The Hitchcock Conversations is an ongoing project between me and James W. Powell, in which we study Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography in chronological order. I’ll be publishing one conversation per week.
(By necessity, spoilers ahead!)
Synopsis: The beautiful Mrs. Paradine is accused of poisoning her older, blind husband. She hires married Anthony Keane as her lawyer, and when he begins to fall in love with her, she encourages him.
Jason: My overall impression of The Paradine Case is that I don’t like it very much. It feels overlong, at over two hours, and at many points it’s just boring and talky, which is something I hardly ever expect from Hitchcock.
James: I’m surprised you feel this way about the film. I actually enjoyed it. Sure, it has its problems, but it works for me on many levels.
Jason: I love it when we disagree. It always leads to interesting conversations. Okay, I’ll admit that—once again—we have a movie that disappoints at first but grows in stature once you dive more fully into it. But do you agree that on first viewing, The Paradine Case is a talky, overlong movie? There were some moments when I found myself wondering when it was going to end.
James: I’m not sure whether the movie is overlong or not. I actually liked the mystery of it. It felt all right. Sure, it lacked some of the action and suspense of the typical Hitch flick, but it was okay.
Jason: A little reading in my biography last night revealed a lot of background that affected the making of this film—namely, the fact that this was Hitch’s final film (of three—Rebecca, Spellbound, and this one) under the iron fist of Selznick. If Selznick was interventionist before, he took it to new heights this time, invading on the writing process (he was a frustrated writer), imposing his will on the casting, and overseeing much of the production and final editing. I get the feeling that Selznick was showing Hitch one last time that he was the supreme power on his productions. Sadly, he ended up sabotaging his own film, rewriting daily, nixing several trademark Hitch shots, and slashing the original 3-hour cut by an hour. The result was that The Paradine Case was a huge popular and critical failure. All because of a Selznick ego trip. Interestingly, though, Selznick ended up later offering Hitch an amended contract, which Hitch promptly refused. I gather Selznick, at this point in his career, was crumbling personally and professionally, and this film’s huge loss at the box office (it cost $4 million and made $2 million) was a death blow.
James: I think Selznick was a butthole. That’s all I have to say about that. Although, it’s interesting to think about what this film could’ve been.
Jason: That’s the crux of it for me: After my initial reaction to the film and after learning about how Selznick hampered its creation, I’m also left wondering what could have been, had Hitch felt the freedom to make the film he wanted. The seeds are here for a great film, but instead, I feel that The Paradine Case is a noble failure, a bloated film with too much “telling” instead of “showing,” but nevertheless filled with interesting ideas. All that being said, I think there are some things we can take away from the film. The more I think about The Paradine Case, the more I realize it’s not really a murder mystery. I mean, throughout the film, I wasn’t thinking about whether Maddalena Anna Paradine (Alida Valli) was really guilty of killing her blind husband. The story is really about Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck), a defense attorney who falls in love with his client. So, I guess you could say that the mystery and the courtroom drama are this movie’s MacGuffin, except that it’s a really prominent one and ends up being this big unwieldy thing overshadowing the really important part of the story—the characterization of Keane and his obsession with Mrs. Paradine. But, you know, I never really bought Keane’s obsession. I thought it felt written and spoken as opposed to heartfelt or a part of the characterization.
James: I completely agree that this story is about Keane. Without question, he’s the one this story is focused on. But the MacGuffin plays a strong role in the film’s ending. I mean, you can’t just throw away the MacGuffin as you can in other Hitchcock films. We both agree on that.
Jason: The most interesting part of the movie is Keane’s sudden romantic obsession with Mrs. Paradine. I mean, he walks into her holding cell early in the film to behold this foreign beauty—all mysterious and alluring and idyllic, and lovingly lit—and he’s immediately smitten. And through the whole movie, to the bitter end, he will defend her and her character, just as blindly as the husband she’s accused of murdering. Everyone around Keane expresses their suspicions about Mrs. Paradine, and even she admits that she has a shady past, but he romanticizes her to the point at which he essentially turns his back on his marriage and his professional reputation, all in the name of a horribly misguided love. That’s a totally fascinating concept that sounds straight out of the Hitch mindset, and yet I found The Paradine Case to be somewhat of a bore. Despite some great moments, this film is a failure, thanks mostly to Selznick, I think.
James: Personally, I bought Keane’s obsession. I think I liked it because it was so immediate. Plus, other characters speak of Mrs. Paradine’s beauty and say they can understand how Keane might fall for her. For me, this works at least as good as the obsession in Spellbound. There’s almost no difference between the two romances in these films. The smart protagonist falls for someone with a shady past. And falls hard. Here, Keane wants to win the case because that’s what he does. But as he moves forward, he puts more and more effort into it because of his love/obsession. It’s like a self-serving, vicious cycle. The more Mrs. Paradine acts like she doesn’t care, the more he wants to save her. As the saying goes, you want what you can’t have. In Spellbound, Peck’s character John Ballantyne says, “Get away from me.” Here, Mrs. Paradine is less obvious, almost as if she reels him in through her disdain and uncaring attitude. For a strong man like Keane, I can accept his need to dive in.
Jason: You bring up an incredibly valid comparison with Spellbound. Nice work! Just as Constance (Ingrid Bergman) in that movie falls instantly for a mysterious character (played by Peck, no less!) and strives through the whole movie to defend him against all evidence to the contrary, Keane falls blindly for Mrs. Paradine and insists she’s innocent despite her somewhat obvious guilt and her shady past. In both movies, all evidence be damned. Both characters won’t accept the possibility of the guilt of their charges. In The Paradine Case, Keane says, “She’s too fine a woman.” And, “I intend that the rest of the world shall see Mrs. Paradine as I do, as a noble, sacrificing human being any man would be proud of.” Switch the sexes, and it might as well be Constance talking about Ballantyne in Spellbound. That’s brilliant. That might be the most insightful thing you’ve said in this project.
James: I suppose the obsession works for me simply because I bought it up front. If you can’t believe it right away, I can see how this film would fall flat. I’ll admit that it’s not the most powerful romance, however.
Jason: I bought the “head over heels” fall in Spellbound much more easily, for some reason. I think it’s because I’m more interested in the sexual awakening of a woman than a man’s thoughts of infidelity. Also, Bergman conveyed passion much more powerfully than Peck. And I think there was something I didn’t buy about his infidelity in the face of such a devoted wife. Keane’s wife, Gay (Ann Todd), is like the perfect spouse, beautiful and supportive, all the way to the end, and my mind just balked at the notion of infidelity.
James: See, I think the blind obsession works better in this film because he’s a man. Several times in the film, someone makes a comment about Keane being a dashing young man, or that he’s good at what he does, or that he can help this woman—not in those words, certainly, but you get the impression that he’s well liked by the ladies and that he can be seen as almost a hero to some of them. This characterization makes it a more credible leap when he falls for Mrs. Paradine. Much more realistic than the doctor falling for the patient in Spellbound.
Jason: I’d like to talk more about Gay and the other women in the film. I like Gay’s quote about Mrs. Paradine: “Nice people don’t go around murdering other nice people.”
James: I thought the biggest leap of faith for the viewer was accepting that Gay wanted her husband to save Mrs. Paradine. That if she died, Gay’s relationship with Keane would be over. That felt wrong. Perhaps it was because this point was delivered through way too much dialog. But regardless, I didn’t buy that. At least, not right away. I did like the scene in which Gay says she’s attractive to other men. It sets up what comes later, when Keane pretty much forgets all about his wife.
Jason: Yes, Gay’s conflict in this movie is interesting. After she sees that her husband is falling for Mrs. Paradine, she says, “If she dies, you’re lost to me forever. I know you’d go on thinking that you love her. You’d go on imagining her as your great lost love.” As you say, it takes a leap to believe that she’d want him to save Mrs. Paradine from capital punishment, but if you think about it, it works. I’m just not sure it’s realistic. Still, it makes her a wonderful character, probably the most pure and perfect that I can remember in a Hitch flick. (It should also be noted that Ann Todd was one of Hitch’s few casting choices in the film.)
James: I think it’s just a bit odd that Gay isn’t more willing to fight for Keane. I guess she does, in a way, but not all that hard. Why does she give up so easily? Does she think she doesn’t have a chance? That seems a tad farfetched.
Jason: She doesn’t actively fight for him or become overtly jealous and protective, but I like that about her. She states her fears in a very mature way, and she trusts in his character to eventually win the day. It’s appropriate that she and Keane share the last scene of the film, in which she restates her love and devotion for him.
James: The gorgeous young brunette—Judy Flaquer (Joan Tetzel)—doesn’t live up to her potential as a character. By the end, she becomes just an interpreter of the court action. I thought she was going to play a key role. Instead, it could be argued that if she’d been completely edited from the film, it wouldn’t have changed anything.
Jason: Yeah, I really thought Judy was going to be an important character in the vein of Nova Pilbeam in Young and Innocent or even Theresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt. She has some very perceptive sleuthing moments early in the film, but then she totally peters out at the midpoint. However, she has one final dramatic scene with Keane toward the end, and maybe that scene marks the beginning of he awakening from his delusion. I did like her father’s line, after hearing her blather on about the case, “I wish you were married to someone.”
James: I had forgotten about the scene between Judy and Keane. That’s a very important scene, one that does indeed elevate Judy’s character.
Jason: Judy essentially lays out what Keane has been blind to for the length of the film, and he says that he’s always trusted her opinion, so you get the feeling that she opens his eyes a bit. There’s another woman we should talk about, and that’s Lady Sophie Horfield (Ethel Barrymore), the all-suffering wife of the judge. What an interesting relationship they have! Her husband has become an unsympathetic pig, and yet she still loves him unconditionally (which echoes Gay’s unconditional love of her husband). Still, she has that moment at the very end when she leaves the room, unable to reconcile her feelings about Mrs. Paradine with her husband’s vicious, unfeeling words about her.
James: Mrs. Horfield’s unconditional love is very similar to Gay’s, just more amplified. I suppose, in a way, both men are piggish and treat their women the same way, but the judge is just more obvious. Which, in turn, makes his relationship that much sadder.
Jason: Speaking of the judge, Horfield (Charles Laughton) is a lecherous devil. That scene in the parlor early on—when he leers at Gay and plops down next to her, making his unctuous advances—is uncomfortable. Do you think it affects how the judge treats Keane in court, I mean simply because Gay rebuffs him? I loved her line about Mrs. Horfield having excellent taste . . . “in most things.”
James: Most definitely. Judge Horfield is a complete pig. Funny stuff. So, there are four men in this film: Keane, Horfield, Andre Latour (Louis Jourdan), and Sir Simon Flaquer (Charles Coburn, looking like a fat Jimmy Carter). All of them have or have had impure thoughts, and three of them have acted on those thoughts. Keane falls in love, Horfield makes his lecherous advances, and Latour, the valet, has slept with the lady of the house. Mrs. Paradine. Meanwhile, Sir Simon, while never doing anything, admits to being smitten. There are four women: Mrs. Paradine, Gay, Judy, and Mrs. Horfield. Mrs. Paradine is obvious, but Gay and Sophie are unconditional in their love. Meanwhile, Judy mentions that she’d like to be with Keane, even though she’s joking. I find it interesting that all the women are pure. Heck, even Mrs. Paradine seems pure at the end because she did it all out of love. The men, however, all seem boorish.
Jason: Your comparison of the men and women of the film is illuminating. However, Latour says throughout that he’s been victimized by Mrs. Paradine, and I believe him (even though she ultimately falls in love with him, against her will). I think Mrs. Paradine is more of a sexual predator than we’ve acknowledged so far. (Hitch even calls her a nymphomaniac.) In the film, Keane sees her as a victim of abuse, but she’s really a victimizer herself.
James: Hmmm, a sexual predator. Could be. Yet, even though that’s spelled out in the film, I don’t really think Latour was victimized. It’s not like he couldn’t say no. I think he fell for her and was seduced, sure, but he didn’t have to go through with it. She didn’t make him do anything. Which makes her that much more powerful, I suppose.
Jason: I completely think Latour was victimized. Look at how angry he is at her, despite the love he can’t deny. He’s in turmoil because of what she’s done to him, and he’s bitterly ashamed that he’s let down his master.
James: See, I don’t see that as being a victim. Sure, he let down his master, but he let him down because he was weak. He hates her for making him love her. I suppose he sees himself as being the victim, but I can’t see him as such. Even if you consider him a victim, he was still unfaithful to his master, just as the other men are unfaithful to their women.
Jason: Agreed that his lust for Mrs. Paradine was something that he was too weak to resist, but that doesn’t make her any less of a predator. She’s certainly not “pure.”
James: I wonder how audiences felt about Mrs. Paradine. I mean, a sexual predator? That’s not likely back then.
Jason: Even though the Production Code didn’t allow such vocabulary, I think 1947 audiences were pretty observant and knew what Mrs. Paradine was all about. I mean, there’s a scene where she talks about all the men she’s had, and that she manipulated one in particular, and yet Keane won’t even listen to her.
James: I don’t mean that audiences wouldn’t understand, I’m just wondering if they could sympathize with her. I mean, did they automatically hate her because she was a floozy?
Jason: I bet the women in the audience recognized her for what she was and felt the doom of the situation. I bet they were behind Gay all the way and felt anger for Mrs. Paradine. Oh, sure, they saw her as a predator.
Jason: It’s also interesting to contrast Mrs. Paradine with Gay, the two objects of Keane’s affection. Whereas Mrs. Paradine is dark, mysterious, and haunted, Gay is more like her name suggests—open, honest, pure.
James: I got the impression that Keane liked Mrs. Paradine’s darkness in part because she was Gay’s opposite.
Jason: Good point. Okay, I’d like to share ideas about the barred-window imagery that pervades this movie. I’ve been thinking about those windows, trying to discern their meaning, but the only thing I can come up with is the notion of prison bars, a symbol Hitchcock has used before. Are the bars supposed to constantly remind us of Mrs. Paradine, locked up in her cell? Or is there something else to this symbol, such as the whole idea of perception? Seeing something through something else?
James: I think it could definitely be perception. If I remember correctly, some of the key scenes in which a window/glass/bars separates one character from another occur when that person’s perceptions of another have begun to change. Take Keane’s wife, for example. She watches him through a window as he praises Mrs. Paradine and essentially pronounces his love for her. So the wife’s perception of him changes. And in the courtroom, when Latour walks in, we watch him through glass. When he leaves, after we learn that he indeed slept with Mrs. Paradine, and thus after our perceptions about him have changed, we follow him without seeing him through the windows. I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but that’s what I’m leaning toward.
Jason: What if the window bars suggest a different kind of prison—in essence, Keane’s self-imprisonment? For example, when Gay overhears Keane espousing on the qualities of Mrs. Paradine, she’s blocked by these prison bars that Keane has erected around himself. Gay is a prisoner of her husband’s fantasies. In fact, throughout the movie, Keane imprisons himself from reality, essentially blinding himself to the truth. This imagery is also echoed by those shots of the ruined, crumbling courthouse and the “blind justice” scales atop the building.
James: The notion of Keane’s self-imprisonment makes sense. Actually, yeah, that’s it.
Jason: All this movie’s talk of prison, and all the prison-bar shadow work, recalls Hitch’s lifelong fear of prison, thanks to that incident in his childhood when his father had local police throw little Hitch in jail for a few hours. Talk about trauma.
James: I hadn’t thought about Hitch’s jail stuff. But yeah, I bet it added fuel to his desire to make it. Everything in the film is very compact. The rooms feel claustrophobic. Good stuff.
Jason: I like that the film’s use of the stairway symbol occurs as Keane is walking up to confront his wife, after he’s begun falling for Mrs. Paradine. Nice use of the symbol there, providing an undercurrent of doom. Did you notice the bird symbolism, the talk of the dead owl at the Paradine estate?
James: Oh yes.
Jason: We’ve talked a lot about the great character moments in this film, and some nice scenes, but look at the top-level mystery—the MacGuffin, I guess. It never really makes sense. And I guess that’s the purpose of the MacGuffin, but as we’ve said, this is an awfully big and important MacGuffin. Why did Mrs. Paradine really commit this murder? The guy is blind. He would never have been a threat to a little illicit relationship with the valet. I gather the crime was inspired by a few real-life cases. Hitch was always obsessed with true crime (like the father in Shadow of a Doubt), but the crime here seems weak. (It is interesting that the husband she’s accused of killing is blind—just as both Latour and Keane are blind to her past and her motives.)
James: I think she had to kill him because he was going to send her lover away. Plus, if Latour told his master about it, then not only would they be separated, but she would be known as an impure woman. I got the impression she didn’t want to be known as an adulteress.
Jason: I guess I just didn’t become involved with the mystery because it was all related in endless words in the courtroom. There was a real distance that kept me from getting into it. I felt none of the tension that I think I was supposed to feel as the mystery was solved. That being said, I really liked the way Latour enters the courtroom, and we revolve around Mrs. Paradine, who is aware of his entrance but can’t see him directly. That echoes our first introduction to Latour, who is only talked about for the first half hour, then appears in shadow for a long time before he’s revealed in Keane’s room at the inn. Latour has a lot of mystery surrounding him. I read that Hitch would rather have cast someone much more rough looking, a manure-smelling farmhand, to enhance the shame of the affair.
James: A manure-smelling farmhand would have been all right. But it would have been more shameful for her. As it is, it seems more shameful for Latour.
Jason: Speaking of casting, Hitch’s original choices for the leads reveal where he would rather have taken this film. He wanted Greta Garbo or Bergman for Mrs. Paradine, and he wanted Laurence Olivier for Keane. When you think about it, Peck doesn’t make a great British lawyer.
James: I liked Peck in this. I actually just assumed he was American, just in Britain. And why does Hitch keep doing movies about/in other countries?
Jason: I just think Hitch naturally gravitated to the UK for his settings and characters, and even actors. Speaking of actors, Leo G. Carroll, who played the prosecuting attorney, was playing in his fourth Hitch flick. He played Murchison in Spellbound.
James: Did you catch the Hitch cameo?
Jason: Yep, carrying that cello off the train. I laugh just watching him walk. He’s got such a proper way about him.