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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