Week 25: The Paradine Case, Self-Awareness, and 225 Million People


Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!

It’s rare for a Hitchcock movie to be boring, so when a boring one comes along, it’s not just tedious but actively frustrating. Every shot looms like a missed opportunity, every performance a wasted chance. It just bums you out.

Such is The Paradine Case. Made in 1947, this was Hitchcock’s last film for producer David O. Selznick. Selznick is a polarizing figure in Hollywood history, beloved at the height of his powers for his unerring ability to gauge what the public would like, resulting in the biggest movie in Hollywood history, Gone With the Wind. And he’s just as hated for the extreme control he exerted over every production, a micromanager before the term existed.

David O. Selznick & Hitchcock

On paper Selznick and Hitchcock were a lousy match. Hitchcock bristled at any studio interference and was famously able to shoot a film so that it could only be assembled one way. Selznick was the Producer’s Producer, a man who considered himself the true auteur of all his films and demanded retakes, reshoots, and re-edits from every possible angle.

Yet Selznick also had the foresight to court Hitchcock and bring him to America in 1939. Their partnership resulted in Hitchcock’s only Oscar (Best Picture winner for Rebecca in 1940), the flawed-but-fascinating psychiatry thriller Spellbound, as well as consultations on numerous other projects. Sadly, by 1947 and The Paradine Case, the bloom was off the rose.

A promotional photo of the cast of The Paradine Case, with Hitchcock and Selznick (back row, third from left) awkwardly shoehorned in.

Selznick was somehow in dire financial straits (a seemingly impossible feat after the box office gross of Gone With the Wind in 1939) and staked his fortune on the success of this new film. Hitchcock was finishing out a contract and his enthusiasm for the project quickly dimmed as he realized the level of Selznick’s involvement. Not only did Selznick oversee all the casting, he demanded reshoots, cut many of Hitchcock’s favorite scenes, and even ended up writing the film himself. Often the producer would finish a scene only hours before it was due to be shot.

At the height of his powers, Selznick was a indisputable genius; between three directors and countless screenwriters, Gone With the Wind is truly his film, a masterpiece of Hollywood showmanship and skill. Every dollar spent is evident in the lush costumes, brilliant actors, gigantic sets, and remarkable cinematography.

Bizarrely, the lackluster Paradine Case ended up costing more than Gone With the Wind, through cost overruns, star salaries, an enormous Old Bailey set, and extensive location shooting in England that went mainly unused. It was a lesson for Hitchcock as he grew despondent during the shooting of the film and resolved to never be in that situation again. Hitchcock would never work with such strong-willed producers again, and would either produce his own films or work with studios that were more amenable to his style.

The enormously complicated Old Bailey set

While I was reading about the making of Paradine, I found it easy to empathize with everyone involved. Selznick was staking his reputation and fortune on this film and it’s hard not to appreciate this chutzpah, no matter how misguided it is. But I also read about how Hitchcock, Gregory Peck, and the rest of the cast knew it was rubbish, knew there was no way it was going to stitch together, knew that it wasn’t any good. Hitchcock felt helpless and tried to get through the shoot as it stretched to over 90 days, a torturous situation for a director who prided himself on efficiency.

I can’t imagine why Selznick chose to pour his remaining resources into such a clunky film. The movie opens with the best sequence in the film: Mrs. Paradine (Valli) is playing piano in her London home when the police arrive to arrest her. She’s taken from her upper-class house to a police station where she’s charged with the murder of her husband. After a brief meeting with her lawyer she’s taken into a grimy women’s prison and locked in a cell as the door slam shut. It’s everyone’s worst nightmare, the idea that you can be sitting quietly in your home and the police suddenly arrive.

One of the best scenes in the film, as Alida Valli is escorted to her prison cell.

After this promising beginning the film quickly falls apart. We meet Gregory Peck and his loving wife (Ann Todd), introduced in a tableau of marital bliss so overwhelming that it’s sure to crumble. Sure enough, Peck is introduced to Mrs. Paradine and he’s so taken with her that it quickly becomes clear to his legal partner (Charles Coburn) and wife that he’s in love with the accused woman. Peck is convinced that Valli cannot be guilty, because she’s such a “fine woman.” He investigates the case of murder by poisoning and finds the suspicious stablehand/attendant Louis Jordan. Jordan may as well scream “she murdered him because she’s in love with me,” but Peck doesn’t believe any of it. Charles Laughton shows up as the judge in the case who has a personal dislike of Peck (he also sexually harasses Peck’s wife in a baffling and upsetting scene). Meanwhile Peck’s wife knows what is going on, but tells Peck that she hopes he wins because if Mrs. Paradine is sentenced to death, then “she’ll lose him forever.”

Ann Todd and Gregory Peck

This is an especially hard pill to swallow. Granted this is 1947 Hollywood, so the idea of her leaving him because he’s in love with another woman is right out of line. Yet the logistical hoops that she has to jump through in order to justify his continuing with the case are mind-boggling. Her behavior almost transcends its appalling sexism because it has no bearing on any kind of relatable reality. It’s the worst, most transparent kind of writing where a character abandons all motivation to develop a plot line.

Finally there’s a dramatic courtroom finale which is sorely lacking in Hitchcockian touches (a discussion of who might have been able to poison Mr. Paradine falls flat because Hitchcock admitted that he didn’t know and didn’t care about whose room was next to whose and who might have been in the hallway). Characters act in ways that directly contradict their earlier motives, then switch back again. It’s false and even worse, it’s boring.

The insurmountable problem with the film is the casting. Over half of the major roles are horribly miscast. First, Gregory Peck. He doesn’t even bother with a British accent, or tries in a scene or two and then gives up. Peck could be a good actor with the right material, but attempting to play an English barrister corrupted by lust for his own client is too much of a stretch; no one ever thought of Gregory Peck as inflamed with passion. Hitchcock had wanted Laurence Olivier, who could have been exceptional, but didn’t get him.

Two Americans not even trying to do British accents: Charles Coburn & Gregory Peck

Another American who doesn’t even waste time with a British accent is Charles Coburn. Coburn is a wonderful character actor who deliverd top-notch performances in comedies like The Lady Eve and The More the Merrier, but his casting here is baffling. In 1947 there was no shortage of older British actors in Hollywood, yet here we are with Coburn attempting to stifle his trademark Southern drawl. I can only assume he was under contract to Selznick and had to be used.

Hitchcock had issues with Louis Jordan as the groom/valet, but I actually think he’s fine. The single biggest problem with the film is in the casting of Mrs. Paradine. Selznick had found Alida Valli (aka Baroness Alida Maria Laura Altenburger von Marckenstein-Frauenberg) in Italian cinema and brought her to America, convinced he had the next Ingrid Bergman on his hands. Yet while “Valli” (as he christened her in this film) had the looks, her acting and command of english were, let’s say “limited.” By 1949 she’d be convincing enough in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, yet here she’s unbelievably wooden and cold. Bear in mind, she’s playing a character so beautiful, so desirous, that a happily married man falls so deeply in love with her at their first meeting that he’s ready to throw away his entire career for her. Peck does his best in these scenes, while Valli…sits there. She blinks, she speaks her lines, she looks gorgeous, but Hitchcock can’t coax any substance out of her. Imagine this film with Ingrid Bergman and Laurence Olivier in the lead roles and now you’ve got something.

Alida Valli, emoting.

The Paradine Case does make me appreciate how well-constructed most Hitchcock films are. He might not care about the details of story, yet his character motivations are almost always iron-clad, even if it’s as simple as “I’ve been wrongly accused and must clear my name.” Hitchcock is also a master at utilizing the innate charisma of certain movie stars. We’d all believe that someone would fall in love at first sight with Cary Grant or Ingrid Bergman; Alida Valli, not so much.

Hitchcock attempts some interesting camerawork in this film but much of it is cut up or discarded by Selznick in post-production. In one scene between Peck and Jordan in a small sitting room, the camera is constantly moving up, over, and around a hanging lamp. My guess is that Hitchcock designed this as a long single take but Selznick insisted on closeups of the actors and cut it all to hell. As it stands, it’s a bizarre scene as the camera starts to move and whirl around, then cuts to a seated closeup and then back again.

Somewhere in the rest of this muddled mess is a good film, or at the least the idea for one. Scenes between Coburn’s character and his wise-beyond-her-years daughter as they discuss the case perfectly embody the dark Hitchcock comedic touch. And even in their too-brief scenes together, Charles Laughton and his wife Ethel Barrymore get a much deeper and richer movie than anyone in the cast. Barrymore is breathtaking as a society wife slowly unraveling; her discomfort with her husband’s profession and how it’s turning him into a monster is cruelly mirrored by Laughton’s snide dismissal as her worst fears come true. In these short scenes (there were more but they were shamefully cut by Selznick), Barrymore shows why she was the only actor nominated for an Oscar for her work in this mainly dismal film. Selnick’s edits make no sense; why cut some of the best acting and best scenes in the entire movie? It’s as though he lost all of his famous judgement.

Old pro Ethel Barrymore, easily stealing every scene she’s in.

If you’re an artist, this is something to worry about. It’s hard to live in that bubble of self-examination, with only yourself for feedback. Sure, it helps to have people critique your work, but if your ego or self-loathing is strong enough it can easily overcome any well-reasoned suggestions. 99 people tell you something is great? Okay, but what about the one person who didn’t like it? Why don’t they like it? WHY AM I A FAILURE?!!

There’s an interesting dichotomy here between Hitchcock and Selznick. The two men were contemporaries, almost the same age, with roughly the same amount of experience in filmmaking. And Selznick produced Gone With the Wind, by far the most successful motion picture ever made. By some estimations, Gone With the Wind sold over 225 MILLION tickets over the course of several years (this at a time when the US population was around 140 million). Movies that are big hits today don’t even come close to that kind of saturation; not Avengers, not Titantic, not Avatar, not anything. It’s impossible to overstate how huge this movie was and what a big role Selznick played in shaping the material.

Nobody’s lining up like that for “Avatar.”

Yet just eight years later he was close to broke and gambling on a dreary legal picture predicated entirely on the audience falling in love with an actress who could barely act.

To be fair, it’s probably hard to know what it’s like to reach that mountain top of success – how can you ever come down again? How can you ever live up to it? I constantly worry about this myself, wondering if my new ideas are good enough, judging myself against past success, worried that nothing is good enough. Right now I’m working on an idea that I think will do well, that people have asked about in the past. Objectively it’s as close to a sure thing as anything I’ve done. Yet I’m still unsure, worried. I have to do a kickstarter or presale to raise money for it, and I’m worried that people won’t like it, will think it’s stupid, or won’t want to give me money. Maybe it’s caution or self-doubt, but it’s hard to tell sometimes.

I like to think that Hitchcock’s constant questioning and need to come up with something new is what drove him to higher and higher levels of artistic success long into later life (remember, Hitchcock was 61 years old when he directed Psycho). Maybe Selznick started to believe his own hype or he simply didn’t have the ability to retain his questioning, striving spirit.

Peck and Charles Laughton

Either way, The Paradine Case is a cautionary tale. More than any Hitchcock film I can think of, it’s defeated by the casting. Selznick’s script does the story no favors, but I feel like with more capable actors in the leading roles Hitchcock might have been able to turn it into something more memorable. As it stands, with most of his brilliant camerawork cut for time or out of spite, it’s just a tedious courtroom melodrama.

Watch It: The Paradine Case is remarkably hard to find – it’s not available to rent on iTunes or Amazon. There are some illicit copies on Youtube, or you can find a DVD online.

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