The last outing to come out of the partnership between producer David O. Selznick and director Alfred Hitchcock, The Paradine Case is a courtroom drama infused with romantic and sexual tensions. The 1947 motion picture is based on a novel by Robert Smythe Hichens, with Selznick taking nearly all the credit for the screenplay.
Indeed, Selznick’s work on the screenplay has become a matter of Hitchcock legend. The producer “kept writing and writing and rewriting, giving the actors the new pages as they stepped on the set in the morning.” These consistent updates came from a foundation that included the Hichens novel and a number of other treatments, including one reportedly penned by Hitch himself.
The Paradine Case opens with the exotic and well-heeled Anna Paradine (Alida Valli) accused of poisoning her older, blind husband. Paradine hires Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck) to serve as her barrister. Keane has been married to Gay (Ann Todd) for 11 years and is relatively happy, but new passions are enflamed when he comes in contact with the beautiful and dangerous Paradine.
Gay becomes aware of her husband’s attraction to his client and insists that he keep the case so that he won’t be “emotionally lost” to her forever should Paradine be convicted of murder. Keane’s wife encourages the barrister to work as hard as he can, even if it means an evil woman is out on the streets. When the Paradin’s servant André Latour (Louis Jourdan) is drawn into the proceedings, things get even more difficult.
Once more, Selznick seems to be under the impression that he must replicate Gone with the Wind. To that end, he spent an awful lot of money on The Paradine Case and even had a set with ceilings built to replicate the courtroom at London’s Old Bailey built in his studios. There was no location shooting for the picture and Hitchcock was truly working with a massive Hollywood budget.
Even with the fraying (or long-since frayed) relationship between Selznick and Hitchcock floating in the background, The Paradine Case is the project of two powerful and somewhat arrogant men insisting on doing their best work. Hitch is sleek technically, pushing the artistic envelope with a slew of longer takes and utilizing sweeping multi-camera shots to capture (and contain) the loquacious action inside the courtroom.
This is, by and large, a movie that depends on its repartee – wherever it may have come from. The storytelling is quite good and the performers have gripping discourse. Ann Todd is delightful as the conflicting element to Valli’s Mrs. Paradine and almost everything, from the contrary fashion statements to their manners of speaking, deals in this contrast.
For all the great lines Peck gets to deliver, many of them as punch-drunk ripostes to Charles Laughton’s Judge Lord Thomas Horfield, the actor still seems somewhat out of his element. This is something Hitchcock blamed himself for, having pushed for Peck after losing out on Joseph Cotten. For his part, Selznick was pushing for Laurence Olivier but the thespian was entrenched in his Shakespeare phase.
The large scale courtroom drama and the notable cast, with just the right parcel of established and “new” stars like Valli, was right up Selznick’s alley in ways that Notorious apparently wasn’t. For Hitchcock, The Paradine Case is among his lesser-known pictures but it’s really quite underrated.
The entire concept of a spouse trading on his or her dignity shows up in a number of Hitch films. In some ways, Gay’s pushing of her husband into a rather passionate situation is a souvenir of Devlin and Alicia in Notorious. There is a “greater good,” but the participants seem aware of the fact that their goals are more along the lines of self-preservation – Gay tells Tony that her aims are “hardly noble.”
And by merging the sizzling Latin honey of Paradine and her lover with the domesticated warmth of Gay and Tony, The Paradine Case shapes the sexual components and plants a murder trial in the middle. It then becomes less about who’s guilty and more about who will endure. It’s a film about the sensitive bulk of seeking justice and still falling into snares as alluring and toxic as the burning and ultimately fatal Alida Valli.