The Paradine Case has long been relegated by critics to the bottom rank of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, and it’s easy to see why. The film version of Robert Hichens’s novel is so overproduced by David O. Selznick that the elaborate sets never seem real—a failure driven home when a character tries “making himself at home” by tossing his hat onto a chair after a hard day’s work. The swelling score by Franz Waxman matches the gigantism of the sets. The murder mystery at least appears simplistic, and the stretch of the trial is tedious—set-up, mostly, for a pair of stunning revelations. Too, some of the acting is debatable. Certainly the lead performance by Gregory Peck as Anthony Keane, an allegedly brilliant British defense attorney, is shallow, mannered and wooden; Hitchcock had envisioned Laurence Olivier in the role, but because Peck was under contract to Selznick, and Olivier was not, Peck had to have his hair unconvincingly (and inconsistently) grayed as he (sometimes laughably) struggled with an English accent. Two European actors whom Selznick had just signed for his studio also thwarted Hitchcock’s casting aspirations: from France, Louis Jourdan, who plays André Latour, the murder victim’s young valet, a role in which the director envisioned rough and homely Robert Newton; and from Italy, beauteous Alida Valli (for her American debut, billed alluringly as just “Valli”), who plays the accused, Maddalena Anna Paradine, a role that Greta Garbo—gorgeous, too, goodness knows, but past forty—had been poised to come out of retirement to play. I don’t mind either Jourdan or Valli, the latter of whom is nothing short of emotionally spectacular, but Garbo, surely, would have made more sense in the role, and a director’s triple disappointment at the starting gate isn’t something a studio head should be courting. In an art-friendly world, the money would cede to the artist, not vice versa.
Time and attention freed up because his personally produced Duel in the Sun (King Vidor et al., including Selznick himself, 1946) had been released to public clamor and critical dismay, Selznick was all over The Paradine Case, whose script he even credited himself with having written. (Others who tried bringing it into English included James Bridie, Ben Hecht and Hitchcock’s spouse, Alma Reville, who I believe came out of retirement for the desperate occasion). Hitchcockians tend as a result to dismiss the film as being Selznick’s rather than Hitchcock’s.
But wait. It’s odd how aspects and moments of the film anticipate aspects and moments of later Hitchcock films we cherish. Let me cite three examples. Anthony Keane’s visit to his client’s and her deceased spouse’s bedroom in their country retreat, with its mesmerized subjective camera, anticipates Lila Crane’s perusal of Norman Bates’s bedroom in Psycho (1960). Keane’s obsessive infatuation with his client anticipates Scottie Ferguson’s infatuation with, well, whoever she really is, in Vertigo (1958); here it is the client he falls in love with, while in Vertigo it is the client’s wife. Thirdly, there is the plot element sprung into action by Latour’s court testimony, that he feels so ashamed of having sexually betrayed his master that he can’t go on living. The judicial system does nothing to help him; indeed, no one responds (even ineffectually) to keep him from committing the suicide he clearly, openly announces he intends to commit. Recall how Miss Lonelyheart’s suicidal intention almost gets lost in the shuffle of the general desire to catch the perpetrator of an already committed murder in Rear Window (1954)? As usual, humane to his core, Hitchcock is on the side of the angels.
The plot begins here: Paradine, a blind military hero, dies of poison at home. His wife, foreign and younger, is accused of murder, although her defense attorney, who is renowned, pursues the idea that it was a case of “assisted suicide”—that actual term is used in the film—until, having himself become, although married, thoroughly infatuated with his client, Keane argues instead that Latour murdered his boss and military commander because he, Latour, was in love and having an affair with his master’s wife, whose lowly social origins match his. As do Keane’s, more or less, making the assumed murderer (though not by the Crown) a projection of the man determined to pin the murder on him, the valet, in order to (a) exonerate his client (rationalization), (b) eliminate his romantic competition for the accused (unconscious motivation), and (c) deny his own feelings, so as to retain his marriage in his own mind, even though no one else, including his wife, is missing the direction of his romantic obsession. In court, Keane, jealous, pins the murder on Latour. His client protests, turning against him, but never with such virulence as when Latour commits suicide. Mrs. Paradine confesses in open court; it is left to us to decide whether her confession is due to her having murdered her husband or to her desire to strike out at her attorney over the loss of her lover. (No one in the film takes Maddalena’s “confession” at other than face value. Leave it to Hitchcock to worry us alone—the countless numbers of us—about her peculiar confession and what it might or might not mean.)
I find The Paradine Case most interesting on two fronts. One, Maddalena’s sacrifice, to become the “eyes” of her blind, much older military spouse, provides a compelling metaphor for postwar Europe’s desire to continue, including for the sake of others: selfishness rationalized as selflessness—to wit, survival. Wonderful; like Notorious (1946), one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, The Paradine Case is about surviving. (One feels this beneath the luxury that Selznick imposed as a matter of course.) In tandem with this, Latour’s name may suggest “tour of duty,” that is, the military past shadowing the present, since Latour’s devotion to Paradine (“. . . my Colonel . . .”) refers to the time Latour served in Paradine’s regiment during the war. Symbolism shimmers here, making one ask how helpful or appropriate is this continuance of military feelings as Latour shows that he embodies in peacetime. The film’s other fine front is the marriage of the Keanes, Tony and Gay. Hitchcock had already portrayed marriage profoundly (Rebecca; Suspicion; Shadow of a Doubt), and The Paradine Case peculiarly resonates with the complexities of marriage. Anthony and Gay really seem a couple; the threat to their marriage, triggered by Anthony’s infatuation for his client, compels.
The film’s dialogue is at its best, by a wide margin, when dealing with this marriage and its hums and outbursts, and Ann Todd, who plays Gay, delivers one of the film’s two best performances. Gay loves as well as adores her Tony, and as a result she is willing to weather, among other things, Keane’s current bout of indifference toward her and his current belief that he is in love with Maddalena. (At one fine moment she tells him he isn’t through with her yet, despite Mrs. Paradine.) Aware of her deficit of brilliance vis-à-vis her spouse, Gay knows her exact place in Tony’s life under the best of circumstances, and she is there, for him and—let’s be frank—herself when pieces need to be picked up after Maddalena, in open court, turns on her defense attorney for lethally turning on her lover, Latour. Todd would proceed to be a fine actress for husband David Lean (One Woman’s Story, 1948; Madeleine, 1949; The Sound Barrier, 1952), but for Hitchcock, homeliness and pocked skin and all, she delivers the performance of a lifetime. Selznick and Hitchcock succeed in making Todd (improbably) gorgeous in her final appearance in the film, when she stands by her man and encourages him to weather the fallout from Mrs. Paradine’s verbal assault on him in court: “Incidentally, darling, you do need a shave,” she tells him, touching his cheek in a subjective (point-of-view) shot. He enfolds her hand in his. Heart-walloping.
Peck’s the problem. (When isn’t he?) Thanks to the fact that Hitchcock stretches his limited ability to the utmost, Peck is somewhat better than usual, but it’s not enough. He looks like a boy straining hard to look like a man. (William Holden, on the contrary, could simultaneously seem both boy and man.) Earnest Peck is no Olivier. In particular, Peck’s repertoire of emotional possibilities excludes both humiliation and humility, and the role of Keane requires him to register both, and to know what the difference between them is. When Maddalena turns on her defense attorney in open court, exposing (even to him) how damaging his love for her is (a love she has encouraged, manipulated), Keane is humiliated, whereupon, heretofore the legal cat’s meow (or, in British parlance, mew), he rises to humility, perhaps for the first time in his adult life. (We watch Gay suffer though the former, and later she tells him she is proud of him over the latter.) With hunky-California-boy, we see neither the precipitous drop into humiliation nor the subsequent rise to humility, and since the patch-up of the Keanes’s marriage depends on both character conditions, the burden of credibility shifts wholly to Todd, who thankfully, under Hitchcock’s guidance, is up to carrying it. Indeed, this inequality of acting talent even resonates, for isn’t it also the case that Gay carries the principal burden of responsibility for the Keanes’s marriage?
The other excellent performance in the film comes from Ethel Barrymore as the sadistic judge’s wife. Barrymore usually plays strong women. Here, her character is morally strong, I suppose, but in every other way Lady Sophie Horfield is weak and pathetic. Charles Laughton is good as her spouse, Lord Thomas Horfield—Tommy, to his wife. This portrait of a power-skewed marriage, Hitchcock apparently feels, predicts the future of the Keanes’s marriage, tempering our delight that the Keanes stick it out. In time, Tony may be Tommy: cold, obscene, malicious, judgmental in the extreme in and out of court—and condescending and brutally unkind to his wife. The film’s ending is thus painfully ambiguous, and Hitchcock somehow helps us feel both emotions: poignant delight at the couple’s renewal; worry for times ahead.
Charles Coburn is a hoot as the Paradine barrister who turns over the criminal case to Keane. He sees everything, including each jot of the much younger Keane’s drop into sexual infatuation. Coburn provides a visible index of Hitchcock’s cunning perspective on the action. In this context I must mention one of Hitchcock’s minor coups in the film, where we are quite impressed by an element of the film’s use of subjectivism. The next time Keane sees Mrs. Paradine after being told by Latour that she is evil, we ourselves see this possibility in her for the first time. We catch a coldness in her eyes that earlier didn’t seem to be there.
I like this movie. It must be the case that I do; I watch it again and again.