Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Paradine Case (1947)

Look, I'll be honest. I barely made it all the way through The Paradine Case. There were a couple moments there around the one hour ten minute mark where I was strongly considering turning it off; if I didn't want to be able to say I had seen it and thus knock another of the remaining Alfred Hitchcock films off my "must see list" (or, in this case, the "must endure list") I almost certainly would have turned my attention to another delightful episode of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.

The movie follows a married British lawyer (Gregory Peck) who falls for his vampy client (Alida Valli), who may or may not have killed her blind old husband. Though it's basically a courtroom drama, and ultimately something of a murder mystery, The Paradine Case rests on the tension between the characters: Peck's troubles with his wife (Ann Todd), his lust for his client, the client's manipulation of Peck. But all of the casting is off (something Hitchcock himself acknowledged in his book-length interview with Francois Truffaut) and so's the chemistry: Peck claims that he's "fallen in love" with Valli though her looks certainly aren't the type to drop your jaw and their brief conversations in her jail cell have all the sexual tension of a Walmart employee training video.

Valli's performance may be the worst of anyone in any Hitchcock movie I've seen. She's got two expressions: stiff intensity and intense stiffness. Hitchcock liked his women mysterious, and the suspense in many of his best movies rises out of our trying to suss out a female character's true intentions and motivations. Valli's Mrs. Paradine is passive in the best of times, resigned to death at the worst. In his discussions about the movie with Truffaut he notes that one of the things that interested him about the story was the idea of an ordinary (and, potentially, innocent) person being sent to jail; watching a person who isn't accustomed to being locked up having to struggle with the brutal conditions of incarceration. I'd guess that Hitchcock's much longer original cut included a great deal more material of Mrs. Paradine's time in prison but the theatrical print (whose editing was supervised by Selznick after he didn't want to keep paying Hitchcock his going rate of $1,000 a day) removes all but a few faint traces of this theme from the story.

Some of the familiar Hitchcock archetypes are off as well. Hitchcock continually returned to people getting wrongfully accused (which, of course, plays off that fear of being wrongfully imprisoned) but (SPOILERS) Mrs. Paradine ain't so innocent. She's also not blonde -- which is typically a big deal in Hitchcock's pictures. Here the blonde is Peck's wife and she's frumpy and boring, instead of alluring and mysterious (basically what Mrs. Paradine is supposed to be). I also couldn't help but notice that many of my favorite Hitchcock pictures — Psycho, The 39 Steps, Frenzy — are all about characters near the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Everyone in The Paradine Case is a lord or a lady, and they've all got incredible suits, and butlers and maids, and gorgeous houses. It's all a bit too stuffy for really juicy Hitchcock.

Speaking of stuffy, that leads me to the one thing that really impressed me about The Paradine Case. The film is shot entirely on soundstages, something not all that unusual for Hitchcock, who preferred the control afforded to him by studio shoots. But it's almost claustrophobic in its near total lack of exterior scenes. The setting doesn't really afford Hitchcock much room for elaborate camera moves, and the subject doesn't lend itself to flashy special effects shots. So Hitchcock focuses instead on lighting. The way he uses light and shadow on certain characters faces is really quite remarkable; in this YouTube clip (which is grainy, but does a better job of showing you what I want you to see than any pictures I could find online) you can see how he highlights Mrs. Paradine's importance, as well as her emotional distance from everyone around her, by constantly bathing her face in these early scenes with harsh white light. Even when she's standing very close to other characters whose faces are either partly or completely engulfed in shadow she remains perfectly — and somewhat ominously — lit.

There's some similar work in the climactic courtroom scenes where the frame is filled with maybe a dozen actors but the light seems to shine only on Peck. It's a marvelous way to focus an audience's attention on one actor without having to resort to a close-up where you'd lose the geography of the setting. I have to tell you there were times I hated The Paradine Case but seeing Hitchcock's visual mastery shine through the drab performances and screenplay and a producer's unnecessary meddling made it worth my time.

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Blogger Michael J. Anderson said...

I had to stop at the SPOILER as I have this one on the DVR, so all I will say is GREAT!

11:26 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Anderson said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:22 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Anderson said...

Having now seen The Paradine Case - and having just today completed a newish Hitchcock volume by a British-born film scholar well known to you and I - I have to say that I found it entertaining, if minor Hitchcock. I suspect I find Valli more attractive than yourself, and was somewhat distracted by the uneven lighting (which in a surprising # of instances seems to have been a matter of rear projection). The foregrounded heads in the courtroom seemed to "pop" out of the frame a bit too much. Still, I enjoyed it all the same.

In spite of my disagreements, I enjoyed your post!

11:24 PM  

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