Monday, August 4, 2008

The case against The Paradine Case

Gregory Peck and Ann Todd in Alfred Hitchcock's The Paradine Case. Thanks to Beaky for the picture.

The Paradine Case is an excellent example of a movie that would have been much better before the Production Code. It was based on 1933 novel, in which the femme fatale, Mrs. Paradine, was partially inspired by the characters Greta Garbo played in the 20s and early 30s. It's the story of a beautiful young woman (Alida Valli) accused of poisoning her elderly, blind husband and the effect her case has on her defense attorney (Gregory Peck). One could imagine sympathy being with Mrs. Paradine, as it often was with murderesses in those pre-code movies and one could imagine the attorney's wife as being sympathetic too, but when she's beaten by the more glamorous woman, just walking out on her philandering husband. David O. Selznick jumped on the rights to the novel and attempted many drafts of a screen play that would pass through censors. There were objections to Mrs. Paradine's character as well as that of the judge who is presented as a sadist who enjoys sending people to the gallows. Fifteen years later Selznick, with help from Alma Reville and Ben Hecht, finally had a screenplay that was acceptable. Hitchcock directs, but the movie lacks the tension that drives his films forward. The courtroom scenes are a masterpiece of carefully orchestrated camera movements in a static environment and yet without that MacGuffin, the last forty-five minutes of the movie actually drag.

Laurence Olivier was the first choice for the role of Anthony Keane, an English Barrister and after a raft of other actors turned down the part, Gregory Peck was cast. He adds some fake white streaks to his hair to appear older, but doesn't use an English accent. This is odd and there is no attempt to explain it in the script. At one point it is actually quite distracting when one of the people he's interviewing for the case says that "LaTour seems different because he's a foreigner." The line just sits there, waiting for the guy to say "no offense" or for Peck to react in some way.

I'm willing to suspend disbelief though and I did enjoy The Paradine Case, though the enjoyment came from an unexpected corner--the relationship between Keane and his wife, Gay (Ann Todd). Ann Todd plays vulnerable well, without being mousy or helpless. She reminds me of Joan Fontaine in this regard. She also looks quite a bit like Fontaine, I think. So think of her as Fontaine, without the eyebrow acting. If they wanted to show a man being tempted to stray, they shouldn't have made his wife so appealing and gone to the trouble of showing that they seem to have a happy love life. It's difficult to watch her stand by her man, as she becomes aware that he is in love with, or thinks he's in love with another woman. Then she gives this crazy speech about how he has to be successful in helping her because otherwise she'll have to compete unfairly with a dead woman. It's hard to feel sympathy here because you want her to react in a way that natural. It feels like that speech was a deliberate concession to the censors. Another concession to the censors is made by toning Charles Laughton as the creepy sadist judge. Hitchcock leaves in a few hints and Laughton's performance is excellent, he still makes your skin crawl, but there is a vagueness that isn't quite right.

Trying to show the story of how this nice happily married man is seduced by a bad woman is a challenge since Mrs. Paradine is in jail and Hitchcock really only has her face to work with. He can't show her pulling a Barbara Stanwyck and hiking up her skirt. Alida Valli who was eventually cast in the Garbo role, is no Garbo. She was not even Ingrid Bergman, not by a long-shot, and that was who Selznick hire d her to replace. There's a reason you probably don't know her name and its that this was a very big movie, it cost more than Gone With the Wind to make and it lost a lot of money. Peck recovered but Valli did not. She was an unknown Italian actress and after making a few more films in America (including The Third Man) pretty much went back to being one when this was done. She is not by any means bad in the movie. She's quite good and she's an exotic beauty. She just doesn't have that thing, that Garbo had and Bergman had, that made you believe that men would risk loosing everything for her. Garbo and Bergman could play cold, remote people, but they radiated so much fire that they were mesmerizing despite the characters. Valli just seems cold and remote. If you were to imagine Ingrid Bergman in that jail cell, looking out at you, saying, "I trust you. I know you will do the right thing to save me," you'd believe that a man would go do whatever crazy thing she named. When Valli says the line, it just seems obvious that she's being manipulative and hiding something important.

Another casting issue is Louis Jordan, who seems all wrong to play Col. Paradine's long-time servant and Mrs. Paradine's lover. For there to be any mystery about the guy at all, he shouldn't look like Louis Jordan. Hitchcock was against using Jordan for the part, who was cast by Selznick and you can tell. When LaTour is first introduced his face in the dark and for the first few scenes we only see him from a distance. This builds up a semblance of suspense, but then when we meet do meet him, we think, "Oh it's Louis Jordan, well he was her boyfriend. Duh."

There are other problems with the Paradine Case, namely a whole section of the film that takes place in the Lake District where Keane goes to investigate the Paradine's summer home, Hadley Hall. There is almost no plot reason for this and it feels like Hitchcock merely wants to take you to a spooky old English house where he can build tension. The sequence is right out of Rebecca, with strange, unfriendly servants and a bedroom memorializing its former occupant, Mrs. Paradine. Perhaps the bedroom was the height of elegance at the time, but if I were in Keane's shoes when I saw the giant portrait of Mrs. Paradine hanging on the bed, I would have run a mile. Instead, a comically over-dramatic music cue finds Keane looking at Mrs. Paradine's underclothes which have been laid out by the maid. Isn't this exactly Rebecca? And it's not working here, maybe because we've seen it, but also because the woman is alive. There is a mystery around her, but what is obviously intended to be erotic just fails. This is one of the few times, I can think of Hitchcock misfiring in this realm. Perhaps in the pre-code era, one would not have had to stretch so far to find a way to symbolize Keane's erotic obsession with Mrs. Paradine. We could have had a scene in jail between the two that did so.


Nancy "Beaky" Bruce said...

It's been just long enough since I've seen the movie that I need to see it again before reading your blog which is bound to be full of spoilers! :-)

I got to watch Witness for the Prosecution with my family recently -- they'd never seen it -- what a treat. :-)

Jennythenipper said...

Yeah, I guess that's a given, I will probably spoil the film.

kda0121 said...

Jenny, I think you might be more obsessed with precode than me. The are so many, if not most of the post code movies that would've benefited with much less interference by the Hays and Breen guys, and The Paradine Case certainly seems to be one of them.

But rather than blame the code for Paradine's inadequacies here, there are several other directions for our pointy fingers to take aim. You've already touched on several of them, so bear with any redundancies I make.

As much as I admire Gregory Peck, he was totally miscast in the role. Hitchcock states in Hitchcock/Truffaut that Laurence Olivier was his first choice and he also liked Ronald Colman. Either would've been significantly better in the role. Both were English and understand the subtleties of being a Brit and its class system. The fact that both had magnificent voices wouldn't have hurt either.

The script was a mess. Although Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville is credited with the adaptation, the producer David O. Selznick is given screenplay credit. Therein lies the problem. Hitch never could adapt to Selznick's constant meddling. Selznick was famous for his voluminous memos and while Hitchcock was under contract to Selznick, he got himself loaned out as much as he could, to avoid the constant tampering that Selznick couldn't control in himself.

The movie doesn't do what movies should do - MOVE. Especially a Hitchcock movie. In all fairness, I haven't viewed Paradine Case in a while, but it just seems slow, dull and ponderous.

There are a few bright spots, to be sure. I thought Charles Laughton played his lecher with gusto. You can almost see him drooling and smacking his lips as he undresses Ann Todd with his eyes.

Hitchcock thought Ann Todd's part was rather coldly written and he may be correct. I am a big fan of Ann's and it does seem illogical for Keane to fall for his client, when he has a happy, healthy relationship with his wife. Perhaps someone can jog my memory, but I just don't see the motivation. Yes, Alida Valli is seductive and lovely, but Ann isn't chopped liver. And if Todd's part was too coldly written, as Hitchcock attests, then Valli was an icicle.

I thought Hitchcock's camera work in the courtroom scenes was very good and Hitchcock did what he could to wring out any suspense and tension in the proceedings. It just wasn't enough. The ending is almost anticlimatic and certainly doesn't sate our cinematic appetite the way the endings of Notorious and Rear Window do.

Jennythenipper said...

I don't think Ann Todd's part was coldly written at all. She just seemed English to me. That's what made Peck stand out all the more as miscast. They had good chemistry together though and their scenes are the most enjoyable part of the movie.

I agree the role should have gone to someone like Colman (IIRC he turned down the part, as well).

I also agree that Laughton is excellent. Ethel Barrymore plays his wife and she is good too. Someone on the TCM website stated that they though their marriage was meant to be a send-up of Alma and Hitchock. That seems kind of crazy to me, especially since Alma was one of the writers!

The script does feel as if it were written by a committee. Parts of it feel Hitchcockish (The Alma parts, I imagine), parts feel like some other kind of interesting movie and others just feel tacked on and awful. I was aware that Selznick was a bother, doing re-writes and giving long notes, etc, but the biggest blunder of the movie, the Rebecca sequence has to be laid at Hitchock's feet. Maybe I'm completely wrong that it was Selznick who pushed him in that direction, I don't know.

kda0121 said...

To be honest, it's been so long since I've seen Paradine, that I don't remember the "Rebecca clone" scene. Hitchcock was such a voyeur that he may have unconsciously copied the scene, since to him it was erotic. And who better to steal from than yourself?