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Hitchapalooza 4: A Case Of The Paradines July 3, 2008

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.

The other night TCM did me a favor and ran yet-another-unseen-by-Wagstaff Hitchcock, 1947’s The Paradine Case, featuring Gregory Peck as an English lawyer (!) who falls for his murder-suspect client and deals with the strain it puts on his marriage & his soul.

As with many of the other Hitchcock films that fall short of the standards we grown to expect (or feel entitled to, I guess – Good God, the man made so many great films, there HAVE to be some clunkers in there!), Hitchcock acknowledged the weaknesses of this one later on in interviews and (shades of Torn Curtain) blamed the casting and the fact that the movie had been forced upon him contractually. Paradine was the final movie Hitchcock made for Selznick, and filming the novel it was based on had been a Selzick obsession for more than ten years prior.

Selznick fought with Hitchcock a lot but most often got him what he wanted. If you want some entertaining stories of what a control-freak whack job Selznick could be coming off his grand slam success of Gone With The Wind, read some stories about the making of Duel In The Sun when you have the chance. It’s overly long and uneven, but it’s got some great over-the-top material in it that’s very entertaining. Too bad it cost so much money for its time that despite being a hit, it wound up being Selznick’s Waterloo.

But I digress.

While I can agree with Hitchcock that much of Paradine is miscast, I don’t agree with all of his particular complaints. Peck as a British lawyer could be acceptable, but Peck as someone whose passions are uncontrollably aroused by a suspected murderess is a stretch. Peck was always a stoic screen presence, and the roles that fit him well were those of stiffly controlled people (Duel In The Sun is actually a rare exception to this – perhaps Selznick saw something else in the guy). Peck’s other Hitchcock role in Spellbound works since he’s an amnesiac with no idea of his personality, so his emotions become under the control of repressed nerd Goddess Ingrid Bergman (another common female type to be found in Hitchcock films, whether it’s Barbara Bel Geddes in Vertigo, Joan Fontaine in Suspiscion, Pat Hitchcock in Strangers On A Train, etc. Just look for the tell-tale glasses!). It’s tough to buy Peck as someone who’d throw his well-ordered life away falling for an ice queen who has no feelings for him. This is where Jimmy Stewart might have worked better since he can do the self-destructive obsession bit better, whether in an Anthony Mann western or in Vertigo.

Instead of their wish of Greta Garbo for the murderess role, they had to settle for Selznick’s discovery Alida Valli. I can’t really blame her for the lifelessness of the material, however. Garbo would have made no difference here. And where I part ways with Hitchcock is over his complaints about Louis Jourdan in the key role of the murdered man’s valet. Hitchcock wanted someone swarthier and covered with dirt, basically, but Jourdan’s performance is quite good. He evokes repressed secrets and emotions well, and handles his inevitable breakdown and blow up very well. And since he looks like he just got back from his handsome lesson, he’s believable as a secret cough-up-your-scones Good Lord m’lady consorts with the servant class! lover in the DH Lawrence sense.

The plot and its unfolding are talky, slow and obvious. There’s not much suspense here, and all of the characters are a bit too stiff to really care about. I never found the movie involving, to be honest. The only bright spots were the wonderfully creepy Charles Laughton as an elitist old letch of a judge and Ethel Barrymore as his ignored good hearted wife. But since the crux of the plot rides on Peck’s love for his client and how it determines his clouded view of her innocence, it’s her character that needs a lot more development. Simply being shot in flattering light doesn’t make us understand why anyone would fall for her or willingly let themselves he destroyed by her. Maybe it was in the novel somewhere, maybe not. But it’s certainly not on the screen, and the way it all just lays there made me think that there ought to have been a crawl along the screen reading “Alfred Hitchcock’s Contractual Obligation Film” running every so often.

Ah well, on to hopefully better things in the DVD pile! Up to bat next, 1953’s never-seen-by-Wagstaff I Confess, followed by the next category of not-seen-by-Wagstaff-for-20-years-or-more, including Dial M For Murder, Rope, The 39 Steps & Frenzy.

Like I said, those DVD finds at yardsales have been a true Hitchapalooza…



1. Gloria - July 4, 2008

I agree that Garbo couldn’t have done much more than Alida Valli does in this film: having seen her in “Senso” or “The Thrid Man” I much admire her powerful screen presence, and I must say that she’s properly enigmatic (yes, the only clear thing in the script about Mrs. Paradine is that she’s quite a mystery). I also agree about Jourdan… and, in fact, I think that in a way, he’s more interesting than Hitchcock’s ideal actor for the part (apparently, Robert Newton)… In fact, Jourdan’s beauty suggests that behind his devotion to his master there could be… something else.

I love Laughton in the film: I guess that playing a Lord in such a merciless light could have been a reason why the British Establishment never knighted him… Incidentally, for all his avowed trouble with Laughton in “Jamaica Inn”, it seems that Hitchcock was quite satisfied with his work in “The Paradine Case”… But wasn’t as vocal about it, which I think that is a bit unfair; particularly because Hitch’s comments on “Jamaica Inn” have left an image of CL as a “Director’s Holy Terror” Which I believe was only true on a few occasions… as for others, I could say that Jean Renoir, Ernst Lubistch, Billy Wilder or Otto Preminger -to mention a few names- were quite positive about his work.

Apart from Ethel Barrymore, I’d also single Charles Coburn and Joan Tetzel, which give some nice comedy relief.

2. Jim Berkin - July 4, 2008

I like your idea for Jourdan’s character, Gloria! Perhaps if he had been the scandalous secret lover of Sir Paradine and the wife decided to either (a) share him with hubby & then wanted him all to herself or (b) seduce him away from the hubby whose secret life repulsed her, followed by murder… all uncovered by the naive self-destructive love of a do-gooding lawyer who thought her some innocent victim… all with some sleazebag old upper crust perv of a judge looking over his shoulder since he wants a quick one with the lawyer’s wife… now THAT would be a better movie, though I doubt you’d get it made it in 1947.

The working relationships of actors and directors is always interesting to me – people who are regarded as impossible to work with by some work repeatedly well with others. You have the clash of personality, ego, and artistic sense all rolled up together. When they click, like a Wilder/Lemmon or Scorcese/DeNiro, we often get great stuff on screen. When they don’t, like George Clooney punching out David O. Russell, we get wonderful backstage stories! I have a feeling that Laughton would come to the set absolutely knowing how to play a character, a scene, a line… and only wanted minor direction or encouragement. Perhaps during Jamaica Inn, Laughton thought Hitchcock a young upstart director, and by the time he worked with Hitchcock on Paradine, Hitchcock had enough of a reputation that Laughton was less annoyed by any suggestions. I’d love to read Laughton’s take on it all – the 2 sources I have for Hitchcock’s views on things are Donald Spoto’s excellent The Art Of Alfred Hitchcock & the Hitchcock/Truffaut interview book. Both are worth reading!

3. Gloria - July 7, 2008

“now THAT would be a better movie, though I doubt you’d get it made it in 1947”
LOL! I can imagine an upgrade in Joan Tetzel’s bitchy remarks in such a version! You’re right! such a film could be much better than the actual one we got (which isn’t too bad)

The Truffaut/Hitchcock one I’ve read it, or at least, the old, shorter edition… That book is a joy from start to finish. I’ll check the other one when I have the chance!

Incidentally, the “Jamaica Inn” shooting has been presented as a case of a “director being a martyr to an actor’s ego”, yet i think that Maureen O’Hara (who greatly admired BOTH Hitchcock and Laughton) put it in a less partial perspective in her memoirs: in her opinion, it was a clash of TWO egos.

One more thing: when Laughton and Pommer hired Hitchcock’s services well aware that he wasn’t an upstart… Hitchcock was then considered the most inventive and “hot” of British directors, so by getting him to direct a film for them they were “scoring”, so to say… It was not unlike when a Football Club has the best player of a World Cup signing for them.

And, yes, according to many, like Emlyn Williams, Laughton certainly knew how to do his stuff (he was a great intuitive actor, Williams said) but he felt more secure (reassured) with a director’s approval of his work, or with helpful indications to improve his work in a scene: It was Von Sternberg’s failure to realize this that doomed the “I, Claudius” film in 1937. Billy Wilder and Jean Renoir were better “actor’s directors” in that sense and no wonder that in their films CL gave great performances.

4. Jim Berkin - July 7, 2008

I’m actually happy that “I, Claudius” was not made as a film in 1937, and instead as a wonderful British miniseries in the ’70s that could bring both of Graves’ Claudius books to life in glorious twisted detail. AND it has Captain Picard in it!

5. Gloria - July 8, 2008

Ha! Ha! in one of the reruns of the series I recall thinking: OMG, It’s Captain Picard! WITH HAIR!! (he was pretty good as Sejanus, BTW)

And, of course a 90-120 minute film couldn’t possibly go into detail as the BBC series (and Graves said he wasn’t too satisfied with the film’s script), but the surviving rushes show that Laughton really “got” the character, so I am sorry that the fim never got finished: I’m sure it would have been one of his capital roles.

Incidentally, what can be seen of Emlyn Williams’ Caligula is remarkable: in the few scenes finished, he shows a Caligula who’s wickedly whimsical, fey and as dangerous as a mocassin: it would have been interesting to fully compare it to John Hurt’s emperor

6. Jim Berkin - July 8, 2008

I’ve seen the documentary on the 1937 version, “The Epic That Never Was,” which they ran as a bookend to a broadcast of the “I Claudius” miniseries some years back. I think I have it on the VHS recordings I made of it. (It’s an extra on the DVD set which I do not own). The old film version looked curious, but I think a lot of the juicier material from the novel (and the material from Suetonius’ The 12 Caesars it was based on) was un-filmable in 1937. In 1979, Bob Guccione proved that it could also be unwatchable.

7. Gloria - July 10, 2008

LOL, yes they would probaly have deleted the more naughty bits… But had it been done pre-1934 they could have got away with it! have you seen De Mille’s The Sign of The Cross? Laughton is the naughtiest Nero ever! Not to mention Claudette Colbert being very, very bitchy and bathing in asses’ milk… and then there’s the bizarre awesomeness of the Circus scenes in the end: Amazon’s versus Pigmies! man-eating alligators! womean-eating gorillas! Christian-crushing Elephants! (you know, after seeing the “Rom”e series I’ve become more and more in love with DeMille’s pre-code 30s risqué anachronisms: Mitchell Leisen’s Art Decó, Erté-like costumes truly beat the T-shirt wearing legionnaires)

Incidentally… The same way Ed Wood and Jess Franco have been vindicated, I guess that Guccione and Tinto Brass will be the subject of works by scholarly film historians sometime in the future (not that I am particularly enthusiastic about it, but it will happen). Place your bets.

8. Jim Berkin - July 10, 2008

I’ve never seen that DeMille movie, and now that the 1932 original version with all the fun stuff left in is on DVD, it’s definitely on my list. It sounds great! I love over-the-top DeMille & make a ritual of watching the 1956 Ten Commandments every year when ABC hauls it out of the vaults. The original is pretty good too, actually… I’ve also never seen the original 1927 King Of Kings, the 3rd DeMille biblical epic from back in the day.

I don’t think Guccione & Tinto Brass will see a camp-renaissance appreciation the way Ed Wood did. While Wood’s output and Caligula are both bad and sleazy (to varying degrees, to say the least), Wood’s more popular bad films are not boring. In writing my occasional “Bad Films To Love” entries, I’ve been reminded that the key for an awful film to make it into that category is to be entertaining on some comic level, most often not the level intended. It’s why bad comedies never make the cut as enjoyable bad films, they’re just unwatchable and cringe-worthy. I think bad porn fits the same bill!

9. Gloria - July 11, 2008

Oh, if you like The Ten Commandments (fifties version) I’m sure you’ll LOVE Sign of the Cross. I’ve mentioned its Nero and Poppaea but Fredric March is also something as the Roman Prefect. Mitchell Leisen had a wonderful anecdote: De Mille was producer (with his own money), and as soon as teh last cent was spent, he yelled “cut” and the film was wrapped… I bet we’d had some of those delightfully mad Circus scenes.

Of the De Mille’s silents I’ve only seen “Joan the Woman”: I recall a scene where a french soldier was shot by the English and ended in the ground arrowed like a human hedgehog.

Well, re Guccione and Brass not having revisionist criticism in the future, may the gods hear you… Yet I have seen crazier things, so I’m afraid it’s not entirely to be discarded: nowadays trash culture gets more respect than culture proper.

10. Jim Berkin - July 11, 2008

If you watch the 1956 Ten Commandments carefully, you can see that a lot of the direction comes straight out of silent film – despite people speaking dialogue (and very often God-awful/yet-wonderful dialogue like “Moses, Moses, you splendid mad adorable fool!”) watch their body motion and how they are shot – they often express emotions with overly mannered hand & arm movements, facial expressions, etc. (Watch the 3 daughters of Jethro before the water parts in this scene and you’ll see what I mean – the shot of the 2 little kids looking in wonder at the pillar of fire is also priceless). While it adds to the “we’re watching an ancient biblical world” feel of the movie by creating an atmosphere of stagey artificiality, it also makes me wonder if that was the only way DeMille was ever truly comfortable with directing actors.

So let it be written, so let it be done!

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