Friday, May 01, 2015

The "Paradine" Letters, Part 2

(The Siren is having a dialog with her Close Personal Friend Glenn Kenny about the much-maligned The Paradine Case. Part 1 was published yesterday at Some Came Running and should be read before the Siren's post. This is her reply.)

Screen cap from Glenn: "Two Profiles"

I believe you’re right: Hitchcock definitely contributed to his film’s low reputation. I’ve written before about cases of actors who dislike their own work, and it can be true of directors as well, especially directors who were working in a commercial vein and who cared about audience reaction and box office. Hitchcock was an artist who wanted to make hits, and The Paradine Case was a flop. Plus, Hitchcock didn’t get his way on some big decisions, and he never liked the original novel (by Robert Hichens) much to begin with.

Hitchcock wrote a draft script with wife Alma Reville, but Selznick was unsatisfied. At this point in his career, Selznick was always unsatisfied. He’d become Hollywood’s Tinkerer Supreme. So Hitchcock suggested that Selznick bring in Scottish playwright James Bridie, who later worked on Under Capricorn and Stage Fright, to do a rewrite. But Bridie hated the States, and so he sailed back to England and mailed in his pages as he went along. This didn’t work, and I can’t imagine why anyone thought it would, given the vagaries of transatlantic mail in 1946.

Ben Hecht was brought in briefly for additional dialogue. The canny Hecht quickly saw that the project was snakebit. He agreed to help on the fly, for $10,000 and a promise that his name would not be put on whatever resulted. Reportedly the only part of Hecht’s dialogue that survives is Peck’s courtroom meltdown. Head censor Joseph Breen of the Hays Office sent along his usual artistic enhancements, including a warning not to show a prison toilet or to film anything that suggested Todd and Peck were in their bathroom at the same time.

The Happy Hitchcock Gang

Meanwhile Selznick was consumed with finishing Duel in the Sun, and The Paradine Case had to take a number. By the time shooting began, there was still no finalized script, and Selznick was rewriting. Hitchcock was frequently working from pages that Selznick had sent down that very morning. “This, of course, drove Hitchcock to distraction,” was Peck’s understated recollection.

Hitchcock’s filming ideally had an express-train rhythm. The Paradine Case was more like a Greyhound bus making unscheduled stops. And then there was the cast, made up almost entirely of actors he didn’t want. Hitchcock requested Robert “Long John Silver” Newton for Latour the valet, got Louis Jourdan, and sulked about that apparently until the day he died. Hitchcock’s prior experience with Charles Laughton had been sheer misery, although Laughton turned out to be the least of his worries. Hitchcock didn’t see the point of Selznick's ballyhooed "Valli" (as she was billed), and as you mention, he told Selznick that Gregory Peck was no one’s idea of a barrister (and he wasn’t wrong). Not to mention that this was Hitchcock’s last film under his seven-year Selznick contract, and he was itching to go independent. Filming took four months. That’s not including retakes.

The final product was about three hours long. Selznick cut it down to just over two, while still finding room to insert close-ups in the middle of Hitchcock’s treasured long takes. It sat on the shelf for months while Selznick worked to convince everybody to go see Duel in the Sun.

Publicity time. I guess Laughton didn't smoke Chesterfields.

The Paradine Case finally wound up with a big December 1947 premiere at two separate cinemas in Westwood, reviews that amounted to “it’s OK I guess,” and box-office receipts totaling about half what it had cost.

No wonder that years later, once he got a nice young man like François Truffaut to confide in, Hitchcock’s retrospective assessment of The Paradine Case was essentially, “Oh god, not that one.”

But the Siren, perverse mortal that she is, long ago adopted this pain-in-the-neck film as her very own pet Hitchcock orphan (along with Lifeboat and Rope). It is slow, yes, but it whispers along like silk, until that courtroom climax fells the audience right along with Anthony Keane. And it is exquisite to behold. When you made a movie for David O. Selznick, in exchange for putting up with all those damn memos, you got big-time production values. Franz Waxman composed a wonderful score, one of my favorites, both romantic and sinister. Travis Banton designed the gowns, which was no bit of trivia but rather an area that mattered to both Selznick and Hitchcock. Banton's contributions are simple but effective; in early scenes, Ann Todd wears stainless white, while Alida Valli is a column of black.

Over a million 1947 dollars' worth of set.

And Thomas Morahan was the art director. When I saw this as a girl I couldn’t get enough of the interiors: the way Maddalena Paradine glides proudly through a convent-like prison; the luxurious London house where Anthony and Gay Keane retreat to live their perfect upper-crust lives; the firelit room where Judge Lord Thomas Horfield (Charles Laughton) makes his spidery attempts to put his hands on Mrs. Keane, while Lady Horfield (Ethel Barrymore) watches helplessly. And then there's that Old Bailey courtroom set, so meticulously accurate that building it is said to have eaten up one-third of the budget.

Glenn calls this screen cap "Garmes Glory"

Everything significant seems to take place indoors, or at night. The cinematography is velvet noir, shadows menacing the rich and pampered instead of the grubby and low-rent. (DP Lee Garmes was in the prime of his career, his next film being Nightmare Alley.) Valli and Todd never looked more beautiful, and for that matter, neither did Peck, with his noble profile and silvered temples. (Hitchcock wanted him to have a mustache, and even that got nixed, on the grounds that British barristers aren’t permitted facial hair.)

It is, as you say, a melodrama — a women’s picture — filtered through Hitchcock’s feverish preoccupations, full of thwarted loves and twisted seductions. Keane begins by admiring Mrs. Paradine’s beauty, determines to save her, and then gradually descends into life-shattering obsession.

When someone does praise The Paradine Case, they often want to discuss it as a dry run for Vertigo. But I see Ann Todd's character as the moral center. This is Vertigo with an extra helping of Barbara Bel Geddes’ point of view, and more sympathy going to the woman cast aside so a man can recklessly pursue his sexual doom.

(The next installment in the "The 'Paradine' Letters" will be at Glenn's place on Monday, May 4th.)


The Siren said...

Dear Friends, after 10 years at Self-Styled Siren, the spambots finally did me in, via an avalanche of remarkably obscene links. I have inaugurated comment approval. Since I am the sole Decider at this here blog, there may be an occasional delay in seeing your comment appear. Please know that unless you showed up here to tell me all about your esoteric p--- site, I am probably not going to disallow your comment, and your thoughts will appear as soon as I'm able to approve them.
With fond regards,
The Siren

StephenWhitty said...

Thanks for this, Siren,

I already blathered on over at Glenn's blog yesterday, and without wanting to repeat myself at your place, I'd just say this film has its pleasures, but to me it's SO much more a Selznick movie than a Hitchcock one -- that Selznick would rewrite Alma Reville's script (while grousing she deserved no credit at all) and then recut the film so completely, I think shows not only how much Selznick was invested in this movie, but in how little Hitchcock was.

That said, there's nothing wrong with a big glossy Selznick melodrama, which is what this is, and Garmes' photography of Valli and Jourdan -- who comes looming out of the shadows like a dry run for his Count Dracula, years later -- is gorgeous. I'm more mixed on the Waxman score -- the moody stuff is fine but the romantic theme is a direct steal from his score for "Rebecca" (well, as Hitchcock used to say, "Self-plagiarism is style.")

Oh, and for those wondering "Why the hell did Ethel Barrymore get an Oscar nomination for this?" apparently she had at least one, very good scene with Peck that Selznick cut. He only cut it, though, after the film's initial previews, so while Academy members may have seen it, most of the general audience never did (and never will since a 1980 flood destroyed the full hour of the movie that Selznick snipped.)

The Siren said...

Stephen, what I read (and I'll go back to it today and make sure I recall correctly) was that they actually found a cache of some of the missing footage in the late 1990s but the soundtrack is gone, so they can't restore it. I am not sure it needs a whole bunch of extra running time, despite my love for it, but I'd like to see Barrymore.

I feel like it's a mutant Hitch/Selznick film and has more Hitchcock in it than most people give it credit for, but as they say, watch this space (and Glenn's).

Gloria said...

As a curious note, this film must be one of the Hitchcock (and, hum, Laughton) movies I’ve seen the most: for some reason (cheaper distribution rights. I suspect), this film was shown more often on TV and released on video & DVD more than any other movie by/with any of them.

That may explain why I didn’t share the hate some reviewers showed towards it: it may not be on a top 10 list, but IMHO is a fairly good film, and I agree with the statement of it being Vertigo avant-la-lettre. In fact, there’s one particular thing I like it over Vertigo, and it is that Mrs. Paradine has a final choice regarding her fate that Kim Novak’s character in Vertigo isn’t even allowed to contemplate: Maddalena isn’t, in this instance, as helpless as Madeleine.

Plus, Louis Jourdan may not smell of manure but he’s fairly good as beau tenebreux here (maybe all he needed to shine was to have Ophüls behind the camera)

(Incidentally, whenever I see Judge Horfield attempts at pawing Mrs. Keane, I cannot help thinking about the director’s black legend about his alleged infatuation with frigid blondes)

P.S.: When I first saw the Chesterfield add I was also surprised that Laughton wasn’t there, as he used to smoke *quite a lot* and also because, by the time he worked in The Paradine Case, he would have appreciated any extra income to invest in the adaptation of The Life of Galileo, in which he was working with Bertolt Brecht then.

Kirk said...

Lifeboat is an orphan? I was under the impression it was considered one of Hitchcock's classics.

Drew McIntosh said...

"When someone does praise The Paradine Case, they often want to discuss it as a dry run for Vertigo. But I see Ann Todd's character as the moral center. This is Vertigo with an extra helping of Barbara Bel Geddes’ point of view, and more sympathy going to the woman cast aside so a man can recklessly pursue his sexual doom. "

Having taken the opportunity last night in light of these exchanges between you and Glenn to finally knock out this Hitch blind spot (and indeed finding it better - or at least more interesting - than its reputation has ever suggested) I think this is really well put and totally aligns with the film I watched.

For me the most powerful moment is at the end of Jourdan's second courtroom sequence, where he grudgingly admits to his love for Valli as something almost beyond his control, and then we get that terse gutpunch pair of reaction shots, first of Peck and then, crucially, Todd, whose presence in the court up to that point had been little more than, um, ornamental. Played against the conventionally stately rhythms of the rest of the courtroom stuff, the moment registers first as a strong piece of emotional shrapnel - Peck sheepish when faced with a mirror image of his vulnerability taken to a logical extreme; Todd staring soft daggers as her worst fears/suspicions are validated - but it feels in retrospect like the climax of the whole thing, quickly and quietly wrangling focus back onto What's Really At Stake, something to do with a mutual integrity and respect between this couple. Which is quite different from Vertigo, to put it mildly.

Jeff Gee said...

This is another excellent chance to play "Who would you rather see in the Gregory Peck role?" I'm leaning towards Roger Livesey.

Lemora said...

Great to see a new post, Siren! (I've had my ancient Mac refurbished and was without the internet for awhile, so I'm glad you're still here.) I saw "The Paradine Case" as a nine year old, watching TV with my mother in 1957. She was dismissive about "Valli" and I was had no idea what was going on. Twelve years ago, I saw my first viewing of the director's cut of "The Third Man" --which I loved-- on the big screen at the Castro, and was blown away by Alida Valli's performance. I'll have to catch "The Paradine Case" again.

Renlau Outil said...

I've never seen this film before. I'm ashamed. I'm going to rent it tonight. If it's possible.

Currently reading Michael Wood's Alfred Hirchcok The Man Who Knew Too Much. So this has to be a very good time to patch my personal hole in the corpus.

Thank you