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From the archive | Helen Simpson’s Under Capricorn made a decades-long journey from novel to film to TV to DVD. Alfred Hitchcock’s version was a revealing stop-off along the way

Tanya Dalziell 4 October 2016 2813 words

Finished, the work of art: Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock filming Under Capricorn.

First published in May 2014

From the first time we see Lady Henrietta in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1949 filmic adaptation of Helen Simpson’s novel Under Capricorn (1937), we know something isn’t quite right. The film is set in Sydney in 1831, a kind of costume-drama-meets-historical-romance, and the scene in question is a dinner party attended by male guests only: their wives have sent their apologies. The camera moves down the length of the table and rests on Samson Flusky, Lady Henrietta’s husband, played by Joseph Cotten. Out of his line of sight, but obvious to all present, Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman) appears in the dining room and the cut to her signals the conclusion of a long take that lasts many minutes of screen time.

In practical terms, the take has involved an enormous Technicolour camera supported by a crane attached to a massive dolly tracking and panning with great agility the set constructed at Elstree, careening up and down staircases and hallways as crew and actors alike dodged to keep out of its way. Yet, unlike the guests who would be able to witness Lady Hattie in her dishevelled entirety, presumably, the audience is permitted only a fetishised vision of this woman. We are first afforded a glimpse of bare feet peeping out from a dress hem: this is not what one would expect of a lady in the company of gentlemen in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

Then we are given a close-up of Flusky; he is looking ill-at-ease and the shot emphasises the placement of a woman’s hands on his shoulders, a wedding-band catching the light. (Under Capricorn was Hitchcock’s second film in colour.) Whether this gesture is one of imprisonment or affection is unclear. Either way, this is our abrupt cinematic introduction to Lady Henrietta, one that both is reasonably faithful to Simpson’s rendition of her as drunk and looking like “a goddess careless of human clothing, or some heroine of antiquity run nobly mad,” and establishes her as fashioned not only through male fantasies but also by means of Jack Cardiff’s remarkable cinematography.

With hindsight, Lady Hattie is an obvious subject for Hitchcock. If Vertigo (1958), arguably now one of his most famous films, has as its creepy centrepiece the reconstruction of a woman in the image of the male protagonist’s desire, then both film and book versions of Under Capricorn set Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), an impecunious relative of the recently arrived governor of New South Wales, the task of restoring Henrietta to her past glory, good name and public standing. As it turns out, Adare is successful: in the book, he is seen peering through a “peephole” at Lady Hattie as she is reacquainted with the society that has previously shunned her, enticing the reader to “Look at her, look at her, my lovely creature that I made out of a drinky slattern, a boozy frowsy poor slut with no friend but her bottle of gin... Finished, the work of art.” In the film, this marvellous resurrection, inspired by unrequited love, prompts the climactic revelation that Henrietta has murdered in the past, a crime for which her husband has done the time.

Flusky, an Irishman, continues to carry the transported convict taint, at least in the eyes of the new governor and those agents of empire he represents, even as, or perhaps because, he has become a wealthy man on his emancipation. In the book, the climax turns more around the exposure of the tub-thumping Christian housekeeper, Milly (Margaret Leighton), who has been plying Lady Hattie with alcohol all along in the hope that her employer’s affections will settle upon her rather than her mistress. And reconciliation of class and English–Irish tensions in the colonies is marked both by Adare who, having been sent on a fruitless search for gold, is united with his true love, Susan Quaife, the daughter of the colony’s former hangman turned barber, and the cheerful decision taken to bury the trophy-head of an Indigenous man that has been stowed away in the liquor cabinet to dissuade Lady Hattie from drinking. By contrast, the film ends with Adare setting sail with a broken heart and a gun wound (Flusky had shot him in a jealous rage) in the knowledge that Flusky and Lady Henrietta are firmly together once again.

Less obvious a topic for Hitchcock is the colonial past of Australia, and the cinematic story he tells goes well beyond both the bustles and cravats showcased in the promotional stills published in the Australian Women’s Weekly in February 1950 and the headline abridgment of the film as it appeared in the magazine, Woman, in August 1949: “Bergman’s London-made film has Australian setting.” The plot summary, stepped out into eight acts by the Weekly for ease of explanation and in line with some accusations that the film was nothing more than a stagy melodrama – “1. Freed 2. Broken 3. Visiting 4. Inflamed 5. Struggle 6. Confession 7. Poison 8. Reunited” – skirts around the significance of the Australian setting to which Woman gives a passing nod. But the film expressly announces itself as a story rooted in particular versions of Australian colonial history. In a stylistic manner that would be familiar to viewers of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008), the opening credits roll out over a framed and neatly creased map of Australia: a similar map appears on the publicity posters, along with the useful caution “Not Suitable For Children.” The initial shots establish Australia, or more precisely Sydney, as a sequence of filmic visuals while an authoritative voice-over skips across selected details of British colonisation: these include Captain Cook’s discovery of the continent to the establishment of penal settlements and the appointment of a new governor to New South Wales in 1831. The voiceover culminates in the commanding determination: “And now our story begins.”

It is an abbreviated, linear, matter-of-fact origin story of sorts, one that wilfully masks breaches of violence against Aboriginal people. Yet, these acts nevertheless re-emerge uncannily, not least when a seller of shrunken Indigenous heads approaches a rattled Flusky in the streets of Sydney. It seems that Flusky is intuitively identified as a potential buyer of the head because of his convict past, his Irish heritage and his current wealth; he is singled out in this manner because he represents a fault-line around which anxieties concerning unstable class hierarchies and English–Irish relations in the colonies are played out in the film. That he violently rebuffs the approach speaks volumes to the claims to civility and modernity he is endeavouring to make in the colony as imagined tabula rasa.

In other words, Australia does not simply serve as the film’s inconsequential backdrop as Woman’s banner might suggest; the film, as with the book, necessarily registers formally and thematically an uneasy acknowledgement of Indigenous presence and colonial dispossession. It does this at the same time that it upholds the purported potential to present oneself (or certain selves) afresh in the so-called New World, a caprice perhaps all the more urgent, and appealing, during the postwar period in which Hitchcock was planning for and filming Under Capricorn.

Under Capricorn was the second of two films Hitchcock directed as part of the production company Transatlantic Pictures he established with Sidney Bernstein in the mid 1940s, with Warner Bros. as the studio partner. The time seemed right for such a step: Hitchcock was increasingly annoyed with interference in his films by producer David O. Selznick and a change in the British tax laws in 1947 meant, as David Sterritt has detailed, that Transatlantic Pictures was well-placed to function as a “potential tax-free conduit for money made by US companies in their strongest overseas market.” As it happens, the film was a financial disaster. Transatlantic Pictures was liquidated soon after the film’s release and the film itself was repossessed by Bankers Trust Company, which had financed it, with the result that it was not shown for a number of years.

But Hitchcock was a film-maker and not a futurologist. He originally intended Under Capricorn rather than Rope (1948) to be the first film made within this new arrangement, but Bergman was unavailable at the time and James Bridie, who ended up writing the screenplay for Under Capricorn based on Hume Cronyn’s adaptation of the novel, rejected the initial invitation. Nevertheless, Under Capricorn was kept on the books, and Hitchcock persisted in engaging the select writers (those who had worked on Rope, although the scriptwriter Arthur Laurents declined to participate) and actors, particularly Bergman, “the biggest star of the day,” he wanted for the project.

Hitchcock’s choice of Bergman generated inches of column space in Australian newspapers, which noted with much excitement and anticipation her appearance in a film set in Australia. And as a less-than-impressed Lydia Carra (née Lo Schiavo) would later recall (and as Marilla North has documented), Bergman actually had the choice of working at this time on one of two filmic adaptation of Australian novels. With Dymphna Cusack’s encouragement Carra, Cusack’s friend and Hollywood gossip-columnist, had sold to 20th Century Fox in 1947 the option to the manuscript of Come In Spinner (1951), which Cusack co-wrote with Florence James and which was a bestselling novel set in wartime Sydney. When Carra went to sign the deal, Bergman was in the office and informed her that she had not read Come In Spinner but had read Under Capricorn, with the latter proving to be her preference. As a result, “I had the satisfaction of seeing Under Capricorn bomb,” Carra writes.

Despite Carra’s obvious pleasure, Hitchcock would lament to the French New Wave director François Truffaut that, “With all the enthusiasm we invested in that picture, it was a shame that it didn’t amount to anything.” It was a sentiment many critics shared at the time of the film’s release. True, the Melbourne Age waxed lyrical (and somewhat inaccurately) not about the film’s aesthetics but rather its earning potential, stating in September 1949 that “a British film about Australian life in 1831… is proving to be a dollar earner… and already more than 1,8000,000 dol. accruing from it have been paid into the Bank of England.”

Yet most reviewers at best agreed that the film was B-grade Hitchcock, with those working with the director wondering aloud what had attracted him to the novel in the first instance and what had possessed him to run with the idea of adapting it for the screen. (The option was rumoured to have been dirt cheap.) After all, and as Hitchcock recognised, by 1949 he had carved out for himself the position as a specialist of the thriller and suspense genre, and Under Capricorn did not try to come close to fulfilling the expectations this form carried. So audiences and critics alike were flummoxed at Hitchcock directing a historical romance, one set in colonial Australia at that, and didn’t think much of the effort. The notable exception was the French director Alexandre Astruc. Astruc championed the film in the French monthly cinema magazine, Cahiers du Cinéma, and in 1958 the publication voted Under Capricorn not only Hitchcock’s best film but also one of the ten greatest films to date. Today Under Capricorn suffers from serious critical neglect by comparison to the attention now lavished upon well-known Hitchcock-directed films.

The fate of Simpson’s novel is similar to that of the film, although on its release in 1937 the book was well-received. A reviewer in the London Times declared that Under Capricorn “is a professional novel in the sense that the reader is not required to put up with dullness,” and commended the writing for being “smooth, exact and fluent” and never having “to pause for a picture, a lively sketch of character or a turn of phrase.” A contemporaneous review in Desiderata, an Australian literary journal published during the 1930s, gave higher praise to Under Capricorn and its apparent realist outlook on the basis of its role in the production of an identifiable Australian literature. “Helen Simpson offers this book as a contribution to her country, and a worthy one it is,” wrote Desiderata’s reviewer. “She has recaptured the atmosphere of those early years and woven an admirable story of the incongruous lives of her characters. From the point of view of construction this may be judged her best novel.” There is not a hint here, or in Under Capricorn, of Simpson’s abiding (and transnational) passion for detective fiction and demonology.

Judges of Simpson’s first book on Australia, Boomerang (1932), thought that book her best, awarding it the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, Britain’s oldest and most prestigious literary award, despite, or perhaps because, it features, among other characters, a visiting female author to late nineteenth-century Sydney charged with the crime of “white slaving… hand in glove with low Chinese.” Simpson was herself a visiting writer to Australia on occasion, having moved from Sydney to France, and then England, as a young woman to live with her divorced mother and to study at Oxford. What prompted her return to Australia were not the mythical opium dens on which the racist fantasy of Boomerang rested but rather family ties and invitations issued by the Australian Broadcasting Commission to participate in on-air shows.

By 1937, when Simpson returned to Australia to lecture, to publicise Under Capricorn and to undertake research for a new epic novel she had in mind, she enjoyed a literary reputation, and this accolade was not misplaced. She wrote prolifically and widely, from a biography of Mary Kingsley titled A Woman Among Wild Men (1938) to Mumbudget (1928), a collection of fairy tales; The Happy Housewife (1934) a book on the domestic arts, and The Woman on the Beast (1933), a curious novel, the third part of which features a future Australia. Here gambling on horse races and tourism are the main attractions; Federation is only a memory preserved in an old song that, in turn, is “long since transformed after the way of politics dead, into a children’s game;” and two religious faiths, Orange and Green, preside.

Simpson may well have been what we would now call an expatriate writer. But, if she is quoted correctly in conclusion to the Desiderata article on Under Capricorn – “Faith in a great future; hope in work; a wise charity. These are the gifts of Australia to those who serve her, now as then” – she entertained a specific attachment to an idea of Australia, one which might be said to underpin the novel Under Capricorn itself (or, it might have been that she was astute when speaking to Australian media and knew when to push the right patriotic buttons).

Under Capricorn was not the first time Simpson’s writing had been adapted for the big screen; her novel Saraband for Dead Lovers (1935) was made into a film, a costume drama set in the eighteenth century and the first colour film to come out of Ealing Studios in 1948. With Clemence Dane, Simpson had written the novel Enter Sir John (1928), on which Hitchcock based the film thriller Murder! (1930), and she also earned a writing credit on Hitchcock’s Sabotage (1936), based on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907). Yet, Simpson died in 1940, before Hitchcock began his film adaptation of her novel and Ealing Studios produced Saraband for Dead Lovers; and she didn’t get to hear the 1948 serialisation of Under Capricorn on ABC radio, which Colin Roderick adapted for the medium.

Thirty-five years later, in 1983, a television mini-series based on the novel, made with the financial backing of the South Australian Film Corporation, was released. Tony Morphett, one of the most well-known writers for Australian television, restored to the series the romance between Charles Adare and Susan Quaife that Hitchcock had excised, and the stage sets of Elstree were swapped for South Australian locations and studios. The effusive publicity surrounding the mini-series and its DVD incarnation describes the small screen version as “scorching” and in the style of Gone with the Wind (1936) (perhaps because both feature large houses and flouncy dresses). But Simpson’s own modest, contradictory description of the original novel – “a highly coloured, improbable and simple story” – might be a better, if not so sexy, appreciation of a narrative centred on early nineteenth-century Sydney that has found itself transformed across twentieth-century media. •