Alfred Hitchcock was just coming off his experiment with Rope, where he tried to make the whole film in real time with as few camera cuts as possible. He was limited by how many minutes a camera of that time could film, which was about ten minutes. He later called that a stunt. But he was still interested in the idea of long, long takes. And there are a lot of them here. Such long takes presented a big technical challenge back then. They had to design special dollies and cranes to move the bulky Technicolor cameras around, and it was a challenge to the grips, who had to soundlessly move furniture, cables, and sometimes even walls. The scenes required long rehearsal times and Hitch had to have actors who could actually learn lines, sometimes a great many lines, and hit their marks unerringly. I suspect that many movie actors weren’t up to that challenge. Like Marilyn Monroe, who could go through 50 takes before getting a line right, or Marlon Brando, who had his lines taped up all over the set. But Joseph Cotton, Ingrid Bergman, Michael Wilding, and Margaret Leighton all do very well.
I’m sure that today’s audiences, used to the easy, continuous, trackless movement of the steadicam and the camera-less moves of CGI, won’t even notice the long takes.
This was one of Hitchcock’s least successful movies at the box office. (Most critics hated it, except the French, who thought it was one of Hitch’s best. The French; go figure, huh?) I had seen it so long ago that I had completely forgotten it. I assumed it was a terrible movie, but it’s not really so bad. It’s a rare costume drama for Hitchcock, and the story is interesting, at first. Cotton is a prosperous ex-convict in New South Wales in 1831, a supremely bitter man who resents the upper classes who won’t let him in. This leads him to wildly inappropriate behavior, which in itself is a good enough reason to ostracize him. Bergman is his wife, teetering on the edge of madness, drinking herself to death with the connivance of a truly wicked ladies’ maid who has a crush on the master. Wilding is a young playboy who drops in on the situation, with explosive results. I’m afraid it all got a bit muddled at the end. I thought Bergman was going to be sent back to Ireland to be tried for the murder Cotton took the blame for, but for some reason that plot line seems to have been just dropped. By no means one of his best, but worth watching.