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.

In any case, the problems that were actually created by the long takes 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 Brogdon’s 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 Williams 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.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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.

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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.

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Sound Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

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.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

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).

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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: Rope

Cover

Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: 04/Jun/2013

Region: Region Free

Length: 01:20:48

Video: 1080P (MPEG-4, AVC)

Main Audio: English Mono DTS-HD Master Audio (48 kHz, 24-bit)

Alternate Audio: French Mono DTS Audio

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish

Ratio: 1.35:1

Bitrate: 32 Mbps

Notes: This title has had a number of DVD releases and is also available on Blu-ray as part of a boxed set entitled The Masterpiece Collection. The transfer used for the boxed set is the same one that is included here and the disc includes the same special features. The artwork on the actual disc is the only thing different about this release.

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“…I abandoned pure cinema in an effort to make the stage play mobile. With a flowing camera, the film played in its own time. There were no dissolves [and] no time-lapses in it. It was continuous action and I thought it also ought to have a continuous flow of camera narrative as well. I think it was an error technically, because one abandoned pure cinema for it. But when you take a stage play in one room, it is very hard to cut it up.” –Alfred Hitchcock

One cannot blame Alfred Hitchcock for feeling experimental after being under contract to David O. Selznick. The director had already established a production company with Sidney Bernstein called Transatlantic Pictures in anticipation of his emancipation from Selznick. Rope ended up being the first of two films made for Transatlantic before the company was dissolved.

In a Popular Photography article that was published in November of 1948, the director explains his reasoning behind shooting the film in long uninterrupted takes:

“A long time ago I said that I would like to film in two hours a fictional story that actually happens in two hours. I wanted to do a picture with no time lapses — a picture in which the camera never stops.

In Rope I got my wish. It was a picture unlike any other I’ve ever directed. True, I had experimented with a roving camera in isolated sequences in such films as Spellbound, Notorious, and The Paradine Case. But until Rope came along, I had been unable to give full rein to my notion that a camera could photograph one complete reel at a time, gobbling up 11 pages of dialogue on each shot, devouring action like a giant steam shovel.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

These uninterrupted takes are the focus of a lot of debate and is the primary focus of nearly everything that is written about the film (and for good reason). It was a first in cinema. An accomplished director was essentially risking his future success in order to advance his art and his understanding of cinema (even if he did not realize it). The production wouldn’t be an easy one. Even the subject matter was risky! The script needed special handling in order to get the unusual content past the censors.

To help him adapt Patrick Hamilton’s play into a usable screenplay (where the action is moved from London to New York City), the director chose his friend Hume Cronym. Changes were made from the original play. For example, the theatrical tickets that provided an essential clue in the play were omitted in favor of initials in a hat that does not fit Rupert’s head. Characters from the play were also omitted (or traded in for new characters) and names were changed. Once a treatment was written, Hitchcock was ready to work on the screenplay:

“Broadway playwright Arthur Laurents wrote the screenplay, the first time a scenario was written without time lapses. Laurents’ scenes were unnumbered and there was almost no camera direction, merely indications of the changing camera position at major points throughout the story.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Laurents would combine dialogue from the play with his own dialogue. His script handled the subtext of homosexuality extremely carefully in order to appease the censors. However, the censors would not be Hitchcock’s largest obstacle. His new method of shooting would require a set that would accommodate his huge Technicolor camera.

Set Drawing

Surprisingly, the apartment itself was the least of his worries. The New York skyline that can be seen from the apartment window also created challenges, and these challenges only stimulated the director’s excitement for the project.

…The most magical of all the devices was the cyclorama — an exact miniature reproduction of nearly 35 miles of New York skyline lighted by 8,000 incandescent bulbs and 200 neon signs requiring 150 transformers.

On film the miniature looks exactly like Manhattan at night as it would appear from the window of an apartment at 54th Street and First Avenue, the locale of the play. And since all the major action of Rope takes place in the living room of this apartment, with the spectators constantly viewing the background, it was impossible to use process shots or a backdrop. Both would have been too flat. We had to remember the core of the arc of view. So we had to employ the scale cyclorama and devise a “light organ” that not only would light the miniature and its panorama of buildings, but also could give us changing sky and cloud effects varying from sunset to dark — all seen from the apartment — to denote the passing of time…

…That electrician who sat high on a parallel behind the camera manipulating the light organ controlled the lighting of the miniature like an artist at a console. He could illuminate an entire building or just one window at a time. He could, at the exact and rehearsed line of dialogue which gave him his cue, flood the Manhattan skyline with light from 200 miniature neon signs. By the time the picture went from the setting of the sun in the first reel to the hour of total darkness in the final denouement, the man at the light organ had played a nocturnal Manhattan symphony in light…”  -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Some of the director’s lighting issues were solved by a surprising source:

“There was one rather knotty problem that Jimmy Stewart, recalling his experiences in the Air Force, helped us solve. In the final moments of the story when the body is discovered and the killers are trapped, the apartment living room is flooded at intervals by great pulsations of light from a huge neon “Storage” sign just outside the window. I wanted the effect to add dramatic tension, much like the increasing crescendos of an orchestra at the climax of a symphony.

But for a while our electrical experts were stumped. They knew that in order to get enough light into the room during the sign’s pulsations, huge arc lights would have to be hooked up on a special parallel with the actual sign – then synchronized. Then Stewart thought of the bomb release switch used in heavy bombers during the war. This switch controlled electrically the split second intervals during which bombs were dropped over the target. So we bought a bomb release at a war surplus store, adjusted it to synchronize the alternate flashing of the neon “Storage” sign with the opening and closing of these shutters on the three huge floodlights, and got exactly the effect we wanted.

Those 200 miniature neon signs in the New York skyline cyclorama helped me solve a little problem of my own. It’s traditional, with me at least, that I appear fleetingly in every one of my pictures. But Rope, with a cast of only nine people who never leave the apartment, looked like the end of the Hitchcock tradition. There was just no way that I could get into the act.

Then someone came up with a solution. The result? The Hitchcock countenance will appear in a neon ‘Reduco’ sign on the side of a miniature building!” –Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Hitchcock Posing with Rope's Clouds

Even the clouds that were seen through the window managed to create problems:

“Searching for what I demanded in a natural-seeming sky, I rejected the two routine methods of getting clouds. We could have painted them on the cyclorama, or we could have projected the clouds on the backdrop by means of painted lantern slides. But we did neither. I wanted the clouds to look like clouds even from ten feet away.

It was Fred Ahern, our production manager, who found the solution to the puzzle. Ahern came up with the perfect light-reflecting substance — spun glass. (Cotton wouldn’t do because it soaks up and deadens light.) Five hundred pounds of spun glass were woven by scenic artists into chicken wire molds. Then actual clouds were photographed in all kinds of weather. We discovered that clouds are never the same even when the weather is constant, and it makes no difference what shape they are. Finally we decided on the cumulus or storm cloud, because it is white and fleecy before it turns gray and formidable. Every possible shaped cloud was created out of spun glass: wispy and full; fragile and menacing, circular and long.

Rope shows eight complete cloud changes during its nine reels. (The spun glass clouds were hung on standards and on overhead wires behind the buildings in the cyclorama – then slightly varied after each reel.) As a final check on our meteorology, we asked Dr. Dinsmore Alter of the famed Griffith Observatory for his opinion…” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Set Drawing full article

The set for the apartment itself was so unusual that Look’s review of the film included a diagram of the apartment set:

“Naturally, in rolling a camera back and forth in a three-room apartment for 10 minutes without a halt (from living room to kitchen and back) we had to have a collapsible apartment. Actually, the basic element was the series of wild walls. (“Wild” is a term used to designate moveable or detachable flats.) In Rope the walls were quite literally wild. They rolled on overhead tracks heavily greased with Vaseline to soundproof the skids. A separate crew stood by to roll each wall at a given cue, admitting the camera when the actors had gone through the door. When the players returned in the same shot, the wall closed and the Technicolor camera dollied back to pick up a new angle during the split second needed to make the room solid again.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Obviously, the shooting required an unbelievable amount of planning. There were many technical considerations to consider before production could commence. Hitchcock usually preferred the 50mm lens, but Rope required a different approach:

“Joe Valentine and I decided that one lens — a 35 mm — would give us all the coverage we needed, since it would be impossible to change lenses because of the continuous camera movement. Paul Hill, our Technicolor consultant, solved the problem of parallax, successfully modifying the camera for close-ups so that we could move in close enough to shoot the inside of a man’s hat and the label on a hatband. And instead of following the camera with a mike boom, which would have created an insurmountable problem, we decided that the simplest solution was not to follow it. Instead, we set up four separate booms and two additional microphones up high. Operated by six sound men, these mikes picked up dialogue anywhere the camera wandered within the three-room apartment.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Despite this new method of recording the dialogue, getting usable sound was one of the more difficult aspects of the production. James Stewart elaborated about the sound issues in an interview with Donald Spoto:

“We had a lot of rehearsal, but the noise of the moving walls was a problem, and so we had to do the whole thing over again for sound, with just the microphones, like a radio play. The dialogue track was then added later.” –James Stewart (The Dark Side of Genius: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock)

In addition to the dialogue, Hitchcock was able to achieve an incredibly realistic ambience that featured the life of New York’s street life in the distance. This also posed a challenge for the director:

“I made them put a microphone six stories high and I gathered a group of people below on the sidewalk and had them talk about the shots. As for the police siren, they told me they had one in the sound library. I asked them, ‘How are you going to give the impression of distance?’ and they answered, ‘We’ll make it soft at first, and then we’ll bring it up loud.” But, I didn’t want it done that way. I made them get an ambulance with a siren. We placed the microphone at the studio gate and sent the ambulance two miles away and that’s the way we made the soundtrack.” – Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Music was also handled in an unusual manner. David Buttolph was the unaccredited composer of music heard in the film’s opening and closing credits, but only diegetic music is heard throughout the rest of the film. Therefore, we only hear music when Philip (Farley Granger) is seen playing Poulenc’s Perpetual Motion on the piano. One might notice that the title of the piece of music is rather revealing. The camera and the characters are almost always in motion, as are the minds of the two murderers and their guests.

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None of these challenges seem to compare to the obvious challenge of actually shooting the film. In order for all of these elements to come together, actors and crew members would have to do their jobs perfectly for ten minute stretches. This required an extended rehearsal period:

“Instead of reading the script through once or twice, the cast spent two weeks walking through the action from the beginning to the end, much like a stage play. Remember we weren’t shooting just a line at a time, nor shifting our camera setup after a one-minute take. There were ten to eleven pages of dialogue on each shot. Actually, for the camera rehearsals we used no stand-ins as such. The stars themselves acted as puppets for the camera. After the camera movement rehearsals there were intensive dress rehearsals, when everyone’s job, from script supervisor to prop man, was coordinated… The maximum number of takes on any single reel was six and the minimum was three.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

The rehearsals were apparently not a cure all for human imperfection because Hitchcock was given a glimpse of what he was up against in the very first take:

“…I was so scared that something would go wrong that I couldn’t even look during the first take. For eight minutes of consecutive shooting everything went smoothly. Then the camera panned around as the two killers walked back toward the chest, and there, right in camera focus, was an electrician standing by the window! So the first take was ruined.” – Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

This isn’t surprising. The obstacles that the cast and crew faced seemed almost infinite. There were so many little things that could go wrong at any moment:

“…In the studio, the stage (actually a stage within a stage, made noiseless by constructing a special floor one and one-half inch above the regular one, soundproofed with layers of Celotex and carpet) was marked with numbered circles. These indicated where each specific camera stop had to be made, and when. Each camera movement — and there were as many as 30 separate ones — had its predetermined focus. Because of this the crew men operating the camera had to hit the floor markings exactly on cue and without deviations. The entire floor plan was laid out in foot squares so that in the event of retakes we could go back to the exact spot.

For the actual take the door markings were removed and plotted on a board. Holding the cue board the script supervisor signaled the camera crew on every movement during the 10-minute take. It was like one of those fabulous “Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance” triple plays. To cue each separate camera movement (and everything had to be done in utter silence) the script supervisor would check his cue board – then nod to a crew man on his left who held a long bamboo pointer. This crew man placed the end of the pointer on a predetermined spot on the floor. His action triggered Morris Rosen, the head grip, who dollied the camera to the new position, while the focus puller on the camera crane, watching his own cue sheet, simultaneously changed the focus on the camera lens…” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

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The camera wasn’t the only inanimate object that had to be in nearly constant motion in order to accommodate Hitchcock’s revolutionary new shooting method:

“Every piece of furniture on the stage — every table, chair, plate, dish, and drinking glass — had to be moved on cue just like the wooden chest. Once, while the characters in the play were eating a buffet supper, Joan Chandler, who played the feminine lead, had to put her wine glass down on a table. But the table was gone. Joan merely put the glass down where the table should have been, one of the crouching prop men (unseen by the camera, of course) raised his hand and Joan’s glass found a resting place in it. Another time an actor had to reach for a plate off the unseen table. Again a prop man moved in, handed the actor a plate, and the action went on. It really was uncanny.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

This particular challenge was especially difficult for Dick Hogan (the actor who played David):

“…This chest with the body inside of it was always in the center of the living room — so far as the audience is aware.

Yet, actually every time the camera crossed the room the chest had to be rolled off stage just in advance of the camera crane. (We couldn’t stop to make new camera setups.) Moving the chest was the assignment of the four prop men crouched on their hands and knees beneath the camera. Not only did they have to move the chest aside on cue but they also had to get it back into the scene again as the camera returned.

And all the time the young actor who played the strangled youth had to remain inside the chest! Since there were no time lapses or camera cuts in the usual scene, he was inside the chest for a full ten minutes, the shooting of 950 feet of film. After the third take, this actor began to get, well, a little tired. ‘I hope to God they get it on this take,’ he said fervently. ‘Those ten minutes seem like ten hours.’” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

Hogan had it much easier than the rest of the cast. He only had to be in that trunk for one reel. The rest of the cast had to flawlessly say their lines and hit their marks for ten minutes with walls and furniture moving at random all around them. James Stewart was extremely uncomfortable with this new shooting. As a matter of fact, the process was so stressful that the actor was unable to sleep at night:

“Stewart, of course, claimed that Rope was the toughest job an actor ever had. And I agreed with him. He told me that he wasn’t sleeping nights. ‘What this means,’ Jimmy said, ‘is that if the rest of the cast is perfect and I fluff a line at, say 895 feet, it becomes the colossal fluff in screen history. The only way it can be reshot is to do the whole scene over again.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘that’s exactly why I picked you for the lead.’

As it was, Stewart had to hang around the set 18 days before making a bona fide entrance for the rolling camera. It was the final dress rehearsal for Reel 3 in which Jimmy makes an entrance while Farley Granger is playing the piano. The piano stopped and silence ensued, as all eyes went to Stewart. He just made it into the room and was ready to open his mouth. ‘Just a minute,’ I said. ‘I’d like you to make your entrance differently.’

Jimmy punched the air in a defeated gesture. ‘Hey, look,’ he complained, ‘I’ve waited three weeks for this!’” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

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Of course, the films huge Technicolor cameras didn’t make the process any easier:

“Technicolor helped but it wasn’t the star of the picture. Rope, incidentally, is the first time I’ve ever directed a Technicolor picture. I never wanted to make a Technicolor picture merely for the sake of using color. I waited until I could find a story in which color could play a dramatic role, and still be muted to a low key. In Rope, sets and costumes are neutralized so that there are no glaring contrasts. The key role played by color in this film is in the background. I insisted that color be used purely as the eye received it.” -Alfred Hitchcock (Popular Photography)

If Hitchcock decided to make the film in color in order to give himself another new challenge to overcome, he succeeded admirably:

“Towards the last four or five reels, in other words, by sunset, I realized that the orange in the sun was far too strong, and on account of that we did the last five reels all over again…The cameraman on Rope [Joseph Valentine] simply said to himself, ‘Well, it’s just another sunset.’ Obviously, he hadn’t looked at one in a long time, if ever at all, and what he did was completely unacceptable; it was like a lurid postcard… After four or five days the cameraman went off ‘sick.’ So I wound up with a Technicolor consultant, and he completed the job with the help of the chief electrician.” – Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

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Obviously, there was little editing to be done on the film once the re-shoots were complete. The completed film is made up of eleven shots (if one includes the opening credits).

The following is a list of shot lengths:

Shot #1 (Opening Credits) – 02:30

Shot #2 – 09:34

Shot #3 – 07:51

Shot #4 – 07:18

Shot #5 – 07:08

Shot #6 – 09:57

Shot #7 – 07:33

Shot #8 – 07:46

Shot #9 – 10:06

Shot #10 – 04:37

Shot #11 – 05:38

One can see that the common belief that all of the shots were ten minutes long is quite untrue. It is also untrue that the director masked every cut by having someone or something pass in front of the camera. The projectors of the era only held two magazines of film at a time. It was necessary to include a traditional cut on every other reel. This reviewer feels that these traditional cuts are less noticeable than those that are masked. For better or worse, the film was finished and all the director could do at this point was hope for success. A lot was riding on the film. Transatlantic Pictures and the director’s ego were in jeopardy.

Alfred Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut that the film was well received, but a look at the major reviews written at the time of release tells a slightly different story. To say that reviews were mixed is being charitable.

Bosley Crowther’s review encapsulates the film’s critical reception nicely:

“The fondness of Alfred Hitchcock for cinematic tours de force is admirable evidence of the agility and aggressiveness of his mind. But it is also a disposition which sometimes leads him to stick out his neck and place it, professionally speaking, in positions of evident peril. It is in such a delicate position that his neck now appears to be lodged as the consequence of his having stretched it in his new film, an item called ‘Rope…’

…The novelty of the picture is not in the drama itself, it being a plainly deliberate and rather thin exercise in suspense, but merely in the method which Mr. Hitchcock has used to stretch the intended tension for the length of the little stunt. And, with due regard for his daring (and for that of Transatlantic Films), one must bluntly observe that the method is neither effective nor does it appear that it could be.

For apart from the tedium of waiting or someone to open that chest and discover the hidden body which the hosts have tucked away for the sake of a thrill, the unpunctuated flow of image becomes quite monotonous. And the effort of application to a story of meager range becomes intense. The physical limitation of the camera to one approach compels it to stay as an eavesdropper on lots of dialogue and lots of business that are dull. And the yarn, by the nature of its writing, is largely action-less…

…Also — and this may be simply a matter of personal taste – the emphasis on the macabre in this small story is frightfully intense. And it seems to this public observer that time could be better spent than by watching a waspish cocktail party in a room with a closely present corpse, placed there by a couple of young men who have killed for a thrill and nothing more…

… The use of Technicolor makes for realism in contrasting hues, but maybe the mood of this story would have come over better in black-and-white.

At all events, the picture takes on a dull tone as it goes and finally ends in a fizzle which is forecast almost from the start.” –New York Times (August 17, 1948)

The only point that this reviewer tends to agree with is that the film might have been better served by black and white photography. One assumes that the film was shot in color in order to enhance the effect of the lighting (such as the sunset outside of the window that caused so many problems during the production). Many of the major publications wrote similar reviews, but the film was able to make a minor profit. Unfortunately, the profit was not so great that it altered the opinions of John Q. Public and the film was perceived by many to be a failure. This is likely the reason that Hitchcock was so critical of the film and his methods during his 1962 interview with Francois Truffaut:

“I undertook Rope as a stunt; that’s the only way I can describe it. I really don’t know how I came to indulge in it…When I look back; I realize that it was quite nonsensical because I was breaking with my own theories on the importance of cutting and montage for the visual narration of a story.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Truffaut recognized Hitchcock’s tendency to dismiss the projects that he perceived as failures and disagreed with the director’s dismissal of his experiment:

I don’t agree that Rope should be dismissed as a foolish experiment, particularly when you look at it in the context of your whole career: a director is tempted by the dream of linking all of a film’s components into a single, continuous action.  In this sense, it’s a positive step in your evolution.” -Francois Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

I agree with Truffaut. Scholarly opinion seems to be split today, but one feels that Rope cannot be discounted as ‘nonsensical.’ A look at the director’s work will show that the two films made for Transatlantic served the director well. Hitchcock’s style evolved because of his approach to these films. Rope is perhaps just as essential to the development of Hitchcock’s style as his move from Britain to America.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

This disc is available as part of The Masterpiece Collection boxed set and as an individual disc.

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The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches.

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork.

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The menu on the disc contains footage from the film accompanied by music in the same style as other Universal Blu-rays.

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Picture Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

While Universal’s 1080p transfer is certainly disappointing, it is a major improvement on previous home video releases of the film. Much of the film plays in medium or full shots, so the film benefits greatly from the added resolution. The 35mm photography is sometimes soft, but detail is often impressive in closer shots. The muted color pallet sometimes looks as if it isn’t properly represented, but this never becomes an obvious issue. There is occasional haloing and film damage is noticeable at times, but these issues are never distracting. One doubts that the film will ever look any better a home video format without a substantial amount of money being thrown into a restoration. The transfer looks much better than it has on any DVD release and fans will likely feel that it is worth upgrading to this disc.

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Sound Quality:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

The included two-channel DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix isn’t perfect either. Voices sometimes sound quite thin and the music tends to sound a bit muted at times. These issues never become a major problem, and dialogue is always clear and intelligible. There is little to no audible hiss to speak of either. The track will probably suit the requirements of most casual consumers.

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Special Features:

3.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Rope Unleashed – (SD) – (32 min)

Any documentary on the making of Rope is certain to be interesting. Hume Cronyn discusses adapting the play into a treatment with Hitchcock, and screenwriter Arthur Laurents discusses his work on the screenplay, as well as the rather risque subtext of homosexuality in the film. This is an extremely informative documentary and its only flaw seems to be that there isn’t more information included about the unusual method that Hitchcock employed to shoot the film.

Production Photographs – (SD)

This gallery offers promotional stills, posters, behind the scenes photographs, and lobby cards.

Trailer – (SD) – (2 min)

Rope has an extremely interesting trailer that uses very little footage from the film. Instead, we see a glimpse of David and Janet before the former’s tragic death. James Stewart then addresses the audience as he discusses the case.

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Final Words:

Fans of the master of suspense and students of cinema should not be without this film in their collection. The importance of the film makes up for the slightly disappointing transfer (which is an improvement over previous home video releases).

Review by: Devon Powell