FILM REVIEW: The Paradine Case (1947)

The Paradine Case (USA, 1947)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Starring Gregory Peck, Ann Todd, Alida Valli, Charles Laughton

With all the horror stories that come out of Hollywood about studio interference and troubled productions, it is easy to assume that these phenomena are relatively new. Ever since the firestorm surrounding Heaven's Gate, it has been common practice to let producers walk over directors where necessary, even if the finished product suffers artistically. But a quick glance at something like The Paradine Case reveals that this had been going on for much longer, and with the same underwhelming results.The Paradine Case is the final collaboration between Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick, which had begun with the Oscar-winning Rebecca and recently resulted in Notorious, considered by many to be Hitch's finest film. What had started as a good albeit sparky marriage slowly began to disintegrate as both parties' priorities changed. While Selznick wanted more direct control over the films he financed, playing it safe to assure box-office appeal, Hitchcock wanted to experiment, doing 10-minute takes and shooting simultaneously with multiple cameras.This disharmony behind the camera was present throughout production. Hitchcock and his wife had produced a script adapted from the original novel, which had then been polished by the Scottish playwright James Bridie. But Selznick was deeply unsatisfied with their efforts, so much so that after viewing the rushes each day, he would send re-writes to the set and order Hitchcock to reshoot yesterday's scenes. The film went vastly over-budget as Selznick attempted to assert his authority, right down to him taking over the editing behind Hitchcock's back.

As a result of these shenanigans, The Paradine Case feels like a deliberate duff note, like the bad album that a band releases to fulfil their contact before going off to do something more interesting. Faced with constant interference and with no control over the final cut, it's fair to assume that Hitchcock simply gave up. The film is still technically interesting, and has flashes of both suspense and directorial genius. But these sections of brilliance are counterpointed by long swathes of inconsistent mediocrity, some of it irritating, some it is ridiculous and all of it disappointing.The story of The Paradine Case is very simple: a barrister is asked to defend a woman accused of murdering her husband, and in the process of defending her he falls in love with her. It's the sort of silly, predictable plot which, had the film been made in the 1980s or 1990s, would have formed the basis of a sleazy, straight-to-video erotic thriller. In fact, in its bid to be upmarket and serious despite its cheesy origins, the film could be seen as the long-term influence on Jagged Edge or Basic Instinct.Sidney Lumet once said that "in a well-written drama, the story comes out of the characters. The characters in a well-written melodrama come out of the story." The Paradine Case is a melodrama because our involvement comes less from what the characters do as to the way in which they are drawn. The most obvious example of this is Mrs Paradine herself: we know quite clearly from the start whether or not she did it, but we don't exactly know why she did it (if she did). As the film moves on, her status as a femme fatale or possible black widow becomes clearer, and it is not certain whether the same fate will befall Andre Latour if and when she tires of him.

The Paradine Case does deserve plaudits for its technical execution. Hitchcock, ever looking to push the boundaries of what was possible, captured the majority of footage in long takes, only calling cut when there was no film left in the camera. Because Selznick took charge of editing, there's no way of telling how he would have assembled this mountain of footage, and therefore how similar it would have been to his other such experiments on Rope and Under Capricorn. But the use of long takes, married to some very fine crane shots, give the film a sense of slow-burning flow and poise that it might otherwise have lacked.The other major technical point of interest is in the capturing of the courtroom, which replicated the Old Bailey to the last detail on the strict instructions of Selznick. Unlike a lot of internal sets, the courtroom was built with a ceiling to allow for very low angles, giving the barristers a greater air of authority. These scenes were also unusual for being filmed simultaneously on at least four cameras, which allowed Hitchcock to pick the angles he wanted for every revelation which keeping the energy up on the long takes.But ultimately, all this technical wizardry is in vain, for a number of reasons. Firstly, with the exception of one or two short scenes, there is no real suspense in the story at all. Whether through Selznick's hackery or Hitchcock's disinterest, we can see all the major plot points coming a mile off and there is very little in the characters that pulls us through and keeps us hooked. At 114 minutes, the film is way too long for such a simple story, and it keeps filibustering in a bid to convince us that there is more going on that we realise.In the absence of either a meaty story or genuinely gripping characters, The Paradine Case becomes just another procedural drama. Hitchcock had very little time for mystery as an intellectual process, believing that unless it was married to emotional engagement with an audience, there would be no reason to care. In the courtroom scenes he is a victim of his own argument: even when the characters are at their most histrionic, the drama falls flat because we haven't formed enough of an emotional bond to feel any tension about their predicament.

In Murder!, his only previous courtroom drama of sorts, Hitchcock wasted very little time on the facts of the case: he used the deliberating jury solely to set up the character of Sir John as an emotionally involving protagonist. After that, he could lead the audience through the various twists by putting this character in danger or under time constraints, giving us all the same information but with an emotional attachment to boot. Watching The Paradine Case is like reading a dry case history: all the facts are there in plain order, but we have no psychological connection to it.This lack of engagement we have with the characters is rooted as much in the direction as the central performances. Gregory Peck is good, but nowhere near as good as he was in Spellbound two years earlier; the last in a long line of actors to play the role, he was probably too young for the part. The other male performers are either caricatures (Charles Laughton's judge) or, in the case of Louis Jourdan, have their character traits so clearly displayed that there is nowhere for them to go.The women get dealt an equally duff hand. Ann Todd gives her all but her character is weak, drifting into melodrama way too often and making contradicting statements about her attitude to the case. Joan Tetzel, who plays the precocious daughter of Peck's colleague, gets far too little screen time to demonstrate her intelligence. And then there is Alida Valli (credited solely as 'Valli'), who remains one of the most grating and irritating screen presences of her age. Her typically haughty and preening demeanour may be more at home here than it is in The Third Man, but in either case she comes across as so utterly horrible that you give up caring long before the end.The Paradine Case is a plodding, pedestrian Hitchcock effort which does not deserve to be glowingly remembered. Whether as a cautionary tale of producers' involvement in filmmaking or an example of a bored director, it serves little purpose other than as a stopgap between the commercial success of Notorious and Hitchcock's more experimental works later on. Beyond its technical innovations and occasional moments of brilliance, there is precious little in it that one would care to defend.

Rating: 2/5

Verdict: Occasional brilliance amid a sea of mediocrity


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