Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sundays with Hitch: The Paradine Case (1947)

First lesson: It’s pronounced Para-DEEN, not Para-DINE. I’ve been getting the title of this Alfred Hitchcock courtroom drama wrong for years.

Second lesson: Never let it be said that Hitch didn’t make a bad movie. Because The Paradine Case stinks on ice. How bad is it? I didn’t turn it off, because I vowed to watch every Hitchcock film and I pride myself on being thorough. But a Scrabble board did make an appearance partway through the proceedings.

Maddalena Paradine is accused of poisoning her much older retired colonel husband. He was also blind, because if you’re gonna stack a deck you might as well shoot the moon. Her attorney is Gregory Peck, who promptly falls for Mrs. Paradine and compromises both his marriage and her defense. The rest is hokum; it’s a strain on my memory to recall even that much of the plot.

Paradine was the last collaboration between Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick, and the tension in their relationship is evident in the film. Selznick is credited with the screenplay, and if ever a movie was written by its producer this is it. Critical events happen off-screen and are relayed to us after the fact. Peck’s wife and her friend Greek chorus their way through the trial, underlining the blatantly obvious for those not paying attention (maybe because they’re too busy trying to land on those coveted triple word score squares). And Peck’s feelings for his client are never dramatized, simply asserted.

The casting, a bone of contention between Hitchcock and Selznick, further compromises the movie. Peck is wildly out of place as a barrister. I know actors and audiences weren’t as particular about accents then, but hearing that oh-so-American voice break out the m’lords is too much. Selznick discovery Alida Valli never registers as the alleged object of his affection, the worst-written part in the film. And how do you underuse Charles Laughton?

The few overtly Hitchcockian flourishes – shadows of clouds scudding across Valli’s face during an interview with Peck – come across as desperate attempts to liven up staid material. A passage where Peck visits the forbidding Paradine estate briefly grants Hitch firm footing on the Gothic ground he knew so well, but it’s too little too late.

An interview with the director excerpted on the DVD reveals that he essentially disowned the film because of Selznick’s interference throughout production. I hereby do likewise. Making matters worse, I also lost at Scrabble.