] the significance of Lincoln’s Inn, Selznick deleted the shot. Indeed, Selznick threw out so much of Hitchcock’s second unit footage that any sense of English atmosphere the film might have boasted was lost.” —Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

The film might have lost its English atmosphere, but it still maintains a few brilliant directorial touches. The most famous shot in the film is one that the director was especially fond of discussing.

“There is an interesting shot in the courtroom when Louis Jourdan is called in to give evidence; he comes into the courtroom and must pass behind Alida Valli. She’s turning her back to him, but we wanted to give the impression that she senses his presence—not that she guesses he’s there—that she actually can feel him behind her as if she could smell him. We had to do that in two takes. The camera is on Alida Valli’s face. And in the background you see Louis Jourdan coming down to the witness box. First, I photographed the scene without her; the camera panned him all around, at a two-hundred-degree turn, from the door to the witness box. Then, I photographed her in the foreground; we sat her in front of the screen, on a twisting stool, so that we might have the revolving effect, and when the camera went off her to go back to Louis Jourdan, she was pulled off the screen. It was quite complicated, but it was very interesting to work that out.” —Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Production finally wrapped on March 13, 1947, after 92 days of soul-crushing production—and thanks to Hitchcock’s multi-camera approach to shooting the courtroom scenes (there were sometimes as many as four cameras shooting different aspects of the scene at one time), the production came in $100,000 under budget. Unfortunately, this bit of good luck and saved money was squandered by Selznick’s insistence on numerous retakes after Hitchcock turned in his rough cut of the film later that April.

Interestingly, Bernard Herrmann was considered to score the picture, but this job would eventually be handed to Franz Waxman. Waxman provided the sort of syrupy score that Selznick adored and Hitchcock loathed—another excuse for the director to be unhappy with the final result.

It was now time for Selznick to put his new Hitchcock film out into the world and he spared no expense. The film was given an aggressive advertising campaign that exceeded the publicity budget of any other Selznick release. The campaign brought people to the box-office, but critical reception of the film was mixed. The general consensus about the film was that its drama was limited by the courtroom setting but that Hitchcock adequately met the challenge and elevated the less than satisfactory material. Praise was often somewhat unenthusiastic and seemed to be given grudgingly. It is interesting, however, to report that the American critics responded enthusiastically to Gregory Peck’s performance and didn’t seem to notice that the actor was horrendously miscast in the role. One critic went as far as to say that it was “one of the most successful of his characterizations.

Most of the reviews concentrated on Alfred Hitchcock’s direction while sometimes—as in a review published in Harrison’s Reports—giving him more praise than he really deserved.

“Alfred Hitchcock’s superb directorial skill, the powerful dramatic material, and the superior performances by the entire cast make The Paradine Case one of the most fascinating murder trial melodramas ever produced. It should turn out to be a foremost box-office attraction, not only because of the players’ drawing power but also because it is a gripping entertainment from start to finish…” –Harrison’s Reports (January 03, 1948)

Bosley Crowther’s review in the New York Times was more reserved in his praise of the director and quick to criticize Selznick’s script.

“With all the skill in presentation for which both gentlemen are famed, David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock have put upon the screen a slick piece of static entertainment in their garrulous The Paradine Case. Call it a mystery melodrama—although that doesn’t fully wrap it up… Call it a courtroom tragi-romance or a husband-wife problem play. Call it, indeed, a social satire and you won’t be entirely wrong. For it’s all of these things rolled together in one fitfully intriguing tale, smoothly told through a cultivated camera…

…It isn’t a significant story, not by any means, except in so far as it hints at the old Adam that lies deep in men, beneath all their polished manners and solid virtues and barristers’ wigs. And it isn’t a too-well-written story—for the purposes of cinema, that is—in the script derived by Mr. Selznick from Robert Hichens’ fifteen-year-old fiction book… But, as usually happens, Mr. Hitchcock has made the best of a difficult script and has got as much tension in a courtroom as most directors could get in a frontier fort. His camera has a way of behaving like an accomplished trial lawyer, droning quietly along with routine matters and suddenly hitting you dramatically in the face. And out of his cast of brilliant actors, he has pulled some distinguished work… Needless to say, the picture’s décor has a rich, enameled, David O. Selznick look.” -Bosley Crowther (New York Times, January 09, 1948)

A review published in Film Bulletin follows suit and offers reserved praise for the director while criticizing the producer’s indulgent script. More interestingly, however, is the enthusiastic praise given to Peck’s performance.

“David O. Selznick’s latest production, The Paradine Case, while not a wholly satisfying film, spells good box-office because of its top-flight cast (including a couple of highly-publicized Selznick discoveries), the renown of director Hitchcock, and a typically smooth [and] glossy DOS veneer. It has the pull and it offers above-average entertainment for all types of audiences. As the British barrister who becomes infatuated with the women he is defending on a murder charge, Gregory Peck again demonstrates the wide range of his talents. He excels his performance in Gentleman’s Agreement

…Selznick’s screenplay is somewhat static and a bit overlong. Limited as he is, Alfred Hitchcock, in his inimitable style, has squeezed considerable suspense and movement out of the tale by his unique effects and fluid camera. Lee Garmes’ photography is superior, and recording by Richard Van Hessen and music by Franz Waxman are all that could be desired.” -Film Bulletin (January 19, 1948)

One imagines that the American critics weren’t as sensitive to Peck’s inappropriate casting as were the critics in Britain when the film was released in that country a year later (after Rope). This review for The Times seems to support this theory as it directly criticizes Peck’s casting.

 “Mr. Alfred Hitchcock in Rope asserted himself by the paradoxical method of withdrawing his immediate influence and allowing the camera to photograph the play without interruption; in The Paradine Case he is once more content to remain in the background and relies on a faithful transcription, of criminal proceedings at the Old Bailey to provide sufficient excitement and suspense. The Paradine Case runs for 110 minutes, and for what seems nearly half of that time the film is, as it were, a report of a trial… The film deserves the greatest credit for the care it brings to the business of conveying the feel and atmosphere of an English murder trial… Mr. Peck is never quite convincing and Valli is content simply to exist and allow her loveliness to act her part for her. Miss Ann Todd [has an] adequate command of the domestic interludes, and the film for long stretches at a time is mercifully free of all musical accompaniment. A moderate Hitchcock; no more, no less.” -The Times (January 17, 1949)

Some British critics never quite forgave Hitchcock for exporting his talents to Hollywood, and their reviews for his American films sometimes focused on their perceived degradation of the director’s work since moving to America instead of on the film in question. Such a review was published in the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette. It was titled, “Has ‘Hitch’ Lost His Touch?

“Through a series of glossy popular films, Hitchcock has sunk his sense of real cinema in his efforts to cater for popular taste. He has produced faulty films and the greatest of these is The Paradine Case. There was little or no suspense and no relation to reality in a film which looked as if it had been produced by Cecil B. de Mille [and] not our Hitchcock.” Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette (April 11, 1949)

It is interesting how what would eventually amount to four perceived failures in a row can cause certain critics (like the hack employed by the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette) to turn on a director. Most of the director’s best films were still ahead of him. Today, The Paradine Case is usually seen as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s rare misfires—an overwritten and verbose soap opera. However, there are fans among us who will declare the film an underrated and misunderstood work with interesting thematic material that looks forward to such later masterworks as Vertigo. Both assessments are absolutely accurate.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber houses the Blu-ray disc in the standard Blu-ray case with a reversible sleeve that makes use of two different vintage one-sheet designs. The first side makes use of the 1949 French Re-release poster design (with some slight alterations) while the second side showcases the original American one-sheet. It is surprising to find that we actually prefer the French Re-release design better than the American one sheet—which actually looks forward to the terrible “faces of the stars” concept that has debased poster and video art for years. One might argue that the French design could also be criticized for doing this, but it at least does it in a more interesting manner than is usual.

Blu-ray Cover (B)

There is also a small Kino Lorber catalog included that features box art for many of their other releases.

Menu

The disc’s static menu also utilizes vintage poster artwork (albeit different artwork than is utilized for the two covers). Music from the film’s opening credit sequence can be heard underneath this image. The result is aesthetically pleasing.

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Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The image transfer of The Paradine Case is something of a mixed bag. It is an improvement over the previous DVD releases, but there are too many inconsistencies to make any blanket statements about various aspects of the image. It can exhibit incredible sharpness and wonderful gradients between the various shades present in the film’s often interesting cinematography. Blacks can be incredibly rich as the result of the sometimes excellent contrast. However, the quality of all of these elements is somewhat erratic. Scratches, dust, dirt, hairs and other anomalies occasionally appear throughout the film, but these never become distracting. There is a reasonably well resolved layer of grain that adds a filmic texture to the proceedings and the film looks beautiful in motion.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The Mono DTS-HD Master Audio mix is a decent reflection of the film’s original audio and is well served by the lossless transfer. There are no noticeable anomalies (such as distortion, hiss, hum, crackle, or dropouts) and the various elements are clearly rendered for a film of this vintage. Some viewers might wish for a more dynamic sonic experience, but purists will be thrilled to experience the intended original mix in an HD environment.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary with Stephen Rebello & Bill Krohn

Stephen Rebello and Bill Krohn give a generally informative blend of theoretical analysis and “behind the scenes” context to the film that covers a wide variety of relevant topics. The most interesting of these usually involve the troubled creative struggle that resulted from a producer and a director at cross purposes. Both tend to agree that the physical evidence and information that is known about this struggle suggest that much of the producer’s meddling was at the expense of the film. There are a few interesting tidbits of information that will be of special interest to anyone coming to the track without any prior knowledge about the film’s backstory. Particularly revelatory will be the comments made about some of the scenes deleted from the final film. The commentary is surprisingly affectionate as both Rebello and Krohn are of the opinion that the film deserves reevaluation despite its flaws.

Isolated Music and Effect Track

This feature will please anyone who admires Franz Waxman’s score for The Paradine Case as viewers can now experience it free from the distraction of other elements of the soundtrack. It certainly illuminates Waxman’s contribution to the film be it good, bad, or indifferent.

Interviews with Cecelia Peck and Carey Peck – (08:36)

It was a nice surprise to find this new featurette included on the disc. This short segment finds Cecelia and Carey Peck discussing The Paradine Case and their father’s work on the film as well as his relationship with Alfred Hitchcock. It isn’t a particularly frank discussion as neither mentions that Peck named the film as the one that he would like to burn. They instead talk generally about the qualities that their father brought to the film and the trouble that Hitchcock had during the production due to Selznick’s interference.

François Truffaut Interviews Alfred Hitchcock (Audio) – (12:57)

These excerpts from François Truffaut’s landmark interview with Hitchcock are illustrated by stills and marketing materials for the film. They make an extremely fascinating listening experience. In fact, this may be the disc’s strongest supplemental feature as it finds the director speaking frankly about the film’s weaknesses without completely disregarding the film. The included excerpts are rightly restricted to portions of the interview that have a bearing on The Paradine Case.

Peter Bogdanovich Interviews Alfred Hitchcock (Audio) – (15:57)

The excerpts from Peter Bogdanovich begin with the two men discussing The Paradine Case but eventually trail off into other more general territory. Those portions regarding the film cover some of the same territory as the Truffaut interview but in less detail. It is nice to have this featured on the disc, but it might prove a slight disappointment to anyone expecting it to live up to the previous Truffaut segment.

Original Theatrical Trailer – (01:43)

This might be the first time that the film’s trailer has been included on a home video release. It is interesting to see how this rare misfire was marketed. One can’t say that it is particularly interesting as it falls in line with other trailers during that period, but it is good to have it included for posterity if for no other reason.

1949 Lux Radio Broadcast (Audio) – (56:37)

Vintage radio adaptations are always interesting and this one is no exception. This particular adaptation fairs better than similar adaptations of Hitchcock films due to Selznick’s loquacious screenplay. The Paradine Case is a rare instance of Hitchcock’s visual treatment being almost secondary to the dialogue, and this radio adaptation only serves to highlight this fact. Interestingly, Joseph Cotton’s casting as Anthony Keane is even more problematic than Gregory Peck’s casting in the film. Alida Valli and Louis Jourdan both reprise their roles.

Restoration Comparison – (01:27)

Kino Lorber also provides a restoration comparison that highlights the film’s digital restoration for this release.

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Final Words:

Alfred Hitchcock’s final picture for David O. Selznick is decidedly more a Selznick production than a Hitchcock picture. It is undoubtedly one of the director’s rare misfires but it is an extremely interesting misfire that is worthy of repeated viewings.

Review by: Devon Powell

Source Material:

Staff Writer (Harrison’s Reports, January 03, 1948)

Bosley Crowther (New York Times, January 09, 1948)

Staff Writer (Film Bulletin, January 19, 1948)

Staff Writer (What the Newspaper Critics Say about New Films: The Paradine Case, Film Bulletin, January 19, 1948)

Staff Writer (Gloucestershire Echo, January 14, 1949)

Staff Writer (The Times, January 17, 1949)

Staff Writer (Has Hitch Lost His Touch, Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, April 11, 1949)

Peter Bogdanovich (The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

John Russell Taylor (Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock, 1978)

Leonard Leff (Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood, 1987)

Dan Auiler (Hitchcock’s Notebooks, 1999)

Patrick McGilligan (Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, 2003)

Lesley L. Coffin (Hitchcock’s Stars, 2014)

 

Blu-ray Review: Lifeboat

Blu-ray Cover

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Release Date: March 21, 2017

Region: Region A

Length: 01:36:58

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: 2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 16-bit)

Subtitles: English (SDH)

Ratio: 1.39:1

Bitrate: 24.91 Mbps

Notes: A DVD edition of this title was previously released by 20th Century Fox in North America, but this marks the film’s Blu-ray debut in this region.

Title

“…It was a challenge, but it was also because I wanted to prove a theory I had then. Analyzing the psychological pictures that were being turned out, it seemed to me that, visually, eighty percent of the footage was shot in close-ups or semi-close shots. Most likely it wasn’t a conscious thing with most of the di­rectors, but rather an instinctive need to come closer to the action. In a sense, this treatment was an anticipation of what was to become the television technique.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

While there is certainly an abundance of close-ups and medium shots in Lifeboat, Hitchcock still manages to pull off a diverse and creative mise-en-scène throughout its duration. In fact, Lifeboat is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most creatively successful cinematic experiments. Unfortunately, the film is usually treated with a certain amount of apathy by scholars and critics.

It is too easy to simply write the film off as an anomaly in the director’s career and discuss Alfred Hitchcock’s droll reaction to Tallulah Bankhead’s unfortunate habit of not wearing any underwear: “I’m not sure if this is a matter for wardrobe or hairdressing” or his reaction to Mary Anderson when she asked which was her better side: “You’re sitting on it, my dear.” In fact, most writings on the film focus on such anecdotes (and no two versions of either of these stories are consistent). Very little attention is paid to the film itself or to the rich viewing experience that it provides to willing audiences.

Perhaps this is because the film isn’t usually evaluated in the same manner as most Hitchcock pictures. There are those who see this as an adaptation of a John Steinbeck novella, and this particular approach is both misguided and misleading. John Steinbeck wasn’t even responsible for the film’s premise—despite what the author’s widow has claimed in the past. Hitchcock himself originated the idea of making a movie about a cross-section of American society adrift on a Lifeboat and had originally approached Ernest Hemingway to write a treatment. John Steinbeck was only contacted after Hemingway turned the project down. He agreed to write a treatment in novella form if he would be allowed to publish the novella after the film’s release. The treatment was never completed nor was it ever published—though a ghostwriter did rework the treatment for magazine publication in order to help promote the film’s release.

“I had assigned John Steinbeck to the screenplay, but his treatment was incomplete and so I brought in MacKinlay Kantor, who worked on it for two weeks. I didn’t care for what he had written at all. He said, ‘Well, that’s the best I can do.’ I thanked him for his efforts and hired another writer, Jo Swerling, who had worked on several films for Frank Capra. When the screenplay was completed and I was ready to shoot, I discovered that the narrative was rather shapeless. So I went over it again, trying to give a dramatic form to each of the se­quences.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

These facts should alter one’s reading of the film as an adaptation because it was actually an original screenplay that was developed in much the same manner that other original scripts were developed. However, this none of these facts are intended to discount Steinbeck’s contribution to the project. The resulting film is one of the Hitchcock’s most political and it makes a number of interesting social observations and statements.

20th Century Fox understood this and saw it as an important “prestige” film, and Darryl F. Zanuck, therefore, wanted to make contributions to the picture. This resulted in memorandum that pressured the director to make cuts and to add music. In the end, only minor cuts were made and music was only added to the beginning and ending of the film. It is believed that Zanuck’s desire for Hitchcock to direct another movie for the studio resulted in his giving the director more creative freedom than he would have usually allowed. In any case, Zanuck was pleased with the final result.

Hitchcock Cameo - Publicity Photo

This is a publicity still featuring Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo in Lifeboat.

Hitchcock Cameo

This is a screenshot of Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo in Lifeboat. “That’s my favorite role and I must admit that I had an awful time thinking it up. Usually, I play a passer-by, but you can’t have a passer-by out on the ocean. I thought of being a dead body floating past the lifeboat, but I was afraid I’d sink. I couldn’t play one of the nine survivors since each had to be played by a competent performer. Finally, I hit on a good idea. At the time, I was on a strenuous diet, painfully working my way from three hundred to two hundred pounds. So I decided to immortalize my loss and get my bit part by posing for ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures. These photographs were used in a news¬ paper ad for an imaginary drug, Reduco, and the viewers saw them—and me—when William Bendix opened an old newspaper we had put in the boat. The role was a great hit. I was literally submerged by letters from fat people who wanted to know where and how they could get Reduco.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

In fact, everyone involved expected the film to be an enormous success and reviews were initially positive, but Bosley Crowther’s second review altered the film’s critical reception from that point forward. Dorothy Thompson—the template for Bankhead’s characterization of Constance Porter—famously gave the film ten days to get out of town.

“One of the things that drew the fire of the American critics is that I had shown a German as being superior to the other char­acters. But at that time, 1940-41, the French had been defeated, and the allies were not doing too well. Moreover, the German, who at first claimed to be a simple sailor, was actually a submarine commander; therefore there was every reason for his being better qualified than the others to take over the command of the life­ boat. But the critics apparently felt that a nasty Nazi couldn’t be a good sailor. Anyway, though it wasn’t a commercial hit else­where, the picture had a good run in New York, perhaps because the technical challenge was enormous.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Critics often complained that Hitchcock never made political or socially relevant films—but when he made this kind of film, they usually lashed out at the director. The reason for this is simple. Most so-called “relevant” films were in all actuality propaganda, and propaganda is never completely honest. Audiences must be pandered to in order for propaganda to be successful: “Americans are strong, righteous, and courageous. What’s more, we have right on our side…” Hitchcock doesn’t pander. He holds up a mirror to our weaknesses and darker impulses—and he does this in Lifeboat. His pictures are more relevant than most of the films that critics praised. Lifeboat was a warning about the complacent self-interest and petty philosophical differences that divide us or weaken our resolve, and this is why the film is still relevant.

“We wanted to show that at that moment there were two world forces confronting each other, the democracies and the Nazis, and while the democracies were completely disorganized, all of the Germans were clearly headed in the same direction. So here was a statement telling the democracies to put their differences aside temporarily and to gather their forces to concentrate on the com­mon enemy, whose strength was precisely de­rived from a spirit of unity and of determination.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, 1966)

Critics and journalists weren’t the only ones complaining. John Steinbeck disliked the film and tried in vain to have his name removed from both film and its publicity.

“New York January 10, 1944 Dear Sirs, I have just seen the film Lifeboat, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and billed as written by me. While in many ways the film is excellent there are one or two complaints I would like to make. While it is certainly true that I wrote a script for Lifeboat, it is not true that in that script as in the film there were any slurs against organized labor nor was there a stock comedy Negro. On the contrary, there was an intelligent and thoughtful seaman who knew realistically what he was about. And instead of the usual colored travesty of the half comic and half pathetic Negro, there was a Negro of dignity, purpose, and personality. Since this film occurs over my name, it is painful to me that these strange, sly obliquities should be ascribed to me.” -John Steinbeck (Letter to 20th Century Fox, January 10, 1944)

It is more than a little obvious that the author’s dissatisfaction with the film was entirely due to the many changes made to his unfinished treatment, and it should be said that his comments about Canada Lee’s portrayal of Joe Spencer are enormously unfair. He may well be the most dignified character on the boat—and he certainly couldn’t be labeled “a stock comedy Negro.” It is lamentable that the film suggests that Joe is a reformed pickpocket, but this is certainly overshadowed by Canada Lee’s dignified portrayal and the fact that he is the film’s moral anchor. In any case, Steinbeck’s request was ignored. The studio had agreed to the writer’s salary in part because they could exploit his name in the film’s publicity materials and they weren’t about to give that up.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber houses the Blu-ray disc in the standard Blu-ray case with a reversible sleeve that makes use of two different vintage one-sheet designs. The first side makes use of the original American one-sheet while the second side showcases the 1963 Italian re-release un-foglio artwork. Both choices are better than the average home video artwork.

Blu-ray Cover (B).jpg

There is also a small Kino Lorber catalog included that features box art for many of their other releases.

Menu

The disc’s static menu also utilizes the hand-painted 1963 Italian re-release un-foglio artwork and this works quite beautifully. Music from the film’s opening credit sequence can be heard underneath this image.

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino Lorber’s release of the film is a solid one that showcases more information on the left and right edges of the frame than the original DVD edition of the film. The image is remarkably film-live without appearing too grainy and this allows fine detail to shine through without any annoying issues. The film has never looked this sharp. The black levels are deep and accurate and contrast seems to accurately represent the film. There are a few scratches and some dirt can be seen on occasion but these never become problematic.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Kino’s mono DTS-HD Master Audio track seem to reproduce the film’s original audio without any issues. Problems like hiss, hum, pops, and crackle isn’t evident. Dialogue is always easy to understand and the atmospheric effects are given enough room to breathe. The music heard in the film credits seems a bit boxed in but this is the result of the original recording methods and not the transfer.

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Special Features:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

Audio Commentary by Film Historian Tim Lucas

Tim Lucas is a critic for Video Watchdog and doesn’t seem to have any real authoritative knowledge about Alfred Hitchcock’s work. He does supply a wealth of knowledge and his analysis of the film is enjoyable, intriguing, and reasonably astute. However, the revelations provided are marred by a number of inaccuracies. For example, John Steinbeck was not responsible for the film’s premise as he was commissioned by Hitchcock to write the Lifeboat treatment in novella form. What’s more, Joe Spencer doesn’t recite the Lord’s Prayer. He recites the 23rs Psalm. These are only two of a number of inaccuracies. Having said this, this commentary is worth one’s time for some of the theoretical analysis provided.

Audio Commentary by Film Professor Drew Casper

Drew Casper is a professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California and teaches courses on Alfred Hitchcock. His commentary is more languidly paced than the Tim Lucas commentary and there are more moments of silence. Much of the same information is offered here, and some of Casper’s authoritative statements are simply conjecture. However, the information that he offers is both interesting and worthwhile. What’s more, it is clear that he does have an abundance of knowledge about the director and his work while Tim Lucas seems to have retrieved most of his information from a simple Google search.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat: Theater of War – (20:00)

Peter Ventrella’s retrospective “making-of” documentary isn’t as comprehensive as some of those made by Laurent Bouzereau during the early days of DVD, but it does offer much more background information than those he made about Alfred Hitchcock’s Warner Brothers films. Unfortunately, none of the film’s participants were on hand to discuss the film, but Patricia Hitchcock (Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter), Mary Stone (Alfred Hitchcock’s granddaughter), Drew Casper (Hitchcock scholar), and Robert DeMott (Steinbeck scholar) appear during the program to provide some general background information and a few stories from the set. Viewers who are well versed in Hitchcock history might not find much new information here, but the vast majority of the population should learn quite a bit. It’s really a great addition to the disc!

Hitchcock/Truffaut Interview – (11:54)

It’s very pleasing to find that audio from the legendary Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews is being added to the supplemental packages for Hitchcock’s films. These excerpts find Hitchcock discussing Lifeboat and his memories and thoughts are illustrated by still photos, posters, lobby cards, and footage from the film.

Lifeboat Blu-ray Promo – (01:27)

One wishes that Kino Lorber had included the film’s original theatrical trailer instead of this advertisement for this Blu-ray release. This really doesn’t add anything to the package and those who have already bought the disc don’t really need to be sold.

Additional Trailers

Interestingly, three theatrical trailers for other Kino Lorber releases are provided on the disc:

Compulsion Theatrical Trailer – (01:01)

Five Miles to Midnight Theatrical Trailer – (03:19)

23 Paces to Baker Street Theatrical Trailer – (02:15)

None of these are relevant to Lifeboat unless one considers that Anthony Perkins (Psycho) stars in Five Miles to Midnight, Vera Miles (The Wrong Man, Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock Presents) appears in 23 Paces to Baker Street, and Compulsion—like Rope is based on the infamous Leopold and Loeb murders (although Rope is based on a play that is loosely inspired by the murders while Compulsion is a direct adaptation of those events).

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Final Words:

Kino Lorber’s solid transfer and a nice supplemental package make this an easy recommendation for Hitchcock enthusiasts and admirers of classic cinema!

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Review by: Devon Powell