Alfred Hitchcock Examines “The Paradine Case”

27 09 2010

“First of all, I don’t think that Gregory Peck can properly represent an English lawyer. Aside from that, I myself was never too clear as to how the murder was committed, because it was complicated by people crossing from one room to another, up and down a corridor. I never truly understood the geography of that house or how she managed the killing.” — Alfred Hitchcock

“The Paradine Case” brought Alfred Hitchcock back to familiar territory, with a story set in London and dealing with the trial of a woman accused of poisoning her husband. Alida Valli plays the accused Mrs. Paradine, whose husband, Colonel Paradine, was blind. An alluring and exotic woman “with a past,” Mrs. Paradine seeks the council of her friend, Sir Simon (Charles Coburn), who recommends his friend, the barrister Anthony Keene, played by Gregory Peck. Peck takes on the case, and quickly becomes infatuated with Mrs. Paradine. He decides that she can’t be guilty, simply because she’s too fine a person to commit murder.

As Keene delves into the case, his wife (Ann Todd) begins to suspect his real feelings for his client. It’s when the trial begins, about halfway through the film, that you can see why Hitchcock didn’t believe Peck as an English barrister. It’s not because Peck’s accent is questionable at best; it’s because the prosecutor (Leo G. Carroll) and the judge (Charles Laughton) follow British legal practices, while Keene seems to be playing Perry Mason. He needs constant reminders to adhere to legal procedure, as though he isn’t really British. Peck gives a fine, strong performance, though, showing the stoic attitude that made him a star.

Keene corners Colonel Paradine’s manservant on the stand, exposing inconsistencies in his testimony and forcing him to admit that Mrs. Paradine was at the root of the rift between himself and his master. At the end of the day, Mrs. Paradine tells Keene that she hates him, because he broke his word that he would not badger the servant on the stand. The next day, as the trial resumes, the court receives word that the servant has killed himself, and Mrs. Paradine confesses that she loved him – and that she killed her husband. Keene’s distressed attempt to make his final argument in the case is heart-wrenching, as there’s nothing he can do to save his client.

In the final scene of the film, set in Sir Simon’s home, Keene is convinced that his failure will mean the end of his career, but his wife tells him that he will recover, and that he can take the Paradine case as an object lesson. It’s an odd, flat ending to a not very satisfying movie.

Clockwise from top left: Alfred Hitchcock, Louis Jordan, David O. Selznick, Charles Laughton, Charles Coburn, Gregory Peck, Ethel Barrymore, Ann Todd and Allida Valli

The many stars lined up by producer David O. Selznick and Hitchcock for this film did not make it a success. (The posters lists Valli and Jordan as “new Selznick stars!) In fact, some of them, Charles Laughton and Ethel Barrymore, playing his wife, are barely necessary to the story. Barrymore appears in just two scenes: One, at a cocktail party, and the other, at home having dinner with his wife.  The movie would have worked just as well if the judge had been seen only during the trial.

Similarly, there’s a sequence where Keene visits the Paradine’s country home that serves very little purpose. He noses around and tries to speak to their servant, played by Louis Jordan, but really accomplishes nothing.

The screenplay for “The Paradine Case” is credited to Selznick, although it was worked on by Hitchcock, Alma Reville, Ben Hecht and James Bridie. Selznick’s contribution was to watch each day’s filmed “rushes,” rewrite the scenes and insist that they be reshot with his script.

As usual when dealing with an unpleasant circumstance – Selznick’s interference – Hitchcock buried himself in technical challenges. In this case, he devised a new method of filming, which he tried out during the trial scenes. He set up four cameras and trained them on four actors, allowing for takes that could run up to 10 minutes. Hitch would take this new method further in his next two pictures, “Rope” and “Under Capricorn.”

“The Paradine Case” was the final film Hitchcock made under contract with Selznick, and only the third released through Selznick International Pictures. Going forward, Hitchcock would be an independent director, taking greater control of his career as the 1950s approached. This was also the final film both Gregory Peck and Charles Laughton made with Hitchcock.

Next, Hitchcock adapts a famous stage play with interesting results in “Rope,” starring James Stewart.


Alfred Hitchcock Visits “Jamaica Inn”

13 07 2010

“Jamaica Inn was an absurd thing to undertake . . . I made the picture, and although it became a box-office hit, I’m still unhappy over it.” — Alfred Hitchcock

“Jamaica Inn,” released in 1939, was Alfred Hitchcock’s last British production, and this portion of his career could hardly have ended on an odder note. In years, it roughly marks off the first third of his career as a director; in number of pictures directed, it’s almost at the halfway point on the way to 52 extant films.

The film is set in 1815, and begins with a sailing ship that’s been lured to the rocky coast, where a band of cutthroats murder the entire crew and plunder the ship. That’s more or less a prologue, though – the story really begins with a young woman, Mary (Maureen O’Hara), who is on her way to see her aunt following the deaths of her parents. On telling her coach driver that the aunt is a resident at Jamaica Inn, the frightened driver insists on proceeding well past her destination; she ends up instead at the home of Sir Humphrey Pengallan, played by Charles Laughton.

Pengallan is the squire of the township, a smirking dandy of a lady’s man, and he delivers Mary to Jamaica Inn, where we meet her aunt and also her uncle, Joss, who happens to be the leader of the band of murderers. It is Pengallan who plans Joss’s crimes, but we also soon learn that one of the band is a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, undercover with the criminals and gathering evidence to hang them all. When he’s discovered, Mary rescues him from hanging, and together they uncover Pengallan’s true role.

The action rarely slows down in this film; there are wild horse chases, fights
with guns, knives and fists; people are cornered in flooding caves, tied up and held at gunpoint, kidnapped and blackmailed. It’s a rousing story in the style of “Treasure Island,” and while it bears few of Hitchcock’s typical tricks of the trade, it is engaging and fun.

Separated at birth: Charles Laughton in "Jamaica Inn" and the coachman from "Pinocchio"

The one thing that drags the movie down – or sideways, perhaps – is the performance by Charles Laughton, who seems to be in a different movie than anyone else. He minces across the screen, his lips pursed, head cocked, holding his pistol like a parasol, tossing off one-liners or bellowing for his servants and utterly dominating the screen until he melodramatically leaps to his death to avoid capture. Everyone else underplays their roles; he hams it up, overacting ridiculously. And let’s not get started on his fake nose and eyebrows!

Laughton was co-producer on the film, which explains why Hitchcock could not get him to tone down his performance; Laughton even insisted that Hitch shoot only closeups of him until he could figure out how his character would walk. (In waltz time, of all things!)

Yet Laughton did some good as well on the picture, insisting that Maureen O’Hara be cast as Mary; she would soon star with Laughton in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and go on to stardom. The film also features Robert Newton, later known for his role in “Treasure Island,” as the young Naval lieutenant.

The critics did not like the movie, although it was a success. The Times of London wrote, “the director, Mr. Alfred Hitchcock, seems for the moment to have given up his method of slow and deliberate tension; it is a film of downright and in no way subtle action,” while The New York Times called it “merely journeyman melodrama, good enough of its kind, but almost entirely devoid of those felicitous turns of camera phrasing, the sudden gleams of wicked humor, the diabolically casual accumulation of suspense which characterize [Hitchcock’s] best pictures.”

This film marked the debut of Joan Harrison as one of the screenwriters. She would go on to become one of Hitchcock’s most trusted associates, co-writing several screenplays and producing both of Hitch’s TV series.

There is a real Jamaica Inn in Cornwall, by the way, which was where Daphne Du Maurier wrote the novel upon which the film is based. Hitchcock’s 1940 release, “Rebecca,” was also based on a Du Maurier novel, and we’ll look at it next.

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