Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The "Paradine" Letters, Part 4

These are the Siren's final thoughts on The Paradine Case, at least for these purposes. If you haven't already, please go to Some Came Running to read the Mighty Glenn Kenny's Part 3.

David O. Selznick's foreign discoveries stick together.

Dear Glenn,
Since you’ve covered the formal beauties of this movie so well, I thought I’d use my last go-round to talk about Hitchcock's second- or third-choice actors and their performances. I adore her, as longtime readers know, so I’ll start with Alida Valli.

Here, as in The Third Man and Senso, she’s madly in love with a man who doesn’t love her back. (You could also make a case for Eyes Without a Face in that vein.) It’s an odd pattern for such a beautiful actress. Interesting, too, that after Alida Valli herself suffered greatly during the war in Italy, she often played women scarred by the past, although it’s also pretty plain that Mrs. Paradine was bad news from the start. Valli was still learning English during filming, but her voice and intonations are beautiful; I love to hear the consonants roll off her tongue when she looks at Gregory Peck and says, speaking of Louis Jourdan as Latour, “You are not to destroy him. If you do, I shall hate you as I have never hated a man.”

A bit overdressed for the occasion
The Siren once expressed reservations about Valli in this movie, but the last viewing erased them. She is, as Charles Coburn’s solicitor Sir Simon Flaquer remarks, “Fascinating, fascinating.” The caressing way she leans in slightly when she wants something from Peck, the near-dominatrix tone she adopts when she realizes he may go after Jourdan despite her warnings, and the queenly bearing she has at all times, add up to someone who merits all the constant chatter about her. (Don’t you love the moment when Latour, in so many words, tells Keane, “She’s bad, bad to the bone”?)

In the very beginning, when the Scotland Yard men arrest Mrs. Paradine in a deferential way that suggests they're escorting her to the theater, she asks the butler to bring her “black lamb." That turns out to be a coat so lavish it could keep all of Mayfair warm. Once it’s fastened, she turns and checks herself in the mirror: Even on her way to prison, Mrs. Paradine is, at all times and in all ways, conscious of the effect she is having. That little mirror-check may be her one moment of true human weakness. Her love for Latour is not weakness, but a Wagnerian fire.

This is pretty much the same look he trains on Coburn.
Tony Keane, the supposedly legendary barrister played by Peck, doesn’t have a chance with her. Whatever Mrs. Paradine wants, we know instinctively it isn’t this walking mass of rhetoric and (formerly) high principles. We hear quite a bit about "Tony's brilliance" but on screen — and this is a problem with the script, along with its admitted talkiness — there are almost no scenes to show he’s anything of the sort. He loses his head early on, and it stays lost. Too, Peck lacks the requisite passion in his scenes with Valli. No torch fires up behind his eyes when he looks at her. Maybe maintaining all that lava-hot lust for Jennifer Jones in the earlier Duel in the Sun had exhausted him. Maybe he (or Selznick) was unwilling to have his character’s betrayal of sweet Ann Todd be that blatantly sinful. Whatever the cause, Peck is the weakest link, and as he is the main character, that is a non-trivial problem. But one thing he nails in great style is his final speech, where he says, with stunning obviousness at that point, “Everything I have done seems to have gone against my client," yet he still makes you feel the magnitude of the man’s failure. Peck was pretty much born to address a jury.

Sexual harrassment, 1947-style.
Ah, Ann Todd as Gay — lovely, charming, initially clueless: “Nice people don’t go about murdering other nice people.” Peck does has some chemistry with Todd; their early scenes are playful and teasing, with much affection and a kiss that tells you this married couple still has sex. (They have no kids.) Todd manages to convince me that a woman would push her husband to keep representing Mrs. Paradine, Gay’s reasoning being that if Tony walks away, part of him will always yearn for the maybe-murderess. The scene that establishes Gay as a woman with the strength to do such a thing is the one you describe so well, at the dinner party. After he fixates on her bare shoulder, Laughton as the well-named Lord Horfield settles his bulk way too close to Gay on the sofa. Then he grabs her hand, ostensibly to look at her ring, with such force that she has trouble yanking it away. She tells him off in a very British fashion — by complimenting his wife — and moves to the other side of the room, where Keane is talking to the hostess. Gay's adored Tony hasn’t noticed a thing, or gone to check on her; it’s an early scene, but we already see the selfishness lurking behind Keane’s upright facade.

Just out of frame is Tetzel's cigarette holder, with which she prevents Coburn's monocle from upstaging her.

Joan Tetzel as Judy Flaquer sees it too; she tells her father, “Men who’ve been good too long get a longing for the mire and want to wallow in it.” For that reason, I don’t think she is going to have her own Paradine. She’s far too clearsighted, an audience surrogate who says what everyone else is thinking. I like her confidence and her chic, the fact that she’s still living with her father, doesn't seem to resent him a bit, and wipes him out at chess. Charles Coburn as her father is Charles Coburn, monocle twinkling away, sage and amusing, amusing and sage, but that is no bad thing, at least in my book. He gets a wonderful line about photographs: "The social footsteps of time."

Jourdan's first American close-up was a honey.
When Hitchcock’s path crosses Selznick’s in the canteen of the afterlife, he probably still fumes about Jourdan’s casting, but Jourdan is excellent. I don’t think his beauty ruins the material at all. (It’s odd that in interviews Hitchcock always referred to the character as a groom, when he’s a valet in both the book and the movie.) Of course it helps immensely that Colonel Paradine was blind, because otherwise, if you don’t want your wife to sleep with the valet, you hire Eric Blore.

I like Robin Wood’s brief musings:

Jourdan worked in only two other distinguished films in the 1940s, both quite central to their respective directors' work, and both underrated by most critics: Minnelli's Madame Bovary and Hitchcock's The Paradine Case. The former inflects Jourdan's persona in the direction of aristocratic decadence, while retaining the sense of vulnerability. The latter, far more remarkably (especially in the 1950s), eliminates the decadence altogether yet defines the character, at least by implication, as gay. We are informed that Jourdan as the valet has no interest in women, has totally resisted the advances of Mrs. Paradine (Alida Valli, no less), and has been completely dedicated to his master, Colonel Paradine. The valet's dedication is the moral center of this remarkable film, and is combined very disturbingly with Valli's erotic dedication to Jourdan — although Hitchcock later felt Jourdan's character should have been rougher and more "manly" to account for the frustrated Valli's fixation upon him.

Now that I think about it, Wood may well be right that Jourdan, whose character's end is by far the most tragic, is the moral center here, and not Todd. The evidence that Latour is gay leaped out very strongly at me during the last couple of viewings, and was reinforced by another line, spoken to Alida Valli by Leo G. Carroll, playing the prosecutor: “As soon as you learned of his indifference to women, you determined to overcome that indifference.”

Fun couple

I’ll close by noting the excellence of the penultimate scene, in which we learn Mrs. Paradine’s fate. It’s dinner time chez Lord and Lady Horfield, where the table is the length of a subway car and husband and wife deliver their lines through candelabra that would not disgrace the Hall of Mirrors. Laughton (who, remember, disliked “toffs”) throughout the trial scenes plays Horfield as an Olympian autocrat, amusing himself with bon mots while pushing the jury to a foreordained conclusion. Ethel Barrymore reportedly had her best scene cut, but she is very touching here, even if her Oscar nomination remains something of a mystery. (Stephen Whitty points out that the longer version seen by Academy voters that year may have had that scene.)

Here, Laughton delivers possibly the most macabre line in all Hitchcock: “It’s surprising how closely the convolutions of a walnut resemble those of the human brain.” As he inspects a walnut he just cracked, even though it is not a close shot, we see that indeed it does, horrifyingly, resemble what a brain would look like if you sawed open someone’s skull. Ethel Barrymore timidly tries to get a bit of feeling out of him (“Doesn’t life punish us enough, Tommy?”) And he snaps back, “Must I listen to more of your silly pity for every scoundrel, man or woman?” Thus is raised the question of whether the worst sociopath in the entire movie has been the one on the bench.

I want to be clear that I don’t consider The Paradine Case top-flight Hitchcock, but I’d place it solidly in the middle tier, as one of the best examples of what he could do outside his comfort zone. There is no way The Paradine Case deserves to be ranked dead last and dissed as hard as it was in a recent Indiewire rundown of Top 25 Hitch. I hope that at least we may persuade some people to take another look.

The sum of the Paradine parts:


StephenWhitty said...

How fun this exchange has been. Thank you both for the hard work done for free, and for us.

Oh, and as to the possibility that Latour is gay (and his devotion to the old man perhaps something more than duty), that occurred to me more strongly the last time I watched this, too. (Although we're told that Latour was engaged once, in Canada, significantly it was the woman who broke the engagement.)

And then there's that quick warning that one of the locals gives the barrister about Latour being "queer" -- certainly a word with many meanings, but one of which sort of leaps out today.

The Siren said...

Stephen, pace Wood, it's stated as explicitly as you could in 1947 that he slept with Mrs. Paradine, but if he's gay that gives a whole different dimension to how he hates himself for it. And it also gives Mrs. Paradine a whole different motive for murdering her husband, if Latour and the Colonel were more than master and servant, or even if she just suspected that Latour was in love with her husband.

I stoutly maintain that lousy movies don't contain this many layers.

StephenWhitty said...

Here, here, Siren. Although Hitchcock's late'40s/early`50s films are frequently dismissed, even by acolytes, there's always a lot to chew over. I wish more directors had such a "fallow" period.

Pinko Punko said...

The triangle or parallelogram or even more complicated tangle of sexual temptation and obsession is what we have already talked about as being in the vein of Vertigo. I think that this take really hits it- the film sort of suffers because Peck doesn't work like he should. I felt Valli was brilliant in my only viewing of the film but Peck's fall doesn't quite convince because it just sort of happens. In Vertigo, even though the story is preposterous, Stewart's performance captures our attention, and Novak is brilliant as Madeline. I think Valli and Jourdan and Laughton and Todd were all quite good, but the writing around Peck was where it fell short. I wouldn't have minded to see a longer film with more oomph the key changes to Peck's character.

And if Hitchcock had more room to play with additional issues such as the additional triangle of the Paradines and Latour (as you discuss above)- that would greatly deepen the impact of the film.

Vanwall said...

Hitchcock probably got all that could be wrung out of his actors as far as Selznick allowed, I'll allow. The main thrust for Selzick seemed to have been a coolness all around; even with all the smoldering, nothing catches fire, exactly. Implications, implications, why'nt somebody sock someone, or flounce out of the room, or bite a lip while pretending to kiss? Just words, words, words, and not the right ones exactly - the script seemed flat, or at least Selznick ran a lawn roller over it to keep any of the actors from chewing the scenes as short as their teeth were long; the words were bitten off short just right a few times, though, mostly by Valli, with stalwart chewing by subterfuge from Laughton, his specialty. Those two used their bodies as adjectives and adverbs that seemed to have been left out by the typewriter. I think the Tony Keane part was meant to be such a stick, and perhaps no one could've succeeded wearing it without alterations, so Peck's general demeanor fit as well as anyone's. I do agree his courtroom speech was excellent, though. I've always liked Ann Todd, and she does pretty good work here, even sterling - she's got the real steel in her, out of all the characters. I do love Coburn's and Tetzel's Greek chorus line, and yeah, Siren, her Judy espouses a tone that says she's above all the usual loves and hates, but she's just the type to get blindsided by some sort of Latour-ish cad who's willing to pass on the low-hanging fruit and pluck the ripest one. Or at least she'll attract a fair amount of interested climbers, even if they share Mallory's fate in the end. Maybe that's her kink. Everyone else in this film had one.

Unknown said...

Too, Peck lacks the requisite passion in his scenes with Valli. No torch fires up behind his eyes when he looks at her.

All of a sudden I'm wondering...how would The Paradine Case had played if Anthony Keane were played by an older actor? I've already said something on Glenn Kenny's blog about how I imagined Keane was taken with the fantasy of the wild beauty from abroad being tamed by sacred love and settling down contentedly with an elderly gentleman. A fanciful reading, maybe, but one occasioned by the effort taken to adding distinguished grey to Gregory Peck's hair, making me wonder how old we were supposed to think he was--because if Keane's supposed to be getting up there in years than I can see why Mrs. Paradine's tale of selfless devotion to a wonderful old man might have some appeal to him.

And it would help excuse the, well, somewhat low-key infatuation that Peck actually shows on screen. An older man finding that he still has passions won't necessarily flame as brightly with it as a man in his thirties.

The first scene establishing Mr. and Mrs. Keane together was quite charming, but then...something goes a little wrong for me with subsequent domestic scenes, as the marriage starts to unravel. Mrs. Keane just seems a little too vacillating and passive (or, at best, passive-aggressive) about the possible dissolution of her marriage. And then she almost disappears from the film until her big final scene, which loses force because Mrs. Keane never showed much force. She already seems halfway on her way to the heartbreaking paralysis of the Horfield marriage.

Speaking of which, what are we to make of this line of Ethel Barrymore's?

"I love you. I've always loved you. And you must have known for years how--how terrible it is to love a man who--"

And then she moves on to another train of thought. In context she seems to be likening herself to Mrs. Paradine, both trapped in marriages to "terrible" men. Still I'd like to know how that sentence was to be completed.

I stoutly maintain that lousy movies don't contain this many layers.

You said it! This film's really stuck in my head. Sometimes a deep but flawed movie is just as provocative as a great one, because you think you can see the greatness that almost was. The Paradine Case is also a film I know I'll watch again, whereas I don't think I'd care if I ever saw Torn Curtain or Topaz again ever.

The Siren said...

"She already seems halfway on her way to the heartbreaking paralysis of the Horfield marriage."

Yes, I think you are on to something there, because she made clear that if [[SPOILER]] Mrs. Paradine is hanged, Tony is lost to her, and of course that is precisely what happens. No matter the final reconciliation (and I do love Peck's wounded, grateful expression when she caresses his face) we heard that from Gay, and I believed it, myself.

Jeff Wells (of all people) described this movie on Twitter as a slow-moving tragedy and I think he's right.

Vanwall, I refuse to contemplate such a fate for Judy! Her father would find some way to bounce the cad out on his ear. They're both chess players, after all. Or, maybe she would deal with him like Madeleine Smith did (to allude to a great Ann Todd role).

meteskyjr said...

You've probably gone over this a thousand times, but Gregory Peck is just so wooden - in everything he ever played, with the possible exception of Atticus Finch, where his earnest chin and marble facade served him well. In my opinion, it was only Peck's good looks that saved him from regularly getting the role of the stooge/sap, a la Ralph Bellamy. Peck is hardly the only handsome cigar-store Indian in Hollywood history (Gary Cooper and William Hurt spring to mind), but he might have gotten the best parts of all of them.

Unknown said...

I can't comment in any worthwhile way on "The Paradine Case" because it's been much too long since I've seen it.

However, I do want to express my admiration for several performances given by Gregory Peck, performances that, in my opinion, are anything but wooden.

To wit:

"The Big Country" (in which he offers a stirring exemplification of masculinity at its finest).

"The Purple Plain" (his rendition of emotional devastation and regeneration has always moved me deeply.

"Behold A Pale Horse" (in which he fully meets the challenge of how his character's Spanish Civil War-era lost cause idealism both ennobles him and drives him to fanaticism).

"On The Beach" (the one Stanley Kramer movie that works from start to finish, with Peck quietly magnificent as a person like everyone else in the movie, facing a truly hopeless situation that no possible Hollywood treatment of the kind that the film rigorously avoids can sugar-coat).

I even believe as well that his sometimes derided performance in "Moby Dick" actually gets within hailing distance of Captain Ahab's furies.

Unknown said...

It's been too long since I have seen it, so I can't comment usefully on "The Paradine Case" or Gregory Peck's performance in it.

But maybe this is a proper place to say that I do think the frequent criticism of his acting as "wooden" doesn't hold water.

For instance:

"The Big Country", in which he provides a stirring evocation of masculinity at its finest.

"The Purple Plain" -- I have always found his rendition of a man shattered and regenerated by love and war deeply moving.

"Behold A Pale Horse" -- Peck seems to me to have been fully in command of his character's Spanish Civil War era lost-cause idealism and how it both ennobles him and tumbles him into deadly fanaticism.

"On The Beach" -- The one Stanley Kramer that succeeds completely -- by unflinchingly depicting a truly hopeless situation that cannot be sugar-coated; Gregory Peck, along with the rest of the cast, deserves full credit for this, as far as I am concerned.

His portrayal of Captain Ahab in "Moby Dick" has sometimes been derided; I feel that it gets decently within hailing distance of this iconic figure's twisted but penetrating visionary madness (calling God to the bar of justice, as director John Huston once put it).

And this is not even to speak of Peck's probably best regarded work, in "To Kill A Mockingbird", which I likewise saw too long ago for say anything worthwhile about it.

Whatever Gregory Peck's shortcomings as an actor and however much some of his other performances may the "wooden" tag understandable, in my view no one with these credits to his name owes anyone any apologies.

mas82730 said...

Watch Peck's performance in 'The Gunfighter' and tell me if you still think he's wooden.

Fiddlin Bill said...

Dear Siren: This dialogue is just wonderful. You are so missed!! It's been a terribly long time since February.

RosieP said...

However, I do want to express my admiration for several performances given by Gregory Peck, performances that, in my opinion, are anything but wooden.

Another favorite of mine is sports writer Mike Hagen in the 1957 movie, "DESIGNING WOMEN". I think one of the reasons why I liked Peck so much is that his masculinity wasn't overt.

john said...

How did Mlle Valli manage the "tourbillon" reflected in her eyes when Latour enters the Court?
Faites vite Le Tour Latour!