Archive for Joan Tetzel

Paradine Syndrome

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2009 by dcairns

para1

A virtual clone of a short from REBECCA.

I must have tried to watch Hitchcock’s THE PARADINE CASE a half-dozen times. Now I can say that I’ve actually seen it, but I can’t say much more (proceeds to write several hundred words). The movie seems to slide off me.

Despite specialising more or less in crime thrillers, Hitch stayed out of the courtroom as much as he could (I can recall the divorce court in EASY VIRTUE, the inquest in REBECCA, but note how Hitch keeps the camera in the jury room in MURDER while the verdict is read out offscreen, and how he spies on the trial at the opening of NOTORIOUS, peeking through the door as if superstitious about entering. Hitch also, famously, avoided whodunnits, except here and in MURDER. I accept most of his arguments against them (the whodunnit us an intellectual game, like the crossword), and also observe one more uncomfortable fact — he’s not very good at them.

Gregory Peck is Anthony Keane, counsel for the defense, a notoriously passionate lawyer who falls in love with accused murderess Mrs Paradine ([Alida] Valli), jeopardizing his marriage and his career, while trying to pin the guilt on either her murdered husband (suicide), or the groom (Louis Jourdan0 with whom she may have been having an affair.

Hitchcock himself reckoned THE PARADINE CASE was miscast, with Louis Jourdan too suave to be a horny handyman (yet LJ is the most compelling figure in the film by a country mile) and certainly David O Selznick’s screenplay, written during the shoot, is a big problem, verbose and lumbering and devoid of sympathetic characters or dynamic momentum. Fascinating players like Charles Coburn and Charles Laughton are somewhat wasted, while less-than-fascinating players like Gregory Peck and Ann Todd are spread thin, and at their least appealing. And Selznick’s dialogue keeps on about how fascinating Valli is supposed to be, but the screenwriter doth protest too much. And when did Selznick decide he was a WRITER?

The dispiriting shoot consisted of Selznick’s new pages coming in sometime in the morning, so nothing could be shot until afternoon, and still Selznick would moan that the filming was going too slowly. Hitch had large, expensive sets built, and was marooned on them for ages, as the bloated production sweated money from every pore.

para2

Clone of shot from YOUNG AND INNOCENT.

On the plus side, there’s Lee Garmes’ lustrous and lambent lighting, moody and noirish and serving up numerous striking shots, especially of Valli and Jourdan. I quite liked the tetchy, affectionate relationship between Coburn and his daughter, Joan Tetzel, which has a bit of energy, but they mainly discuss what everybody else is up to, until the trial, when JT sits in the public gallery explaining the events to Ann Todd, and to us in the audience, like some kind of benshi film describer. Actually, a huge amount of the film consists of descriptions of thing it might be nice to see. Nobody investigates the murder. When the trial finally starts, all at once we get a lot of plot information, which kind of adds up to a realization that the prosecution doesn’t really have any case at all.

Where was I? Oh yes, the positive side. Well, if Coburn and Tetzel = Hitch and Pat, then Peck and Todd could be Hitch and Alma. Their introductory scene does actually do a fair job of portraying a happily married couple approaching the danger zone where they take things for granted, and making us care about the relationship. But once the case begins, Peck’s baffling amour fou for the glum and uninteresting Valli robs him of all sympathy, and since he’s pretty inactive as a character, we can’t replace sympathy with intrigue.

para7

I heard that a friend had postulated a gay subtext, in the form of a relationship between Peck and Jourdan, but I can’t see any narrative evidence for this — nothing makes sense unless we accept that Peck is smitten with Valli. But there is some hilarity in this theory, since every line exchanged between Peck and Jourdan becomes an obscene double entendre — “What was your object in entering by the back way?” “But you intended to come on me!”

Laughton is a (bitter) joy — Hitchcock complained that “Every picture with Laughton is a war,” but he must have realized that the actor enhanced any film he touched. But if you took out the scene where Laughton is rebuffed by Todd, then his character would be reduced to a standard high court judge, and he could still behave in mostly the same way in the courtroom: he’s showing bias, it’s true, but Peck is such a dick it’s hardly surprising. I’d favour Leo G Carroll too.

para8

Clone of a shot from EASY VIRTUE.

But since we have Laughton’s unnecessary character, we get Ethel Barrymore as his wife, and their miserable relationship is one of the film’s most effective elements. I guess it’s a film about couples. Oddly, I’d just seen Ethel in MOSS ROSE, her previous production. Must write a little piece about that one. It has Peggy Cummins.

Hitch tried to film in long takes but Selznick objected, insisting on close-ups to break things up. No wonder Hitch indulged himself with ten-minute-takes as soon as he was free from his contract. Falling behind schedule, Hitch managed to save time by shooting the court scenes with multiple cameras, which upset the actors, who couldn’t see each other for equipment.

I always find Ann Todd rather cold and brittle, which isn’t bad per se, but I also get the impression that she’s an inherently savage actress who’s being held back by her directors. David Lean certainly held her down. I’d like to see her allowed to let rip.

para5

Clone of a shot from NOTORIOUS, itself cloned from SUSPICION.

But nobody lets rip here. The movie is interesting for its resemblance to two of Hitch’s earliest, least successful talkies — MURDER, in which a woman accused of murder is defended by a high-class gent. In both films, the gent travels to the countryside and stays in a cottage overnight, although MURDER exploits this for humour. And Peck’s arrival at the country house made me think of THE SKIN GAME, in which a woman with a shady past is threatened with exposure. It’s not too promising that those are the films one is reminded of.

Hitch, diplomatically, was still negotiating for a possible renewal of his contract with Selznick, even as he attempted to set up his own production company with Sidney Bernstein. The desire for artistic control warred with a need for financial security, but the experience of THE PARADINE CASE must surely have decided him that his future lay elsewhere.

para6Clone of a shot from NO. 13.

Advertisements