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.

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Alfred Hitchcock Gets Psychological in “Spellbound”

12 09 2010

“It’s just another manhunt story wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis. The whole thing’s too complicated, and I found the explanations toward the end very confusing.” — Alfred Hitchcock

If Alfred Hitchcock sounds less than enthusiastic about “Spellbound,” his 1945 film starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, it’s with good reason. It was his first film since “Rebecca” to be released by Selznick International Pictures, and David O. Selznick’s demands resulted in a not very pleasant filmmaking experience for Hitchcock, and a somewhat disjointed and trite movie.

That said, the good qualities of “Spellbound” do outweigh the bad. The story begins at a sanitorium, Green Manors, where Dr. Constance Peterson (Bergman) is fretting over the imminent departure of her boss, Dr. Murchison, played by Leo G. Carroll. Murchison has been asked to leave by the board of directors after he had a breakdown, and his replacement is a Dr. Edwardes, played by Peck.

Peterson’s colleague admires her skills as a psychologist, but says that she’s too cold, and that  she can never be truly effective until she’s known love. Of course, he wants her to fall for him, but she isn’t at all interested. And from the moment she lays eyes on Edwardes, a fire is lit within Peterson. He’s tall, young, good looking, and a bit mysterious, and she can’t resist him. Edwardes arouses suspicion, though, when he blows off his first afternoon at Green Manors to go on a walk with Peterson. (One of the funniest moments of the film occurs when Peck offers Bergman her choice of ham or liverwurst sandwiches during their walk, and she looks away dreamily and says, “Liverwurst.”)

There’s something odd about Edwardes, though. He had a hostile reaction when Peterson traced some lines on a tablecloth with a fork, and nearly freaked out when he saw something strange in a pattern on her dress. Comparing a note he sent her with a signature in a book, Peterson realizes that this is not the real Dr. Edwardes. She confronts him and learns that he is a delusional amnesiac – and that the real Edwardes is missing. The psychological jargon flies fast and furious (it’s almost like the staff at Green Manors never talks about anything but work) as they try to get to the bottom of things, but when they go to confront the phony doctor, they find that he’s gone. Peterson follows him to a New York City hotel, and she starts to work on him in earnest, believing that there’s no way he could have killed anyone.

She’s half in love with him by now, but all they have learned is that his initials are J.B. and that he was a doctor of some kind before he lost his memory. Now calling himself John Brown, he  is caught between his affection for Peterson and his growing irritation at her attempts to unlock his past and clear his name. They travel to Rochester to take refuge from the police with her mentor, an older psychologist played by Michael Checkhov (nephew of Anton Chekhov). To cover their trail, they claim to be newly married; in an odd lapse in logic, Peterson believes that Brulov is so absent-minded that he doesn’t notice their lack of wedding rings or luggage, but Brulov shows how sharp he is soon enough. When Brown awakens in the middle of the night and tries to kill Brulov in his study, the older man keeps his wits about him, talking to Brown while he gives him a glass of milk dosed with a sleeping drug.

(Another lapse in logic occurs when Brown and Peterson arrive at Brulov’s house, only to find that Brulov is not at home – but two members of the police force are waiting for him. The cops barely seem to suspect the duo, even though they’re supposed to be questioning Brulove about Peterson.)

When Brown awakens, he and Peterson explain the situation to Brulov, and Peterson begs him for help. He agrees, and, conveniently, Brown had a symbol-laden dream that night. Brulov and Peterson ignore the fact that Brown’s dream might have been affected by the sleeping drug, and instead plow into a very quick dream analysis.

As Brown recalls the dream, the scene fades from Brulov’s parlor to the dream itself, in a very famous sequence designed by surrealist painter Salvador Dali. Brown explains that he found himself in a gambling house where the walls were decorated with eyes. A scantily clad woman was kissing all the gamblers, and a masked man played blackjack with him. A seven of clubs gives him 21, and then he is running on a barren landscape where the masked man holds a melting wheel.

Slowly, Brulov and Peterson put together Brown’s clues, realizing that he had met Edwardes at a ski resort when sled tracks in the snow outside the house set off a spell of paranoia in Brown. A name from the dream gives them a clue to the name of that resort, and they go there, trying to reconstruct events while the police continue their pursuit. On the slopes, Peterson and Brown ski downhill toward a cliff, seemingly where Brown and Edwardes had been. Brown struggles to remember what happened, and has a breakthough: He remembers a childhood trauma in which he accidentally killed his younger brother.

After tipping off the police, the body of Edwardes is found at the bottom of the cliff, but the body shows that Edwardes had been shot. Brown is arrested, but Peterson, back at Green Manors, realizes what really happened when she talks to Murchison: He killed Edwards himself when he realized that he was going to be replaced. Murchison congratulates her on her “young and agile mind,” which seems to be Hitch’s way of glossing over the fact that she has solved the case with almost no clues.

Murchison pulls a revolver from his desk drawer and tells Peterson that she won’t live to tell the police, but she keeps talking to him in soothing tone, echoing Brulov’s scene with Brown, and he lets her walk out of the room, then turns the gun on himself and shoots.

Now cleared of all charges, Brown – now using his real name, Ballantyne – is released from jail, and he and Peterson are reunited. (Why he adopted Edwardes’ identity is never explained.)

David O. Selznick had pushed “Spellbound” on Hitchcock. Selznick had undergone psychoanalysis and had become a proponent for it, so much so that he also insisted that his own psychiatrist serve as a consultant on the film. The half-baked aspects of the film’s psychology – that an amnesiac could be cured with a few sessions and one dream analysis – don’t help the scenario’s believability, and the dream itself is too on-the-nose to be believed. (The melting wheel symbolizes a revolver, the seven of clubs giving Brown 21 represents New York’s 21 Club, etc.) Hitchcock had little to do with the Dali sequence, and reportedly was not happy with the famed artist’s involvement in the production.

Still, the dream sequence bears at least one distinctive Hitchcock touch, which is the oversized seven of clubs card, a trick to make the card readable on camera and add to the strange quality of the dream in a way that is certainly not Daliesque. Hitchcock’s own touches of filmmaking brilliance show here and there, in the shocking, silent moment when Ballantyne remembers killing his brother, or when Ballantyne and Peterson kiss for the first time and we see an ornate door slowly opening, to show another door that slowly opens, etc., etc. The doors are a more meaningful symbol for Peterson’s awakening sexuality than any of the ham-fisted symbols out of the dream sequence. The final Hitchcock touch is at the climax of the story; when Dr. Murchison holds a gun on his employee, we see his hand holding the gun, with the camera showing his point of view. After Peterson leaves the office, the hand slowly turns until it faces the viewer before it fires. To make the effect work, Hitchcock had a model hand and gun built, so that it could turn smoothly.

Ben Hecht, the prolific screenwriter who had worked on “Gone with the Wind” for Selznick and with Hitchcock on “Watchtower Over Tomorrow,” wrote the screenplay for “Spellbound,” based on a story by Angus McPhail, from a 1927 novel called “The House of Dr. Edwardes.” The film also includes a brief appearance by Norman Lloyd, the saboteur from Hitchcock’s film of the same name.

Although “Spellbound” loses credibility with modern audiences over its hokey psychology, the twist on Hitchcock’s typical wrong man plot, in which the female love interest must unravel the mystery to save the man, makes the picture engaging and, at times, truly gripping. Bergman is particularly brilliant; her turn from icy analyst to a fully rounded person is rather moving. Peck is fairly wooden, although he’s hampered by his character, who spends a lot of screentime rubbing his head and trying to remember who he really is, then passing out. Take a look at the poster, above, and you’ll see the emphasis on Bergman, already an international star, over Peck, who was a relative unknown at this point in his career. Hitchcock would make one more film with Peck, 1947’s “The Paradine Case,” and two more with Bergman, the 1946 classic “Notorious,” as well as the much-maligned 1949 film “Under Capricorn.”

Hitchcock himself makes a memorable cameo in “Spellbound,” exiting an elevator in a New York City hotel, cigarette in hand, looking very pleased with himself. I haven’t been writing that much about Hitch’s cameos because so many of them are not that interesting, but the sly smile on his face here could not be ignored.

For pop music fans, it’s also worth noting that “Spellbound” features early use of the theremin, which would later gain more recognition in The Beach Boys “Good Vibrations.”

Next, we’ll look at one of the true classics of cinema: “Notorious,” starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains.








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