Monday, December 2, 2013

The Paradine Case (1947)

On one hand its kind of incredible to think that one of the biggest partnerships in cinematic history, that of producer David O. Selznick and director Alfred Hitchcock only produced three films, Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945) and 1947’s The Paradine Case. Notorious (1946) began life as a Selznick production but Selznick later lost interest and eventually sold the film to RKO Pictures but in typical Selznick fashion took a percentage of the profits and still tried to change the script to his liking. On the other hand, knowing the history between Hitchcock and Selznick its easy to see why they only made three films together. The relationship between Hitchcock and Selznick was quite a complicated one. Many experts have said over the years that while Hitchcock respected Selznick, he found his constant meddling and interference, something which Selznick was infamous for, insufferable and the production of The Paradine Case which would become the very last Hitchcock film produced by Selznick was no different with Selznick re-writing the entire script, the first draft of which was written by Hitchcock himself along with his wife Alma Reville. Considering the legacy of Hitchcock and Selznick, its rather puzzling that the last film to come out of the seven year contract between the two is one of Hitchcock’s lesser known, almost forgotten films and its really a shame as The Paradine Case is a real hidden gem.

Maddalena Anna Paradine (Alida Valli, billed here simply as “Valli”), the wealthy foreign wife of a retired Colonel is arrested on chargers of poisoning her elderly blind husband to death. Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck), a highly successful barrister is hired as her defense attorney, although the case becomes complicated rather quickly as the happily married Keane begins to fall hopelessly in love with Mrs. Paradine, endangering not only his professional reputation but his marriage of 11 years to his wife Gay (Ann Todd) and as the case moves closer to trial Keane’s professional attitude towards the case gradually becomes overshadowed by his personal feelings for Mrs. Paradine.

Unquestionably the most low key of not just Hitchcock’s Selznick produced films but all the films of his Hollywood era, The Paradine Case might appear somewhat atypical at first to more casual fans who may only be aware of the bigger names in Hitchcock’s filmography but several of Hitchcock’s trademarks are quickly revealed. The go to term to describe the film seems to be “courtroom drama”, not an inaccurate classification yet to label the film simply as a courtroom drama would be selling the film short. The majority of the film plays out like a study of a key Hitchcock motif, obsession. While Hitchcock might not take the idea into territories he would in a film like Vertigo (1958), The Paradine Case is nonetheless one of Hitchcock’s darkest films on that front the way it presents Keane’s growing infatuation with Mrs. Paradine to the point where both his professional and personal reputations are put on the line. Of course the mystery surrounding the murder of Mrs. Paradine’s husband and whether or not she is guilty is always hovering over the films psychological proceedings always balancing each other out nicely and the two finally come to a head when the film finally does enter the courtroom. What Hitchcock does so brilliantly during the courtroom scenes is allow the mystery angle to come to the forefront which in turn allows Keane’s fixation on Mrs. Paradine to boil over and the results are unbearably tense, edge of the seat material that only Hitchcock could have crafted.

Detractors of the film claim that Gregory Peck was miscast, that Peck was just too likable and that because of that the film doesn’t work as it isn’t at all plausible that the successful lawyer with a loving wife would fall for a woman such as Mrs. Paradine. Really an odd criticism as its exactly why the film does work! Keane IS a likable man and Hitchcock was wise to include scenes of him and Ann Todd early on as the seemingly perfect happy go lucky married couple as they make Kean‘s attraction to Mrs. Paradine more impactful. There are times when Peck’s performance is downright uncomfortable, namely the sequence of Keane entering Mrs. Paradine’s bedroom while exploring the Paradine’s country home seeking out evidence for the case. Alida Valli, perhaps best known to genre fans for her role as the imposing dance instructor Mrs. Tanner in Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) was a wise choice for the role of Mrs. Paradine. Valli possesses a presence that is striking as it is mysteriously alluring, made even more so the way Hitchcock photographs her. There is an undeniable femme fatale quality to her, yet there is also a certain ambiguity which was crucial to the part. Stealing the show however is Louis Jordan who enters in the second half of the film and who’s character adds an whole new dynamic to the story. Jordan absolutely owns the courtroom scenes, his back and forth’s with Peck make those moments in the film all the more intense.

The Paradine Case also sticks out on account of being one of Hitchcock’s most expensive films for a variety of reasons. The biggest being the sets for the trial sequences had to be custom built in order to not only accurately replicate the look of an English courtroom but also so Hitchcock could shoot a certain way. From a technical standpoint the scenes in the courtroom could be seen as somewhat of a precursor to Hitchcock’s follow up to The Paradine Case, Rope (1948) due to the constant long takes and Hitchcock would also later masterfully create highly dramatic suspense via a courtroom in I Confess (1953), another one of Hitchcock’s most underappreciated films. Naturally Selznick’s trademark interference didn’t do the films budget any favors with his insistence on multiple re-shoots. Another interesting and rather humorous tidbit about the film was Selznick’s inability to settle on a title for the film having several titles, many absurd in mind before finally settling on “The Paradine Case” (the same name of the book on which the film is based by the way) literally at the 11th hour right before the film was sent out to its world premier. The Paradine Case might not have the same status as Rebecca or Spellbound, the previous two films Hitchcock/Selznick films, but it is ultimately an important film and is a film that’s more than worthy of a rediscovery.

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