All this month, I've been watching Hitchcock films that I've never seen in preparation for Lamb's Directors Chair series. Some have been very good (Saboteur) others flawed (Topaz and Torn Curtain). Yet even the flawed ones have something grand to offer, especially in today's context, and in viewing Hitchcock's overall oeuvre.
1947's The Paradine Case is another one of Hitchcock's lesser-regarded features. A mostly static courtroom drama, the picture lacks the electricity and urgency of his masterpieces (Psycho, Notorious, or North By Northwest). Yet, in retrospect, the film seems to be a victim of the code, re-shoots and producer David O. Selznick's cutting (it was pared down from 132 minutes). Gregory Peck, in a precursor role to his noble Atticus Finch, plays Anthony Keane, a barrister defending murderess Mrs. Paradine (a ravishing Alida Valli). Paradine is on trial for poisoining her blind war hero husband (introduced, memorably, by painted portrait). After becoming quite smitten with her, Keane decides to shift suspicion to Paradine's shadowy servant Andre Latour (Louis Jourdan). Meanwhile the case begins to strain the relationship between Keane and his loving wife Gay (Ann Todd, a dead ringer for columnist Peggy Noonan!).
The story is somewhat thin and predictable, it's also become quite familiar (on TV drama and in B-courtroom movies like Body of Evidence). However it should be noted that Hitchcock's visualizations of the courtroom scenes were revolutionary at the time with his use of four different cameras. This would become commonplace with television shows. As in any Hitchcock film, the camera carries psychological weight (Paradine's and Latour's point of view shots)--an emotional understanding of the "villains" which still remains unusual for most filmmakers. To show their caged-in psychological states, characters are often depicted behind bars. Rumored to be nearly expensive as Gone With the Wind, a ludicrous notion considering how contained and stodgy this story is, The Paradine Case boasts huge, elaborately detailed sets (vaulted ceilings in the courtroom and grandiose Keane household). Unless filmed in extreme closeup (for emotional effect), the sets shrink our characters as much as their scheming and duplicitous acts do. It definitely has the handsome, elegant look and feel of a Selznick / Hitchcock collaboration (this would be their last), but no sweep. Thanks to Selznick, there is a terrific supporting cast (Charles Laughton as the somewhat sadistic judge, Leo G. Carroll as the prosecutor, Ethel Barrymore as the judge's wife: Oscar-nominated for a short but piercing scene in which she defends herself, and what feels like, many post-War women of that time period). Had the tension between Keane and Paradine had been developed more, Valli could have emerged as very memorable femme fatale. There is some promise of this in the her riveting final act where she is undone and defenseless. ***