Jump to: navigation, search

CineAction (2000) - Under Capricorn: Hitchcock in Transition




It is fitting that Under Capricorn was Ingrid Bergman's last 'studio' film (her third and final project with Alfred Hitchcock) prior to her series of collaborative works with Roberto Rossellini in Italy. Under Capricorn is a film which exemplifies a particular system of filmmaking production — identifiable as a Bergman star vehicle, a variant of the gothic melodrama, an Alfred Hitchcock film — but is also an adieu to it. Planned as a 'prestige' production, it was to be the debut film for Hitchcock and producer Sidney Bernstein's nascent Transatlantic Pictures, to be shot in Britain after almost a decade of Hitchcock's working in Hollywood. Because Bergman was engaged in other projects, the film was delayed until she was available and consequently was the company's second production following Rope. It was unpopular with the public and critical community alike. Aside from the attention and support the film received from Cahiers du Cinema and its critics (Jean Domarchi's review appeared in Cahiers du Cinema No. 39, Jacques Rivette's in La Gazette du Cinema No. 4, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol include a brief discussion in Hitchcock, New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979) and a valuable reading of Under Capricorn in the context of Bergman's star image by Robin Wood in Hitchcock's Films Revisited (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989) the film remains virtually ignored.

Under Capricorn deliberately evokes the memory of earlier achievements. It summons forth the gothic melodrama and Bergman's star persona as a form of shorthand, to address the tensions surrounding gender relations and specifically, the institution of marriage, but then remarkably moves beyond the familiar parameters it signals through its rejection of one of the mainstays which sustains the genre: self-abnegation and sacrifice. The necessity of the woman's sacrifice — she renounces her identity, her right to speak, desire and ultimately, to remain sane, in order to assuage and validate her husband's fragile ego — fuels the intense emotional terrain dramatized in these narratives. If their popularity is attributable to the space they allow for fantasies of resistance (or at least, the articulation of dissatisfaction) they still remain embedded in the values of a society that cannot conceive of marriage as a union rooted in a bond of love and mutual respect that overcomes the inequities of gender and class. It is the entrenchraent of these ideological values that vitalizes the woman's film. The genre gives a shape and form to an unspoken truth, namely, that marital relations are built upon the woman's denial of her strength, her sexuality, her claim to an identity outside of the home. By offering a resolution which envisions the promise of a future for the couple based on a rejection of secrecy and denial, Under Capricorn foresees the possibility of movement beyond the claustration of the gothic. Ultimately, it reclaims the viability of romantic love for the marriage.

Bergman's star persona is a perfect cipher for dramatizing these concerns, and it is not accidental that the flowering of her career and the woman's film, and the Freudian/gothic melodrama in particular, coincided. Bergman's sensuality, intelligence and assertiveness, her secure identity, is threatening to the status quo. A number of critics have remarked upon the trajectory of punishment and abuse that is a typical response to the resistance she naturalizes and presents. Bergman's star persona is inherently transgressive and Hitchcock exploited its oppositional potential twice before Under Capricorn in Spellbound (1945) and Notorious (1946)2. At the same time, the persona, as a figure of positive identification, is radicalized by the star's ability to synthesize opposition with integrity. This extraordinary aspect of the Bergman persona is carefully elaborated and reinforced in a series of key performances in the 40% culminating, arguably, in Cukor's quintessential gothic masterpiece Gaslight. Bergman's genuineness, her inability to collude or pretend is essential to the film's meaning. Often described as "goodness" and "niceness", Bergman maintains her dignity throughout the ordeals she is made to suffer. Ed Gallafent is right to point to Paula's/Ingrid Bergman comment to her oppressive husband, Anton/Charles Boyer in Gaslight as exemplifying this trait. ("Black Satin: Fantasy, Murder and the Couple in Gaslight and Rebecca". Screen, Vol. 29, No. 3, Summer 1998, 54-103 at p. 98). The weight of her simple statement "I never lie to you" resonates, because unlike the duplicitous, egocentric man in whom she has given her trust, she has been honest and genuine consistently. It is not, therefore, surprising that trial by fire, renunciation or illness are the most common solutions to the problem she poses: her refusal to be guilty.

Hitchcock created Under Capricorn for Ingrid Bergman and claimed in an interview with François Truffaut that he thought "this was a story for a woman". (Hitchcock, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967, p. 138). The face, by the end of the decade which witnessed the inauguration of the...

[ to view the rest of the article, please try one of the links above ]


  1. See Andrew Britton's definitive reading of Spellbound, "Spellbound: Text and Subtext". CineAction 3/4 (1985) as well as his comments on Notorious in Cary Grant: Comedy and Male Desire, Tyneside Cinema 1983.
  2. Mario Ponzi made this comment in reference to Europa '51 "Due o tre cose su Roberto Rossellini", Cinema e film 1 No. 2 Spring 67, p. 25.