DIRECTED BY ALFRED HITCHCOCK/1948
STREET DATE: MAY 30, 2017/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Much like the character played by its leading lady Alida Valli, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case gets a bad rap. The last of the famed director’s multi-picture deal with power-producer David O. Selznick, it’s often buried, forgotten or dismissed as Hitchcock’s most boring film. Sharp accusations and broad standpoints, all; and none entirely unfounded. Even Hitchcock himself, years later, had been known to pick at it.
But do all of these gripes hold up in court? As a lifelong film buff turned critic who’s been actively meaning to see this film for over twenty years, and has in the meantime heard the popular naysaying, I’d like to formally challenge the aforementioned accusations. (Pardon me if I forgo the traditional powdered wig, worn by Gregory Peck and many others in the courtroom scenes.)
…this one brings down the gavel in a manner ultimately more compelling, more incisive, than several other lesser Hitchcock or Selznick films.
A curiously tepid blend of broken-man character intrigue and British legal system procedural, The Paradine Case tells the story of a respectable husband and barrister (Peck, utilizing his trademark vulnerability well, turning in an empathetic and absorbing performance) who quickly finds himself personally caught up in a legal maelstrom of the case he’s working on. One might go so far as to label The Paradine Case a “chamber noir”, or a “British judicial thriller”. The first half fits what would come to be known as a Film Noir mold in a sly if also intensely melodramatic way.
As Peck’s character, Anthony Keane, prepares his defense case in the interest of keeping the recent widower Mrs. Paradine out of the slammer, he is greatly taken in by her beguiling beauty. Being an upstanding and respectable married fellow, this is not something he cares to admit to himself, even as his more observant wife (Ann Todd, nabbing top female billing despite a marginalized role, compared to that of Valli) calls him on what’s happening as her heart breaks right before his eyes. She is a patient woman, perhaps understanding of a man’s inequities to her own fault. Todd plays it with barely contained tragedy.
As she sadly speaks to her close friend and confidant (Joan Tetzel) about standing by her man who’s fallen for another woman, one can’t help but think about Hitchcock himself and the similar allegations against him over years. It’s notable that Alma Reville, his lifelong partner and professional bounce-board, initially adapted the Robert Hitchens novel before Selznick swooped in for his fully-credited rewrite. Perhaps she knew Hitchcock that well even then? Is this essential plot detail the personal interest that attracted the great director to this otherwise dry material? We can’t know, though speculation on the matter only seems partially out of line when trying to arrive at the heart of artistic and career decisions of one of the twentieth century’s most vital and important artists.
Admittedly, the second half of The Paradine Case becomes a bit of a procedural slog, as the trial seems to unfold in real time. The British legal system, in this case anchored by judge Charles Laughton, so built upon rigid formality, doesn’t allow for much in the way of courtroom shockers that work so well in such films. When the outbursts and twists do inevitably pop up, a certain lulling of the audience has already set in. Easy speculation abounds that the filmmaker, anxious to finish this final picture in his stormy multi-film deal with Selznick, had lost all interest by this point.
So then, what is it about The Paradine Case that makes it worth defending? Quite simply, the things that are great about it. The way the eyes of the accused Mrs. Paradine’s own bedchamber portrait of herself follow Keane around the room when he comes a-snooping in the large empty house. Or, how about the odd supernatural sparkle in her eyes as she essentially “hypnotizes” Keane to her own will? Or, the way a hundred beads of sweat are visible on the stressed face of Keane throughout the trial itself? One can’t know if the sweat was purely character driven, or authentic during filming, as Peck and company had to act from beneath their traditional powdered wigs, likely heat traps unto themselves.
Ann Todd’s sympathetic and fragile performance brings a compelling gravitas to the film’s central conflict. And regarding the pair of rotund Charles’s in top supporting roles – has Charles Laughton ever failed to impress? Even here, as the stern law-and-order judge, he manages to inject a certain spark into proceedings. While we can’t help but think of him stealing the show in Billy Wilder’s similarly set Witness for the Prosecution (1957), The Paradine Case stands to further demonstrate his brilliant range. Meanwhile, a brow-furled Charles Coburn sits by as Keane’s confidant and co-worker, his expression and physical profile certain to throw off Hitchcock spotters in their quest to locate the famous director on screen. (Keep looking, he’s there.)
It’s true that The Paradine Case doesn’t measure up to the more firmly canonized entries in the famed Hitchcock/Selznick pairing. It’s also true that the film undeniably suffers from Selznick’s taking control, demanding reshoots, and cutting the film way, way down to its current running time. It lacks the full mysterious elegance of Rebecca, and the dark intrigue of Notorious and Spellbound. Yet it cannot be a case dismissed. We must remember that every work of a master cannot be a masterpiece, and this one brings down the gavel in a manner ultimately more compelling, more incisive, than several other lesser Hitchcock or Selznick films.
Kino Lorber’s new Blu-Ray of The Paradine Case upgrades a recent remaster for high definition, and proves to be an all-around improvement. The restoration demo included on the disc shows off the improvements, although one need look no further than the silver-like kick of the image itself as a testament to the work involved. Additionally, there is a nice bounty of extras, as well: a solid audio commentary by Film Historians Stephen Rebello and Bill Krohn; an interview between Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut; a full 1949 radio adaptation starring Joseph Cotten; Hitchcock interview audio with Peter Bogdanovich; an Isolated music and effect track; and the original theatrical trailer.
The images in this review are not representative of the actual Blu-ray’s quality, and are included only to represent the film itself.