The Paradine Case


A Hitchcock film. This is a term which has become one of those key items of vocabulary common to all film fans. The director’s name is, I think it’s fair to say, universally recognized, which is no mean feat in itself when one remembers that he died over forty years ago and released his last feature a few years before that. In his lifetime and beyond the label “the master of suspense” was often applied, and it remains a fairly accurate descriptor. Is it a trifle restrictive though? Does it narrow the focus of his work too much? Perhaps. And perhaps it might be fairer, albeit admittedly lacking in poetry, zing, or just plain catchiness, to think of the Hitchcock film as a study of the moral dilemma. After all, his best works all present a range of ethical conundrums which both audiences and protagonists are tasked with navigating. While The Paradine Case (1947) is unlikely to figure in anyone’s list of best Hitchcock films, it does have some points of interest.

A beautiful young woman is accused of the murder of her blind husband and the barrister engaged to lead the defense becomes increasingly infatuated by her. That, in a nutshell, is the plot of The Paradine Case. By the time the film opens Colonel Paradine is dead. It feels somehow appropriate that a man who was unable to see, and whose life and death hold so much influence over the fate of the main characters, should himself remain unseen, save for the portrait which appears in the early scenes. As much as this is a Hitchcock film it is also a Selznick film and his presence hovers over proceedings just as the spirits of certain characters in his productions seemed to  haunt others. If this is a theme affecting a number of Selznick pictures, it is perhaps understandable as the man himself appears to have been haunted by earlier successes and was so often looking over his shoulder at those ghosts of his own past in an effort to reclaim them. Although it is a very different movie, there is something of the aura of Rebecca to be found, as if the tendrils of mist drifting and curling around the drive approaching Manderley continue to cling. Some of that comes from the familiarity of aspects of Franz Waxman’s score and the set of Mrs Paradine’s bedroom in the country retreat looking a lot like that of Rebecca’s. The past is never far from these characters lives, it may be frequently referred to obliquely but is always there in the shadows.

Whatever one may or may not think about the myriad theories propounded by critics, observers and biographers over the years regarding Hitchcock himself, there is no question that the characters peopling his tales of suspense and crisis are beset by their own obsessions. In The Paradine Case Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck) is instantly bewitched by the cool, enigmatic beauty of his client. From the very first meeting he is entranced, his gaze fixed and his heart effortlessly purloined, the course of the case, his career and his marriage will be indelibly marked by the experience. It is an extraordinarily unsympathetic role though; the man is pompous and a prig, so dazzled by Mrs Paradine (Alida Valli) that he is both oblivious of how appalling his behavior is and staggeringly insensitive to how hurtful it is. We the viewers can see it in the awkwardness of those around him, in the uncomfortable pauses, in the cringing displays of petulance. Yet Keane himself sees none of it, he has in essence become the second blind man in Mrs Paradine’s life, morally if not physically sightless and wholly unaware of the emotional devastation his actions are wreaking.

The entire picture is of course dominated by another “blind” figure, that of justice herself standing aloof atop the Old Bailey, remote and apart from the desperate passions being enacted in the chambers below. Is justice finally served at the end of it all? The viewer can decide that; for my part, I think perhaps only partially so as the verdict returned is clearly correct but the “rightness” of certain other consequences brought about both before and after this is moot. The murder that sets the whole train of events in motion is really a variation on Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, being of the utmost importance to the characters on screen but of lesser significance to the audience. We are naturally interested in seeing how it will resolve itself, but I’d argue the answer is never in serious doubt and the greater interest is inspired by the personal and ethical crisis which Keane experiences and the way it unfolds (or maybe unravels might be a more accurate term under the circumstances) in a packed courtroom. Peck was quite young at this point but he seems to be playing older with the greying hair and vaunted reputation indicating a man approaching, if not already in, middle age. There are references made by his wife (Ann Todd) to the way he has changed since his idealistic youth and just about every action is suggestive of someone having a mid-life crisis, someone seeing cages and bars all around, besotted by the unattainable Mrs Paradine and driven jealous to the point of mania by what he regards as a younger rival in the shape of Louis Jourdan’s intense valet.

The eye of the storm throughout is Alida Valli’s unknowable widow. Her composure and control are remarkable and Lee  Garmes uses his characteristic skill to light and photograph her striking features in such a way as to heighten this aspect. This makes it very clear how she is able to cast a spell over every man she encounters, but it also has the effect of distancing her too much – by the end she has been characterized as saint, sinner and demon all rolled into one but I don’t think much of that conveys itself to the audience in any meaningful way. The impression created of her as representing all things to all men is so strong that none of it feels authentic. In combination with Peck’s unsympathetic lead, this has the effect of creating a hollow at the heart of the picture. When a movie trades heavily on the emotional tides pulling and driving its characters this way and that, it amounts to a serious flaw.

Both Ann Todd and Louis Jourdan fare better, the latter as the wife who is at first bemused and then later steely and determined as she realizes that she has a fight on her hands. Hers is one of the more genuine performances in the movie, her role being easy to understand and drawing sympathy precisely because it is clear she wouldn’t dream of asking for it. One could say it is a very “British” performance, deriving power and feeling from its restraint. Louis Jourdan, on the other hand, simmers with self-disgust. He is a mass of conflicting emotions in and out of the witness box, anger, indignation and shame all call to him simultaneously before eventually consuming him.

Charles Laughton was an actor who could practically eat a film alive, and came awfully close to doing so in Jamaica Inn, his previous collaboration with Hitchcock. The Paradine Case gave him a smaller part, but a juicy one nonetheless and his sardonic and spiteful  judge makes for an interesting comparison with the very different jurist he would essay for Billy Wilder a decade later in Witness for the Prosecution. Ethel Barrymore, playing his wife, turns in one of those fey, affected performances she was so adept at, clinging fearfully to the fraying threads of her own sanity. When she witters despairingly to her husband about how callous the years have made him it is hard not to imagine some foreshadowing of the path life has in store for Peck and Todd.  Also among the supporting cast are Charles Coburn and Joan Tetzel as Peck’s solicitor friend and his coolly perceptive daughter. Finally, there are small parts for Hitchcock regulars Leo G Carroll and John Williams.

I am of the opinion that there is no genuinely bad Hitchcock film between The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 and Torn Curtain in 1966, while there are a number of undoubted classics as well as a few masterpieces in there. Sure some of the others are weaker and less successful and I’ll admit there are one or two which I do not like all that much. The Paradine Case is one of those frustratingly weak efforts. It looks sumptuous, has a superb cast and a premise brimming with potential. Yet the finished product is less than the sum of its parts and proves disappointing overall, failing to engage as fully as one would hope. Personally, I believe the blame can be placed on the writing – and Selznick seems to have been responsible for much of this – where the courtroom scenes are lacking in sparkle and snap and the portrayal of the leads saps all sympathy. In the final analysis, while it is certainly worth watching and has its moments this is a mediocre film that, had circumstances been slightly different, might have been a great one.

50 thoughts on “The Paradine Case

  1. Great review as always, Colin. It’s one Hitchcock I generally don’t look for to view again. As you say, a superb cast – apart from Gregory Peck whom I think is woefully miscast..( maybe under contract to Selznick?). I think Robert Donat would have been perfect in the role.
    Alida Valli was a fine actress, a pity she only made a few Hollywood films. My favourite of hers is The White Tower,

    Like

    • I first saw Valli in The Third Man, which is of course such a great movie, so that would have to be the one I automatically associate her with.

      Other actors might have been a better fit for the part than Peck, but it’s written so unsympathetically that I reckon almost anyone would have had a tough job making much of it.

      Like

  2. Really enjoyed reading this column, a lot more than the idea of watching the film again 😁 The central premise seems inherently hard to take and absolutely, Peck is seriously miscast (and far too young for the role). James Mason, while also too young, might have made a better go of it, or maybe Ronald Colman (thinking of A DOUBLE LIFE).

    Like

    • The thing is it looks marvelous, as all the movies Hitchcock made with Selznick do, and the idea of a courtroom whodunit with a cast like this sounds like a winner on paper. But it just winds up flat and far too wordy. Jourdan, Laughton, Todd and Barrymore give it a lift but it’s not enough in the end.
      Colman might have been able to make something more of the conflicted and misguided nature of Keane, perhaps at least bringing a more credible sense of a man reaching a critical point in his life.

      Like

  3. Well now, Colin, you have me very much intrigued. Certainly I have seen “THE PARADINE CASE” just as I have seen the vast majority of Hitchcock’s films. He is indeed high in my Top 5 favourite directors.
    What has shocked me is that I don’t have a copy of the film, which I was sure I did. Anyway that has been remedied and I have just ordered a copy.
    I agree with your assertion that Hitch didn’t make a ‘bad’ film between 1934 and 1966 and I also agree there were 1 or 2 (not much more than that) that were less satisfying. I even recently bought a BFI restoration of his 1932 film “SEVENTEEN” though I have not got round to it yet.
    It IS a fine cast, as you and others have said, and I look forward to a fresh assessment in light of your excellent review. Thanks for drawing my attention to my oversight!

    Like

    • I think I have copies of all Hitchcock’s movies myself, though it is easy to forget when a director has such an extensive filmography.
      I hope you take something positive away from a viewing – just keep your expectations at realistic levels.

      Like

    • I think Hitchcock was a very very great director, certainly one of the greatest of all time. But he made a few shockingly bad ​movies.

      I heard an interesting quote recently, to the effect that the trouble with the auteur theory is that it can lead people to give good reviews to bad movies. It’s easy to be so under the spell of the reputation of a director regarded as an auteur that we’re tempted to make excuses for their bad movies. It’s easy to give a free pass to a movie which, had it been made by a less highly regarded director, we would have dismissed simply as a bad movie.

      I used to make this mistake with Hitchcock. I admired him so much that I’d make excuses for movies like Lifeboat or Rope or Under Capricorn.

      Even the greatest directors make bad movies. There’s no director I admire more than Kubrick but Lolita is an ill-conceived misguided mess.

      I’m not making any direct comment on The Paradine Case because I haven’t seen it for decades.

      Like

      • I have to take issue with the assertion that Hitchcock made some “shockingly bad” movies. I simply don’t think that’s true, and even if Under Capricorn is little loved by most, the other two you cited really don’t deserve that label. Topaz is a desperately leaden affair enlivened briefly by two or, at a stretch, three sequences but up to that point I still maintain he kept the balance in the black, even if there were a few faltering steps here and there.

        I’d actually be inclined to flip your comment round and suggest that Hitchcock gets held up to a higher standard and subjected to more rigorous scrutiny than most other filmmakers, that his his weaker films are called out more regularly than would be the case for “lesser” directors. In short, those films sometimes referred to as “minor Hitchcock” are the type that many other directors would be pleased to have made and, I suspect, that a fair few critics would have been pleased to see them make.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Some have stated that Selznick deleted lots of footage after Hitchcock walked away. We found Peck’s obsession with the defendant distracting and annoying. His treatment of a witness was inexcusable. As always, A great review, coming shortly after I had mentioned this film to you!

    Like

    • I’d had the movie in mind for a rewatch and when you mentioned it quite recently that just bumped it up to the head of the queue, Paul.
      I have heard that about the film being edited down but I’d have thought that would have referred to a rough cut or workprint, or whatever the term is. The film is qute long enoutas it stands and I can’t see Hitchcock intending to make an even more extended version. He tended to favor reasonable running times for the most part.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The Paradine Case is probably nobody’s favorite Hitchcock.

    One problem is that the main characters, who we as audience should identify with, are so weak. Peck’s Keane really doesn’t have the audience’s sympathy at all, as you say. He’s easily manipulated,
    Peck was always a slightly wooden actor to me, I like him so much better when he’s bad (Duel in the Sun) or at least ambiguous (Yellow Sky, The Bravados).
    His wife Gay is incredibly tepid, and frankly Ann Todd is an actress I could never really warm up to.

    Alida Valli is a remarkable beauty and I wouldn’t fault any man for falling head over heels for her, but her performance here is almost zombie-like.

    Charles Laughton easily walks away with the movie as reprehensible judge. He made the movie worthwhile.

    Like

    • Todd wasn’t the most emotive or expressive actress, judging by what I’ve seen of her work anyway, but I thought that buttoned up style worked well enough for her role here.
      As for Peck, I still feel the writing, first and foremost, left him at a disadvantage and with little room to maneuver.

      Like

    • I agree about Peck. He should have done more bad boy roles. I loved him in Duel in the Sun. As a good guy he tried too hard to be earnest and dignified and it always came across as pompous.

      Cary Grant is another actor who should have taken more chances with unsympathetic roles.

      Like

        • I thought I was the only one who felt that Gregory Peck’s performance in To Kill a Mockingbird just doesn’t work. He’s too noble, too perfect, too wise. The world’s greatest father, the world’s greatest lawyer, just overall the most perfect human being on earth. I didn’t buy it, which meant that the movie never worked for me.

          Like

      • Cary Grant treated his work as a business, which it is, and had certain rules. Cary Grant lives at the end, and he gets the girl. Someone else may have approached screen life differently, but Grant knew what he was doing.

        Like

        • There’s no doubt that in strictly commercial terms Cary Grant’s approach worked. It greatly lessened his achievements as an actor but he probably didn’t care. He was a huge star and very rich and seems to have been happy with that, and good luck to him.

          But it meant that while he was one of the very biggest stars Hollywood has ever known, his achievements as an actor were much more modest. And it’s frustrating when you see him play a creep like Devlin in Notorious (and play the part so well) and you realise that he had the potential to be a much better actor.

          Maybe Gregory Peck took the same approach. Playing pompous prigs made him a huge star. But he could have been a much better actor.

          Like

          • Grant did what he did well. He found what worked best for him and honed that to perfection. I never had the sense that he was in any way dissatisfied with the direction he took, so I can’t say I’ve much reason to be dissatisfied with it either.

            I think you’re selling Peck short though. His was long career and quite a varied one too. He had plenty of range and to say he stuck to one type is doing him a disservice.

            Like

          • Devlin is hardly a creep, but rather a classic hero. The soft-voiced Mama’s boy played by Rains is designed to keep you on edge, and it does. Devlin’s character has every right and justification to respond the way he does, to a confused Bergman, code language for potentially treacherous, to the murderous fool played by Claude Rains.

            Like

            • I wouldn’t have characterized Devlin as a creep either, but there is some shading there which sets him apart from the standard hero as well. I’ve always though he was played as a conflicted character, a man who has to reconcile his disapproval of his “notorious” agent’s decisions with the feelings he has started to develop. His internal conflict is a big part of what makes the movie work, and the payoff that is delivered by his acceptance of Alicia and his realization that he does love and believe in her would have a massively diminished impact without it.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Personally, although I like Notorious, I find the character of Devlin to be quite cold – reflective of his unwillingness to be emotionally vulnerable. And Cary didn’t provide much shading – till that impressive ending, coming down the stairs.

                Like

              • I’ve always though he was played as a conflicted character, a man who has to reconcile his disapproval of his “notorious” agent’s decisions with the feelings he has started to develop.

                Yes. And it’s necessary in order to make the story work that his behaviour towards Alicia should be nasty and unreasonable. There’s no justification for his attitude. The man is a professional spy. He knows the score. Alicia’s job is to worm her way into Alex Sebastian’s affections, and into his bed. She’s being used as a classic honey trap.

                If Devlin can’t handle it then he should reconsider his own position. He should reconsider his loyalty to the agency he works for which is ruthlessly using his girlfriend as a whore. He should also remember that he knew the score from the beginning. He didn’t care until he started to become personally threatened by it. He didn’t care until he started to think that Alicia might be enjoying the sex with Alex. But that’s why she was chosen – because there was a long-standing mutual attraction between her and Alex. Devlin knew all that.

                Devlin behaves like a hypocritical jerk. That’s what makes the movie interesting. Devlin has to to grow up and stop being a jerk. That’s what makes it one of Cary Grant’s most interesting performances. For once he was prepared to play a jerk. Presumably he was OK with that because Devlin does grow up and he does redeem himself. Grant plays the part the way it should be played.

                It’s unfortunate that the Production Code people forced script changes which made Devlin’s behaviour less comprehensible. This weakened what could have been one of the screen’s great performances. It’s a grown-up story but the Production Code Authority tried to prevent it from being told as a grown-up story. That made Grant’s task harder.

                Like

                • Production Code or not, the material indicates all. Alicia is a notorious woman, and the sequence in which she discovers Devlin is clearly an orgy. She is compromised by more than loose sexuality, but the daughter of a traitor in a time of war just past. It would be unreasonable for Devlin, or anyone, not to be conflicted.

                  Like

                  • Yes, he’s definitely conflicted. But part of his conflict is that he can’t deal with the idea that Alicia is having sex with Alex. But he knew that that was part of the plan. His inner conflict is partly a result of the fact that’s been brought face to face with just how deeply unpleasant his job is. The unpleasantness of using female agents in this way had presumably never occurred to him before, and he figures she’s the daughter of a traitor and she’s just a whore anyway so he doesn’t care. But then he realises that he does care. He suddenly realises that he bears much of the responsibility for putting her in deadly danger and whatever she might be or might have been he loves her, and she’s his girl and he has to try to save her.

                    It’s a really interesting conflict and it makes Devlin an interesting character. Initially he’s a jerk but eventually he realises he’s been a jerk and he makes amends for it, so he ends up being a hero and a decent guy. It’s an interesting transformation and it works pretty well, and it shows that Cary Grant had more depth as an actor than one would have expected.

                    A modern viewer is going to see all the subtext and will realise immediately that Alicia had been a prostitute (or at least a courtesan). But would audiences at the time have picked up on that? I doubt it. My parents didn’t even realise that Holly Golighty in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a call girl, and that’s made much clearer than Alicia’s occupation in Notorious. You have to remember that people like us are used to looking for subtexts.

                    The conflicted nature of Devlin still works (for a modern viewer) but I suspect that audiences at the time were a bit bewildered by Devlin’s behaviour early on.

                    Hitchcock wanted a scene at the beginning that spelt it out that Alicia was a kept woman but the Production Code Authority wouldn’t allow it. So Hitchcock clearly felt that it needed to be made clearer. I agree with Hitchcock.

                    Like

                    • Surely the only thing that matters is the audience understanding that Alicia is being used, that she allows herself to be used as a way to redeem herself and make some amends for her father’s actions too. It’s clear all the way through that her past is a source of shame, spelling out all the grubby details would not add anything of importance that is not already there.
                      Ultimately, everything comes down to people falling in love unexpectedly. Alicia, Alex and Devlin all find themselves in uncharted waters emotionally. That’s how Ben Hecht wrote them, and every plot development and twist is spun from that premise. For the story to work, and it does work, all that is necessary is for the audience have enough invested in those characters to buy into their actions at the key moments, to see how those characters as presented would react in the way they do. The filmmaker’s job is to guide us on this journey, to elicit as much empathy as possible along the way, and to present a payoff that underscores the main themes and points of the story. I feel the film achieves all of that perfectly well as it stands, and adding more explicit imagery or crude exposition would not have made the movie any better nor its message any clearer.

                      Liked by 1 person

  6. Colin
    A fine write-up as always. The one and only time I watched this I found it very heavy going. LOL, I will not lie and say I am going to give it another watch. The top cast is not enough to get me to slap it in the player. I agree will all about Lee Garmes. Loved his work on THUNDER IN THE EAST, BOTTOM OF THE BOTTLE, DETECTIVE STORY, THE DESPERATE HOURS, THE JUNGLE BOOK and DUEL IN THE SUN.

    Again, nice job.
    Gord

    Like

    • There is a heaviness to the picture overall and it seems to grind along like an overloaded vehicle. I don’t blame you for not wanting to try it out again. Personally, I’ve seen it a few times over the years and will likely return to it again at some stage. It has some attractive features for me such as the look, and some good support work. However, the the combination of the problems posed by the leads alongside the heavy hand of Selznick’s unfettered earnestness represent significant weaknesses.

      Like

      • I don’t have any real animus against Selznick. I think the problem is that Selznick and Hitchcock had mutually incompatible approaches to movie-making. The danger of that is that the movies they made together were likely to end up being neither wholly satisfactory Selznick movies nor wholly satisfactory Hitchcock movies. The exception is Rebecca which is I think a wholly satisfactory Selznick movie.

        Like

        • I wouldn’t say I dislike Selznick myself, and I often come back to many of his films. However, he did tend to impose himself and his often rather rigid ideas on filmmakers he worked with, which on occasion lent a stodginess to the finished movie.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I agree. It’s a great pity that Selznick didn’t become a producer-director in the Otto Preminger mould. Selznick would have been happier directing his movies himself and without the necessity of having arguments with directors he could have simply made his movies his own way.

            Like

  7. Colin, your review is as good as it gets relative to The Parradine Case. I have e seen it several times and initially disliked Peck’s performance, especially in the trial sequences, that I failed to get through the entire film. But, as I had bought a Blu ray, and in several subsequent viewings, altered my view entirely. It is a tragedy, and Peck turned out fairly effective. Of course, he was cast because this was a Selznick product and many of these people, including Hitchcock were under contract, I do not think any of the suggestions relative to replacing Gregory Peck have merit. The film is what it is and nearly seventy years later, we are still talking seriously about it. Make that more than seventy years later.

    Like

    • Peck’s character is hard to like in those trial sequences and I think that’s the point anyway – we’re not supposed to like what he’s doing there.

      And that’s a fair comment on the movie as a whole. It may not be generally regarded as a success and aspects of the casting and writing might not meet with the approval of all of us, but the movie is still discussed, analyzed and so on, which is not bad going whatever way you slice it.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. This weekend my films to watch include…

    First up is C.B. DeMille’s 1934 production, CLEOPATRA. This one stars Claudette Colbert, Warren William, C. Aubrey Smith and Henry Wilcoxon.

    Next up is ONE FALSE MOVE from 1991. An excellent neo noir with Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton.

    Then I’ll finish up with the 1964 Japanese film, THE INSECT WOMAN. A first time watch.

    Have a great weekend folks.

    Gord

    Like

  9. Coming up on cable here is a Errol Flynn film I have never seen, ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN FABIAN from 1951. The cast includes, Vincent Price, Agnes Moorehead, Victor Francen and Micheline Preslle. Flynn wrote the screenplay. The director was William Marshal and a unbilled Robert Florey. I have no memory of every seeing this Flynn film. Can any of you good people cough up some info on the production? Opinions on IMDB are split right down the middle with some saying trash and the rest fun.

    Gord

    Like

  10. Hello Gordon,
    THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN FABAIN is quiet a come down
    for Flynn and a troubled production by all accounts.
    The later AGAINST ALL FLAGS and THE DARK AVENGER are
    far better pictures although a far cry from Errol’s glory days.
    “Fabian” looks cheap,and it was.
    Director William Marshall’s only other direction credit was
    THE PHANTOM PLANET (1961) and the film has gained a
    somewhat perverse “cult” status.
    Marshall also acted and Lesley Selander’s BLACKMAIL (1947)
    is well worth checking out,for the barrage of one liners alone.
    Marshall plays a gumshoe with a penchant for Dry Martini Cocktails;
    without the olive-it take up too much room in the glass.
    Marshall was married four times,three of his wives actresses,
    Ginger Rogers,Micheline Presle and Michelene Morgan.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Colin, Jerry, John

    Not sure if I have seen BLACKMAIL. But EXPOSED and SHADOWED are both well done low renters. SHADOWED is John Sturges 2nd film, .and the under-rated George Blair directs EXPOSED. .Both are worth a watch.
    Gord

    Like

    • Thanks, Gord, I really should have relayed the fact that Sturges directed “SHADOWED”. Already showing promise that he very quickly began to demonstrate.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.