Thursday, 9 May 2013

Review : The Paradine Case (1947)

The Paradine Case was Hitchcock’s last film for David O. Selznick, the famously ‘hands on’ producer who here also took charge of writing duties after expressing dissatisfaction with the original drafts delivered by Scottish playwright James Bridie. It was Selznick who was responsible for the truncated 115 minute cut of the film that made it into theatres, shearing more than an third from the three hour edit initially delivered by Hitchcock. One can certainly feel the loss, both thematically and narratively, even if there’s still plenty here to make one believe that the picture’s maligned reputation is less than deserved.

It’s the eponymous case itself that stands in for the otherwise lacking MacGuffin, an empty centre around which the picture’s real points of interest revolve. The trial makes up most of the latter half of the film, a drawn out whodunit of sorts whose resolution one can see coming a mile off. Did the beautiful Mrs Paradine (Alida Valli) poison her blind husband? Did his valet (Louis Jourdan) with whom she may or may not have been in love help? Gregory Peck is the defence attorney, falling hard for her charms to the chagrin of his adoring wife (Ann Todd).

One would like to think that the many themes and questions The Paradine Case raises but rarely adequately resolves are a result of Selznick’s injudicious snipping. We can see the potential outcome of the increasingly fragile relationship between Peck and Todd mirrored in that of lascivious trial judge Charles Laughton and his long-suffering wife (a magnificent, Oscar nominated Ethel Barrymore). An early warning from the older woman to the younger expressing concern at the effects of a case of such magnitude on their marriage is essentially forgotten once the trials grinds into action, barely re-addressed in the film’s closing scene. That which precedes it however strikes a much more sombre tone, Barrymore’s plea to her husband for compassion cruelly dismissed out of hand by the jaded, disinterested Laughton. It would have made a great final scene, though perhaps too downbeat even for Hitchcock, let alone Selznick.

Peck’s need for victory in the trial is as much a case of peacocking as it is professional pride. With his infatuation with Valli in the film’s existing form spiralling from a single meeting and initially inhibiting believability, it’s one of the few narrative compressions that in many respects works in the film’s favour, especially when viewed as a study of male vanity and dominance as much as it is female sufferance.

There’s still plenty that doesn’t work though. Franz Waxman’s score belongs to a different picture altogether, it’s incessant romanticism undercutting the film’s bite, whilst the trial scenes are less an examination of procedure in the Preminger vein than an over-extended (and over-explained via running commentary by Todd and Joan Tetzel) exercise in narrative closure. That said, aided by Lee Garmes’ beautiful lensing, Hitchcock works hard to bring the court scenes visually to life, a 180 degree turn centring on Valli a highlight to stand beside Peck’s overhead courtroom exit. The Paradine Case may make one work hard to get the most out of it, but viewed with an optimistic eye to what it could have been, the effort is certainly worth more than its reputation may suggest.

The Paradine Case - 1947 - United States - 125 mins - Alfred Hitchcock

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