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Week 32: ‘The Paradine Case’ – 1947

August 14, 2010

Oh, dear. After two classics Hitchcock directs this really rather stodgy piece of courtroom (lack of) drama which is all rather heavy going and ultimately feels a bit flabby and pointless.

Gregory Peck (so good in ‘Spellbound’) plays the barrister (An)t(h)ony Keane (with a slightly zone-hopping British accent) brought in to defend the attractive Mrs. Paradine (Alida Valli – here credited just as ‘Valli’) after she is accused of poisoning her wealthy blind husband. As the case continues, the married Tony starts to fall for the bewitching Mrs. P., his wife Gay (Ann Todd) realizing she is potentially losing her husband. Gay is blonde and straight English, Mrs. Paradine raven haired and foreign accented, Tony falling for the attraction of the exotic.

The essential problem in regards to the film, it would seem, is that uber producer and general steamrollering megalomaniac David O. Selznick (whose relationship with Hitchcock over the past few features had always been somewhat prickly) heavily re-wrote the screenplay himself (and is the only credited writer on the final film). Always a dangerous game as the producer’s role of steering a film towards its most artistic and commercial success will always be marred when the self-same person is responsible for a key creative element in that process. Selznick’s previous screenwriting experience (aside from story suggestions and the like) was 1946’s frankly overwrought and close-to-being-mental Gregory Peck and Mrs. Selznick (Jennifer Jones) starrer ‘Duel in the Sun’, which has similarly limited success (although I have to say is pretty compelling in an off-the-rails kind of way).

On the plus side, Lee Garmes’ photography is beautiful to behold, as sleek and lovely as ‘Spellbound’ and ‘Notorious’ – as a visual experience the film succeeds very well (Garmes also worked on both ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘Duel in the Sun’ so obviously was a Selznick staple). Similarly, at times the camera moves fluidly and seductively and Hitchcock attempts to inject some creativity into this area, although he’s hampered a little by the subject matter (it being courtroom based for a good deal of the running time). There’s a lovely track to Mrs. Paradine in profile as the detectives at the start confront her – and later when we first meet Tony, the camera sweeps upstairs and continues to roam elegantly around the couple’s home.

In this Case, the older actors in the film seem to shine brighter than their younger counterparts: the venerable Charles Coburn plays Sir Simon Flaquer and he’s top drawer – he has a great authority to his performance and is believable as the older experienced lawyer. I liked him a lot in this and also in Douglas Sirk’s ‘Has Anybody seen My Gal’ in which he also corners the market on fusty old fellas. (No relation to James by the way).

Charles Laughton (Judge Lord Thomas Horfield) seems to see the movie as another excuse for some very entertaining scenery chewing, revelling in the chance to indulge his dirty old manliness. As the gentlemen join the ladies after dinner, Laughton spots Gay’s naked shoulder and Hitchcock throws in a brief zoom to this bare fleshed detail to express the old letch’s interest. The Judge then clutches Gay’s hand and places it on his thigh and clings to it – it’s all a bit cringy but does give them film a bit of a saucy lift, which is much needed.

He is a big slab of ham though, even moreso than in ‘Jamaica Inn’. His relationship with his wife (Lady Sophie, played by Hollywood royalty Ethel Barrymore) is spiky to say the least – he telling her to shut up as she dares to try to alter his decision regarding the doomed Mrs. Paradine.

Plus we get the great Leo G. Carroll popping up as the prosecutor Sir Joseph in the final court scenes – always good to see this fantastic character actor after he blew his head off so elegantly at the end of ‘Spellbound’.

I didn’t really buy Peck and Todd as a couple and they seem to have not a lot/jot of chemistry between them – you feel sympathy for Tony as he drifts to attraction for the witchy Mrs. Paradine when compared to his cold fish of a wife. It’s like he wants a bit of drama in his life – and certainly gets it. In all the Hitchcock movies, I do think that Ann Todd is one of the least attractive of all his blonde leading ladies – and Valli (for all her being set up as the object of various male lustings) is not all that either. Hitchcock seems to sense the lack of chemistry between his central couple and therefore consistently has them kissing and cuddling to make up for this – there’s much more of this playful married-ness than in any previous film and it’s a bit uncomfortable to watch in a ‘oh, just get a room/oh, you’re married – do we have to watch?’ kind of way.

Todd is very good in the scene where she says to Tony she wants Mrs. P. to live – she wants the fight to be an even one and if she dies it will be Rebecca-like: Mrs. P. will become ‘your great lost love’. She urges Tony to win the case and get her free and to do the most brilliant job he can. You have to love the ladies for their insight, I have to say.

Hitchcock plays around with jail cell bars at times – most notably when Gay is gazing at her husband and is literally framed behind bars, then her p.o.v. showing Tony trapped.

It seems to express their marriage as a kind of prison, and the temptress Mrs. Paradine as offering freedom to the husband – the more he sees her the more entranced he becomes and Gay (and Sir Simon) know it. Mrs. Paradine herself also is heavily placed within barred framings at various times, not least when Andre Latour (Louis Jourdan) leaves the courtroom and looks back at her. Latour is the deceased’s valet and Mrs. Paradine’s fancy man. It’s also interesting how, when Mrs. Paradine is first brought to her jail cell, the music stops dead as the cell door slams shut, that’ll learn her. Interesting that even in jail Mrs. P. gets to have a bottle of wine over lunch – I could understand if it was her last lunch but the trial is still going on…maybe it’s the rest of the poisoned burgundy that finished off her husband.

One of the most interesting characters in the film is Sir Simon’s daughter, Judy Flaquer (Joan Tetzel). She operates outside the main thrust of the story and acts like a commentator on proceedings when in conversation with fusty old dad and in the courtroom gallery with Gay. She pities Gay when Sir Simon tells her that Mrs. Paradine is ‘fascinating’ and even though he’s ‘an old ruin’ she still brings his pulse ‘up a beat or two’. Judy has a nicely cynical and wanton feel to her – she clearly fancies Tony herself and would have him ‘jumping through hoops’ if she was married to him ‘for an hour’. She’s fascinated by the case, much to her father’s chagrin. ‘Men who’ve been good too long get a longing for the mud and want to wallow in it’ – what a great line from Selznick. Then he hits us with: ‘the best men always end up with the worst women’ – Judy gets all the best dialogue in the film. The filmmakers could have made her a much more gossipy and unlikable figure, but resist this admirably – she comes across as intrigued but supportive and all the better for this.

The growing marital tension is an interesting part of the film, he torn between doing his job and the potential destruction of his marriage and his attraction to the spellbinding Mrs. Paradine. Gay knows that what she offers is ‘cosy, comfortable’ and as she draws back the bedcovers alone we dissolve to Tony’s Cumberland country adventure* as he tracks down the mysterious figure of Latour. Tony gains access to Mrs. Paradine’s bedroom and sees her bed – featuring a large painting of her on the bedstead (who does this by the way? It would throw you right off your stride).

Tony’s fascination feels very lascivious here – he prowling around her bed chamber taking in her underclothes and different aspects of her life, the music sweeping in romantically: it feels like a love scene with one party absent**.

Latour himself is screamingly guilty and immediately comes across as a suspicious sort. When we first ‘see’ Latour he is in shadow and this also underlines his mystery and otherness. ‘Never seem quite the same do they sir?’ says his driver in regards to the foreigner Latour in a matter of fact racist way.

Jourdan’s acting veers into the melodramatic and in truth he’s not actually that good – all dead eyes and subtle accents, and later in the courtroom lots of forehead sweat. The interrogation in Tony’s rooms features some very fluid and sweeping camerawork – again a bold attempt to give the scene some life and interest and inject some excitement into what is some very stilted dialogue. ‘She’s bad – bad to the bone –if ever there was an evil woman, she is one’ – wow! Selznick (or the previous writers) do spin out some great lines but it’s the structure of the film that is at fault and the sometime dawdling nature of some of the scenes – including this one.

The courtroom segments are a tad staid, covering a lot of detail and unavoidably getting a bit bogged down. However, the director injects as much style as he can, swooping the camera around whenever it makes sense to do so. Gay and Judy sit in the public gallery commenting on the action and helpfully guiding us through what is going on. Tony constantly addresses Latour just by his surname – is this allowed in court? It seems to be pointing the finger of guilt just by sounding disrespectful and aggressive. Tony’s questioning of Latour is pretty lengthy and you can feel the director trying to come up with different angles and viewpoints – culminating in big intense close ups of the witness and his inquisitor. At these points it suddenly feels like a Hitchcock movie amidst all the repeated shot/reverse/shotness. I think the most impressive sequence is in the courtroom scenes when Latour enters and the camera glides around Mrs. P. as he moves behind her. Hitchcock pretty much reverses this in the shot as Latour leaves following his testimony, again rather elegantly.

The ending of the film is by far one of the feeblest in all Hitchcock. We don’t have the drama of a final verdict after all the courtroom chicanery and endless dialogue – Mrs. Paradine’s fate only confirmed by the Judge spitting it out at his beleaguered wife. Instead we finish on a united husband and wife scene with Gay pledging her undying to Tony and telling him he needs a shave (?!) It really feels a disappointing and aimless closing to the sheer amount of blustering information that has come at us from the previous two hours or so.

Courtroom dramas are tough to do well (see Laughton’s memorable turn in Billy Wilder’s ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ or the great Cruise/Nicholson standoff in ‘A Few Good Men’) and Hitchcock fumbles the whole thing here, unable to inject his expected magic into scenes that at times drag on in a turgid and rather pointless way. ‘The Paradine Case’ takes its usually shining stars and dulls them into submission – it’s a pretty tough watch and a real setback after the triumphs of the previous few movies.

Miscellaneous notes

Nice sweeping staircase at the Keane’s pad – a gentle curvy one to parade up and down and crane that camera. Very similar composition of Peck coming upstairs to Grant in ‘Suspicion’ also:

* The exterior scenes in Cumberland, by the way, use a double for Peck – carefully keeping the imposter’s face turned away from camera in some cases. It’s always interesting to understand the financial logistics of shooting and the saving of cash by not having to transport the lead actor to a location. This would most probably be shot by a second unit also, rather than the director himself.

There’s a slightly odd zoom to the shot in the Paradine’s home at 40 mins in – clearly added in post production, the quality of the image suffering the larger the image becomes.

** It has the feeling of ‘Rebecca’ here – a fascination with a departed object of affection.

Hitchcock appears lugging a double bass and – like his emergence from the lift in ‘Spellbound’ smoking a cigarette in a slightly effete manner.

I watched the final 109 minute version on the UK Fremantle label – as per ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Spellbound’ lovely quality all round. According to IMDb the original release was 132 minutes but Ethel Barrymore’s scenes amongst others were edited out by producer David O. Selznick.

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