Grade: B-Paradine Case, The (1947)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Stars: Gregory Peck, Ann Todd, Charles Laughton

Release Company: United Artists

MPAA Rating: NR

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Hitchcock: The Paradine Case


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One of Hitchcock's least regarded films, The Paradine Case was never remembered fondly by the Master himself, other than for the fact that it ended Hitch's contractual obligation to David O. Selznick in 1947. Noting that the domineering Selznick also gets a screenwriting credit, Hitchcock would retain far more control in the rest of his projects, leading to his best decade of filmmaking. Most of the flaws that Hitchcock attributes to the film revolve around bad casting calls, many leading directly to Selznick's door.

Thinking Alida Valli would develop into another Ingrid Bergman, Selznick signed her for the role of Mrs. Paradine. Those expectations are far too high, but Valli effectively plays the seductive nymphomaniac Frenchwoman who is accused of murdering her husband. What Hitch considers the worst casting decision was assigning handsome young contract actor Louis Jourdan the role of Paradine's valet, removing the irony that would have resulted when Mrs. Paradine is confronted with her lover.
Hitchcock wanted to use Robert Newton for the role, stating that this key character "should have been a manure-smelling stable hand, a man who really reeked of manure."

The Master also considered English actor Ronald Colman for the leading role of English lawyer Anthony Keane and preferred Laurence Olivier, but ended up with Gregory Peck (who starred in Hitch's Spellbound and made a career of being directors' second choices in the fifties when Cary Grant would turn down a role). Peck valiantly grays his temples to make himself look older, but audiences must suspend belief when Peck dons his barrister wig to defend his client in the Old Bailey courtroom.

The source material for the screenplay comes from Robert Hichens' 1933 novel which, in turn, was based on two actual English murder cases--the 1923 case of Madame Fahmy, found innocent after killing her Egyptian prince husband at the Savoy Hotel after discovering he had been intimate with his male secretary, and the 1889 case of Florence Maybrick, found guilty of poisoning her husband after he had likely discovered she was having an affair. Mixing those two scenarios, The Paradine Case begins with a wealthy attractive widow being arrested for poisoning her elderly, blind husband. She delivers one of the film's better lines when explaining to the servants, "I don't think I shall be back for dinner."

Hitchcock fans anticipate another of his famous "innocent person wrongly accused" themes, but this woman is a brunette! Hitch's heroines are always blondes, aren't they? He's taking a different approach, though he remains true to his psychological base, as he explains to Truffaut:
"It may be an expression of my own fear, but I've always felt the drama of a situation in which a normal person is suddenly deprived of freedom and incarcerated with hardened criminals. There's nothing to it when a habitual lawbreaker, like a drunk is involved, but I am intrigued by the contrast in shading when it happens to a person of a certain social standing."
Of course, in this day of O. J. Simpson and the like, we realize that the wealthy and famous are never convicted, and the social standing of Mrs. Paradine requires the finest defense lawyer in the British Isles.

Enter Anthony Keane (Peck). Not only does Keane never lose a case, he's an upright married man with a beautiful blonde wife (Ann Todd as Gay), who should maintain professional decorum with the seductive native Italian defendant that makes "old ruins," like senior law partner Sir Simon Flaquer, (Charles Coburn) take notice.

The first indications of potential trouble occur when Keane suggests to his wife that they consider vacationing in Venice instead of Switzerland--it's warmer and more romantic there, he reasons. Soon his obsession with his new client becomes obvious to all, including the London tabloid press. Keane becomes a workaholic, staying up all hours and visiting his client far more than normal, yet his trusting wife continues to believe in him. The line between dedication and sexual lust may be indistinguishable to the naked eye; Hitch will later develop similar obsessions much more fully in Vertigo, but the origins for Stewart's character are evident with Keane.

Despite
Hitchcock's stated weaknesses about the central cast, the always-enjoyable Charles Laughton pulls off some the best scenes in his haughty role as Judge Lord Thomas Horfield. Hitch's humor surfaces through the lecherous Laughton. Before he's introduced, others refer to his boorish stories about young girls, so naturally that's exactly what he talks about over dinner in a jump cut. Hitch's famous camera struts its stuff after the dinner scene through Laughton's eyes as he gazes at Todd's bare shoulder, plops right beside her (shifting uncomfortably closer), and makes a direct pass at her. Laughton is not all about lustfulness, however; he gets the biggest laughs in the courtroom with his offhanded dry remarks, and he has a great scene contrasting his views of justice with those of his sympathetic wife (Ethel Barrymore).

Characteristically,
Hitchcock's camera provides the biggest thrills of The Paradine Case. The trial itself plays rather dryly, and too many talking heads in the script make this more difficult to watch than most Hitchcock movies. Still, two particularly stunning shots occur in the courtroom that play on his theme of obsession. The first involves an awesome camera shot that Hitch uses to give impression that Valli feels Jourdan's presence--he fixes the camera on her face as Jourdan comes into background while the camera simultaneously pans around the courtroom. This is achieved by shooting first without Valli and then photographing her in foreground on revolving stool. Equally impressive is tracking shot that continually frames Valli when Jourdan leaves through a circular route. Both involve complicated camera movements while retaining Valli as the central focus—just like the major characters.

No one will argue that The Paradine Case stands alongside
Hitchcock's greatest films, but it should get more play as part of his canon. Selznick has a far larger role controlling the film than Hitch was comfortable with, yet the Master's touches continue to shine through, illustrating his impeccable visual sense, his dry humor, and themes that will be far better developed in the following decade.
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