There have been many courtroom dramas over the years, but none quite like The Paradine Case. The masterful collaboration of producer David O. Selznick and director Alfred Hitchcock brings tension to an all-time high in this powerful and dramatic film.
The lovely Mrs. Paradine (Ann Todd) is accused of poisoning her older, blind husband. She hires lawyer Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck) to represent her. Though Keane is married to a striking and devoted woman, he finds himself strangely attracted to his glamorous defendant. His deepening feelings convince him of her innocence, even though the evidence and his sense of reason may indicate otherwise.
Bring up The Paradine Case to a group of classic movie fans and probably just a select few will correctly identify it as an Alfred Hitchcock film. Though elegantly appointed, sprinkled with artistic touches, and strongly acted by a stellar ensemble cast, this intimate courtroom and interpersonal drama lacks the pizzazz of more familiar and notable Hitchcock fare. Sandwiched between the classic Notorious and innovative Rope, The Paradine Case somehow got lost, perhaps because of its undistinguished - at least by Hitchcock standards - presentation and the fact it bears the stamp of its control-freak producer, David O. Selznick, more than its esteemed director.
Selznick, best known as the indomitable force behind Gone With the Wind, doesn't ruin The Paradine Case, but his incessant meddling and tinkering dull the movie's impact and transform an edgy, provocative tale into a run-of-the-mill, often languorous whodunit. Hitchcock was rightly dubbed the Master of Suspense, but only a few moments of tension enliven this brooding, subdued story that relies on talk rather than action to fuel its engine. The tangled relationships and smoldering emotions pique interest, but there's not enough plot to sustain them, and by the time this stiff, stuffy movie reaches its not very shocking climax, patience has worn thin. Hitchcock films often push the boundaries of the censors, but this one seems all too willing to acquiesce to their demands, resulting in a far too tepid motion picture that dances around incendiary issues, but rarely confronts them head-on.
Did she or didn't she? That's the central question of The Paradine Case, which opens with the arrest of the beautiful, wealthy Maddalena Paradine (Alida Valli), who's accused of poisoning her blind, much-older husband. Dashing, straight-arrow defense attorney Tony Keane (Gregory Peck) takes her case, and almost instantly becomes smitten by his exotic, fiery-eyed, and vulnerable client. Tony's patient, loving wife, Gay (Ann Todd), senses the alienation of Tony's affection, but can't keep him from becoming ever more bewitched by Maddalena as he learns the sordid details of her existence and delves deeper into the mysterious circumstances surrounding her husband's death. As the trial approaches, Tony's passion, coupled with his jealousy of Maddalena's former lover, the glowering André Latour (Louis Jourdan), her late husband's devoted valet, colors his courtroom strategy and puts Maddalena's fate at risk. But is the dark Italian beauty as tortured as she seems or playing everyone in her orbit for a fool?
The Paradine Case, by virtue of its title, promises tense courtroom theatrics, and though on occasion it delivers, it's really a richly textured character portrait of a man who allows a sexual obsession to overtake his life and jeopardize his professional standing. (It's also a searing study of a marriage in crisis.) While the trial encompasses half the film, Hitchcock focuses on the personal underpinnings and muddied motivations that drive the major players rather than the facts of the case. It's a bold and risky approach - and at odds with our expectations - which often makes the film's initial viewing frustrating. Yet if you give The Paradine Case a second chance, the nuances and subtext resonate more strongly and fuel a greater appreciation of this offbeat tale.
Sadly, Selznick's script is the film's greatest liability. Many scenes ramble and overstay their welcome, while others seem choppy and underdeveloped. The result is a movie that's not as cohesive or fluid as most of Hitchcock's works. The visuals, despite a sumptuous production design, lack the patented Hitchcock ingenuity, and echoes of Laura and Rebecca continually crop up, lending The Paradine Case a been-there-done-that feel. Selznick also favors glamour over grime, and the sanitation of some of the story's seedier elements substantially softens the picture's bite.
The cast, however, is superb. Peck may not have been Hitchcock's first choice (despite his excellent work in Spellbound a couple of years before) and his British accent is lazy to say the least, but he conveys Tony's internal angst, suppressed passion, and conflicted loyalties quite well. Ann Todd was a very good British actress (and, for a time, wife of legendary director David Lean) who never really made it in Hollywood, but she's quite capable here as the long-suffering, stoic wife. Charles Laughton is appropriately creepy and delightfully eccentric as the lascivious judge; Ethel Barrymore earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her all-too-brief role as Laughton's abused and mentally disturbed wife (in spite of the fact that all her best scenes were reportedly deleted); Charles Coburn shines as Tony's level-headed colleague; and Hitchcock favorite Leo G. Carroll makes a dour and menacing prosecutor. (Eagle eyes will also spot another Hitchcock stock player, John Williams, in the courtroom scenes, but all his dialogue was cut.)
Valli and Jourdan are introduced in the credits as Selznick's bright new stars and both acquit themselves with aplomb, but Hitchcock was not pleased Selznick foisted them upon him. Though he praised both performers, Hitchcock felt Jourdan was terribly miscast, and his devastating handsomeness and continental élan diffused the movie's central theme.
The Paradine Case isn't nearly as involving or entertaining as Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution, which it closely resembles, and despite its first-rate cast and production values, it remains one of the more obscure entries in Hitchcock's film canon. Those expecting a typical Hitchcock thriller will be sorely disappointed, but if you take the time to look under the film's hood and can forgive some of its faults, you'll discover a polished, provocative motion picture worthy of attention and examination.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Paradine Case arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case with reversible cover art. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Because it is not one of the director's better known films, The Paradine Case hasn't been as carefully preserved as other Hitchcock productions, but this above-average 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Kino goes a long way toward restoring this murder mystery to its original splendor. Excellent contrast and clarity highlight the depth and artistry of Lee Garmes' cinematography, as well as the elaborate, ornate sets, but fluctuating grain levels and some image instability produce nagging inconsistencies that occasionally distract from the on-screen action. Black levels are wonderfully rich and deep (the barristers' robes and Valli's jet-black hair are superbly rendered), whites are bright but never bloom, and all the grays in between are varied enough to nicely highlight background details and provide a lovely sense of depth. Shadow delineation is quite good, but faint speckles often plague the picture and make us wish just a little more care had been taken during the restoration process. Still, this is the best The Paradine Case has ever looked on home video, so fans of this layered legal drama shouldn't hesitate to upgrade.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track supplies clear, well-modulated sound. The Paradine Case is a relatively quiet, dialogue-driven film, so there's not much opportunity for the track to flex its muscles, but nuances like rain, wind, and footsteps nicely accent the proceedings. The string-laden music score by Franz Waxman sounds rich and robust, filling the room with ease, and all the conversations are easy to comprehend. Though a couple of imperfections remain, most of the age-related defects like hiss, pops, and crackles have been erased. The audio may not call attention to itself, but it seamlessly blends into the film's fabric, which is always a good thing.
A very nice supplemental package complements this Hitchcock disc.
Audio Commentary - Hitchcock authors Stephen Rebello and Bill Krohn sit down for an illuminating commentary that substantially heightens one's appreciation for what both men call a "highly underrated" film. The duo details the conflicts between Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick during the movie's production, describes several deleted scenes and censorship cuts, notes Peck was not Hitchcock's first choice for the leading role (he would have preferred Ronald Colman or Laurence Olivier), and analyzes the theatrical nature of Hitchcock's long takes (which they classify as a dress rehearsal for two subsequent Hitchcock features, Rope and Under Capricorn). They also cite The Paradine Case as the first Hitchcock film to employ a femme fatale, and talk about Hitchcock's inventive use of multiple cameras during the courtroom sequences, Selznick's "bad editing decisions," the production's exorbitant expense (it reportedly cost as much as Gone With the Wind), and the parallels between the film's story and the break-up of Selznick's own marriage. The easygoing chemistry between Rebello and Krohn enhances the appeal of this highly worthwhile commentary that will absorb both Hitchcock and classic movie fans alike.
"Hitchcock/Truffaut - Icon Interviews Icon" (HD, 13 minutes) - In this excerpt from the legendary series of interviews between Hitchcock and French filmmaker Francois Truffaut, the Master of Suspense dwells on what he believes to be the picture's inherent flaws and liabilities, namely the (mis)casting of Jourdan and Peck's inability to properly represent an English gentleman. Hitchcock talks about endless script revisions, laments the story was changed to fit the personalities of Valli and Jourdan (both of whom were recent Selznick discoveries), labels actress Ann Todd as "cold," and describes a complex rear projection shot in the courtroom. It's always a treat to hear Hitchcock analyze his own productions, and his views regarding The Paradine Case are very interesting indeed.
Featurette: "Conflict of Conscience: Gregory Peck and The Paradine Case" (HD, 9 minutes) - This new piece features interviews with Peck's daughter Cecilia and son Carey, who outline the mutual respect and friendship between Peck and Hitchcock, discuss Hitchcock's minimal interaction with actors, and detail the conflict between Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick over the movie's look. Cecilia also shares an amusing anecdote about her dad and Louis Jourdan and reveals Hitchcock "was not particularly engaged" in The Paradine Case during its production.
Vintage Radio Adaptation (57 minutes) - In this 1949 Lux Radio Theater adaptation, Joseph Cotten takes over for Gregory Peck while Alida Valli and Louis Jourdan reprise their roles. Whittling down the plot to just under an hour adds a welcome sense of urgency to the tale, an element the film sadly lacks, but the absence of visuals robs the tale of its style and elegance. Cotten is a poor substitute for Peck, but Jourdan and Valli once again file strong performances, and the scripted banter at the end of the program is contrived yet charming.
Peter Bogdanovich Interviews Hitchcock (16 minutes) - This audio excerpt only briefly touches upon The Paradine Case, as Hitchcock reiterates his view that Peck wasn't right for the lead, Jourdan was too clean-cut to play Mrs. Paradine's illicit lover, and such compromises harmed the film. He also reveals he purposely didn't give Selznick much to work with in the editing room to preserve his directorial viewpoint. In addition, the discussion covers such general topics as editing (Hitchcock calls its power "limitless"), the various uses and effectiveness of montage, and the impact of a subjective camera.
Restoration Comparison (HD, 90 seconds) - This 2008 comparison offers side-by-side and full screen looks at the differences between the film transfer master and digitally restored master. The restored version erases the gray pallor that plagued the previous transfer and appears much brighter, exhibits more contrast, and flaunts more detail.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview (which appears to be somewhat truncated here) touts "the most distinguished cast of stars in screen history."
You may not be familiar with The Paradine Case, but this obscure Hitchcock drama that's both a murder mystery and searing study of martial dysfunction and infidelity deserves to be rediscovered. Though a talky script, measured pacing, and not enough suspense hamper the film, a good deal of substance and subtext - as well as an impressive cast led by Gregory Peck, Charles Laughton, and Louis Jourdan - keep this dark tale interesting. Strong video and audio transfers and a comprehensive spate of supplements distinguish Kino's Blu-ray presentation, which nicely complements the other Hitchcock title in the studio's catalogue. The Paradine Case may not appeal to the casual Hitchcock fan, but it's certainly worth a look for diehard admirers of the Master of Suspense and classic movie aficionados.