Jeanne Moreau, the iconic French actress, has passed away at age 89. Noted film critic Todd McCarthy pays a personal tribute to her life and career through the lens of someone who got to know her well. Click here to read.
may have directed The Paradine Case,
the 1947 adaptation of Robert Smythe Hichens’ 1933 novel, but the film is most clearly
a David O. Selznick production. It was his coveted property, he wrote the
screenplay (with contributions from Alma Reville, James Bridie, and an
uncredited Ben Hecht), and the movie itself discloses far more of its
producer’s temperament than it does its director’s. The Paradine Case was, in fact, the last film made by the
British-born master as part of his seven-year contract with Selznick, and by
most accounts, Hitchcock’s heart just wasn’t in it. Unfortunately, it shows.
But this is no
slipshod motion picture. Selznick spared no expense—the completed film cost
almost as much as Gone with the Wind—and
the entire project is built on quality and class. Set in London, in “the recent
past,” The Paradine Case stars an
always-dashing Gregory Peck as Anthony Keane, a renowned English barrister enlisted
to defend the enigmatic Maddalena Anna Paradine (Alida Valli, in her Hollywood unveiling).
Accused of poisoning her wealthy husband, Maddalena accepts the indictment with
what Charles Laughton’s sleazy Judge Lord Thomas Horfield calls a “mystic
charm.” Mystic or otherwise, her charm certainly works its magic on Keane. Much
to the uneasy chagrin of his kindly and patient wife Gay (Ann Todd, in a
radiant and undervalued performance), Keane grows obsessed with the case and
inordinately besotted with Maddalena; she is “too fine a woman” to be capable
of murder. He vainly tries to pin the homicide on the family’s servant, André
Latour (Louis Jourdan, also his American debut), but that tactic doesn’t stick.
Eventually, Maddalena comes to the defense of the shadowy André (he is
literally concealed in shadows during his introduction) and the complex
backstory of all involved comes to light.
Starting in a
realm of elegance, wealth, and refined manners (before settling mostly in a flavorless
courtroom), Valli plays Maddalena with an unnervingly unaffected reserve,
suspiciously never losing her composure until the very end. Her inscrutable
face reveals little more than trouble, especially for Keane. She is one of the
finer ambiguous characters to come from a Hitchcock film; referred to as “no
ordinary woman,” Maddalena may not be a classically cool blonde, but she is as icy
as they come. By contrast, Peck descends from jovial and spontaneous to fixated
The Paradine Case is a very talky film, and
subsequently, much of its success depends on the aptitude of its cast. While
Ethel Barrymore received the film’s only Academy Award nomination, for her
disturbing/disturbed supporting turn as Lady Sophie Horfield, the actorly
spotlight ultimately falls on Valli and Peck, neither of whom were first
choices. Hitchcock wanted Greta Garbo for Maddalena (the actress was also
apparently Hichens’ inspiration), but she declined the offer. As did Laurence
Olivier, first pick for Keane. Other names for each part were bandied about;
Selznick settled on Valli, based on her burgeoning international stardom, and
Hitchcock suggested Peck, based on their achievement two years prior with Spellbound.
Hitchcock felt the
film suffered from miscasting across the board, yet in the end, among The Paradine Case’s strongest points of
praise is the interplay between Valli and Peck. It’s a tragically malicious
one-sided infatuation, but to watch his blind emotional descent and her shrewd
manipulation is astonishing, particularly when one realizes as much as he may
be shaping her testimony, directing her alibi as it were, it is she who holds
the guiding hand. However, because The
Paradine Case is at its best when focusing on this one-on-one interaction,
that there is a murder mystery developing becomes something of an afterthought.
Character behavior, as curious as it sometimes is, often usurps the overriding
crime at the core of the picture.
Given the ample
budget, Hitchcock and cinematographer Lee Garmes (Oscar-winning DP of the
stunning Shanghai Express, 1932)
fashion a handsomely lit and impeccably framed series of events; close-ups are
luxurious, wider shots are perfectly balanced. But while there are moments of
devious Hitchcockian touches—cunning glances and jarring movements—the film
evokes less filmic tension than his more engaged work. Though he used four
cameras during the court sequences, enabling him to experiment with long single
takes from a variety of angles, his technical inventiveness is largely
restricted, by the scenario and the settings. He wouldn’t let enclosed spaces
hinder him in the future (see Rope
and Rear Window), but here, even when
Keane just goes to visit rural Cumberland, it’s like a breath of fresh air.
The Paradine Case was not a box office hit, and it’s
fairly easy to see why. Any Hitchcock film is worth watching, but there are
only select titles that demand to be seen. Hampered by glaring issues (an overbearing
score by Franz Waxman) and minor annoyances (one character’s needless cross
examination play-by-play), this is not one of them.
Featuring a solid
audio-visual transfer, The Paradine Case
is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. The disc also includes a
commentary with film historians Stephen Rebello and Bill Krohn, excerpts from
the famous Hitchcock/Truffaut conversations, an interview between Hitchcock and
Peter Bogdanovich, a short piece with Peck’s two children, and “The Paradine
Case: Radio Play.”