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The Paradine Case

by Glenn Erickson Jun 06, 2017

DVD SAVANT

This isn’t the only Alfred Hitchcock film for which the love does not flow freely, but his 1947 final spin on the David O. Selznick-go-round is more a subject for study than Hitch’s usual fun suspense ride. Gregory Peck looks unhappy opposite Selznick ‘discovery’ Alida Valli, while an utterly top-flight cast tries to bring life to mostly irrelevant characters. Who comes off best? Young Louis Jourdan, that’s who.


The Paradine Case
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1947 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 125 min. / Street Date May 30, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Gregory Peck, Alida Valli, Ann Todd, Charles Laughton, Louis Jourdan, Ethel Barrymore, Joan Tetzel.
Cinematography Lee Garmes
Production Designer J. McMillan Johnson
Film Editors John Faure, Hal C. Kern
Original Music Franz Waxman
Writing credits James Bridie, Alma Reville, David O. Selznick from the novel by Robert Hichens
Produced by David O. Selznick
Directed by
Alfred Hitchcock

 

There are movies that I want so badly to like that I get them out every few years to give them another spin. Two random titles that come to mind are Scream and Scream Again and Master of the World: I keep hoping they’ll be better than they are. Sometimes I rediscover what didn’t work about them, but more often I re-enter a puzzle in which the frequent question is, ‘why did they make that strange choice?’ Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case is problematic for several reasons, almost all of which involve producer David O. Selznick. Hitchcock apparently saw an opportunity to do a gritty critique of British class excesses, while Selznick simply wanted a star-studded glamour piece.

The features still aligned with the Selznick-owned collection have moved between several home video distributors in the last twenty years. Most of them have been in need of improved transfers for quite a while. Now the library has been licensed to Kino, so we’re eager to see whether the rights holders will spring for decent new scans, or recycle the same old tired masters. More on that concern below.

 

For better or worse The Paradine Case has the reputation of being one of Alfred Hitchcock’s losers. But is it? As one his last assignment under contract to producer/talent broker David O. Selznick, this title charms some people but confuses a lot more.

We’re in London. Distinguished trial lawyer Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck) has a reputation for never losing a case. He takes on the murder defense of Mrs. Maddalena Anna Paradine (Alida Valli, billed as just Valli), who is accused of poisoning her husband, a respected hero blinded in the war. Paradine is a total mystery. She keeps her thoughts and emotions private, yet communicates an attraction toward Keane that disturbs his judgment, and almost ruins his marriage to the understanding Gay (Ann Todd). Gay must weather both the indignity and helplessness of seeing her husband’s affections stray, while also enduring the petty advances of trial Judge Lord Thomas Horfield (Charles Laughton). He’s a pompous womanizer who treats his poor wife Lady Sophie (Ethel Barrymore) terribly.

Anthony travels to the Paradine country home to investigate valet Andre Latour (Louis Jourdan), who may have aided Paradine in commiting suicide. Latour is hostile and uncooperative with Keane. Upon learning of this visit, Maddalena becomes abrasive as well. When the case goes to trial, the stress on both Keane’s defense and his private life begins to mount, especially when Anna Paradine’s behavior suggests that she’s kept a lot hidden from him . . .

 

For an Alfred Hitchcock film, The Paradine Case is surprisingly unexciting and unmemorable. Those are words not often associated with the Master of Suspense, whose movies normally are a guarantee of entertainment. Paradine has interesting characters, particularly the couple played by Charles Laughton and Ethel Barrymore, but the story, to put it mildly, suffers from a lack of development. All too often, it simply seems as if nothing is happening. Considerable time is used to establish Laughton as a harassing lecher who plagues Ann Todd and humiliates his own wife, but that thread never meshes with the rest of the plot. Yes, the Judge may be prejudiced against Keane going into the trial, but the disadvantage doesn’t seem relevant, considering that Keane never offers a reasonable case anyway. Joan Tetzel, the daughter of the Paradine family lawyer played by Charles Coburn, exists only to tell Anthony and Gay how they are feeling, and to deliver unnecessary exposition during the trial: “I’m afraid your husband’s not doing well.”

Somewhere in the middle of the war, tied up with his new lover/muse and his messy divorce, David O. Selznick seemingly misplaced much of his good instincts for movie material. The only lesson he learned from Gone With the Wind is that his judgment should override that of everyone else. No matter what their experience or specialty might be, the expensive experts hired by Selznick were informed almost daily, in multi-page memos, how to to their jobs. He also decided that he was a good writer. Since You Went Away and Duel in the Sun have plenty of entertainment value, but Selznick’s screenplays show no sense of economy, and tend to simply graft together ideas from other movies. Duel in the Sun is a hot romance surrounded by cornball, overdone western situations. Since You Went Away) simply appropriates the Monty Wooley character from The Man Who Came to Dinner.

The Paradine screenplay ‘personally’ authored by David O. is unusually awkward, even for him. There’s little motivation for Keane’s abrupt tailspin into bewitchment by Valli, and little attempt to make us identify with his predicament — it seems as if we’re supposed to be mesmerized by Anna Paradine just as Keane is, but nothing of the sort ever happens. We never trust Valli’s character. We don’t understand why potential murder suspects in the Paradine household weren’t investigated by Keane (or the cops) from the start. Keane accepts Maddalena’s innocence with the illogical reason that “anyone can see a woman of her quality couldn’t do anything like that.” We never hear much of the police case against Anna, so we never know exactly what Keane is up against. If Selznick had set the story fifty years earlier, it might seem more credible. The low-key approach starts events well, but since the whole show appears to be in denial about Anna Paradine’s obvious guilt, what should be big surprises at the finish turn out to to be news only to the badly shaken Anthony Keane.

 

The acting is uniformly fine for a film where characters are well defined but do not develop. Perhaps Ann Todd could have been one of Hitchcock’s ‘blondes’ had she not been given such a dull role. Her understanding, suffering wife act is well played but nothing more. Alida Valli, the Selznick ‘find’ who would go on to fame in The Third Man and Eyes Without a Face apparently enraptures Keane by mental telepathy. Despite her stunning looks, there’s no chemistry whatsoever between her and Gregory Peck. She’s a good case for the axiom that Hitch only related to blondes in his movies.

Selznick believed that pairing attractive stars guaranteed success. He couldn’t lose with Ingrid Bergman, who made all of her co-stars seem like great film lovers. Detractors would say that neither Todd nor Valli create viable chemistry with Gregory Peck, and the movie never takes off for viewers. Valli ended up being one of those postwar imports, like Viveca Lindfors, who were misused by the Hollywood ‘geniuses’ that signed them to restrictive contracts. It’s pretty amazing to see Alida Valli in one of her lively, motivated pre-Selznick pictures, and then to see how Paradine tries to mold her into a Garbo-like woman of mystery.

Lee Garmes pulls off a few understated camera tricks, most notably some smooth tracking shots in the courtroom, one of which is a clever rear-projection. But in general Paradine is almost devoid of Hitchcock touches. There’s hardly a nervous moment or even a narrative surprise. It really seems as if the director was marking time with the movie, fulfilling his contract and getting it all over with as quickly as possible. The closest he seems to come to involvement is in the scenes with Laughton. Unless one takes the story as a treatise on the general persecution of women, the Laughton sidebar is almost irrelevant.


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Paradine Case is something of a disappointment, image-wise. I know that it’s been given a quality green light from some websites, but it looked funny to me so I put it up for two friends who are video professionals. They pretty much immediately felt that it had been hit with too much image processing, presumably to remove dirt. We were able to compare the Kino BD with an ancient (2001) Anchor Bay disc from my back shelf, and frankly the 2001 DVD looked more pleasing. It has more dirt and flecks and is sometimes a bit unstable, but it has a natural film look. Highlights on the Blu-ray are burned out, edges look funky and blacks are contaminated with what looks like video noise from (their opinion) problem compression. It’s not by any means a deal-killer of a transfer, but I say this because someone looking for an improvement on the old DVDs might be disappointed.

That makes the disc’s restoration comparison feature all the more troubling. The ‘before’ is what they call an original scan, a very low-con image. In the ‘improved’ side of the screen the contrast is better and the compression artifacts (as described to me) are not evident. The screwiest thing is one of the comparison examples. A push-in to Ann Todd’s bare shoulder freezes on a frame with a surface ding right on her skin. It looks like a vertical ‘equals’ sign — “=”. The ‘after’ shows the flaw removed, but on the feature itself, this flaw is still very much in evidence.

In my less-than-definitive opinion the digital processing really messes up one of Hitchcock’s signature shots. When Louis Jourdan’s character enters the courtroom, Hitchcock sat Alida Valli on a rotating chair in front of a rear projection screen, turning her as the projected image pans right, following Jourdan through the courtroom. It’s always been an almost imperceptible effect, but ‘image sharpening’ has given Alida’s silhouette such a hard edge that she now looks like a paper cut-out, as if the shot were not a rear projection but composited with a harsh traveling matte.

Thus the worry is that Kino may not be being supplied with improved transfers for its new line of Selznick releases, but simply old masters that have been put through the digital mill a few more times. I hope this is not the case. I remember rushing out long ago to get an improved MGM Duel in the Sun DVD, only to find that it was much worse than my earlier Anchor Bay disc — MGM’s audio track was badly distorted. Both that western and Portrait of Jennie are extraordinarily good-looking movies, and want very badly to be given the best remaster the rights holders can afford.

The good extras do quite a bit to compensate. Stephen Rebello and Bill Krohn’s commentary is lively and inquisitive, concentrating on the Hitchcock-Selznick clash. We’re shown how Selznick re-cut Hitchcock’s sustained shots into shorter pieces, added unnecessary cutaways, and apparently minimized Alida Valli’s presence in the courtroom scenes! Valli is called a Selznick ‘discovery’ in the publicity sense when of course she was already an established actress in Europe. Other somewhat annoying observations include crediting shots with ceilings to the influence of Orson Welles, as if he and Gregg Toland invented the notion. When they second-guess the movie’s problems they’re more creative, wondering what it would be like if we didn’t see Anna Paradine so soon, or if Peck played the attorney as more of a Warren William-ish pre-Code shyster who cheats to win his cases. The most interesting new idea is the commentary’s description of a deleted scene, in which Ethel Barrymore’s character shrinks from the thought of her husband Laughton deriving sexual pleasure from sentencing women to hang.

We get two prime-source archived Hitchcock interviews. With Peter Bogdanovich Hitch repeats his complaints about the casting and Louis Jourdan being too beautiful and cultured to be a filthystable boy. Tellingly, Hitchcock subscribes to the notion that Anna Paradine consorting with a stable hand is a dreadful idea, and that only a nymphomaniac would do such a thing. Hitchcock also tells Bogdanovich that handheld cameras and out-of-focus shots are anti-cinematic gimmicks for ‘young directors.’

The second interview is the classic uncut piece recorded for François Truffaut’s interview book, thirteen minutes devoted to The Paradine Case. Hitchcock says that he and Alma did a draft, followed by a Scottish playwright. Then Selznick did his own fix-up on the script, and took screenplay credit. Even Truffaut doesn’t have much to say about Paradine, but he does point out the fancy effects shot for the trial entrance of Louis Jourdan.

The son and daughter of Gregory Peck appear in a featurette describing their father, his working method and his experience with Hitchcock in two films almost back-to-back. The personal observations are good but their information about Paradine is covered better elsewhere. Carey Peck mentions that his father worked in England a lot, and that this was Hitchcock’s final film for Selznick and possibly was a less committed piece of work. Cecelia Peck reminds us that Selznick had the right of final cut, and did indeed change the movie from what Hitchcock turned in.

Also included is a full isolated music and effects track, a reissue trailer and the restoration comparison mentioned above.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Paradine Case Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Fair +
Video: Fair + or Good –
Sound: Good
Supplements: Audio commentary with Stephen Rebello and Bill Krohn; Audio of original Hitchcock/Truffaut interview sessions; audio Peter Bogdanovich Hitchcock interview; restoration comparison, Trailer, 1949 radio play adaptation with Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli & Louis Jourdan.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 5, 2017
(5438para)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for DVD Savant.