Friday, November 11, 2016

Fridays With Hitchcock:
The Paradine Case (1947)

Screenplay by David O. Selznick.

Do I really have to say anything more?

Okay, for those of you who may not know who David O. Selznick was: He was the legendary producer who made the Best Picture Oscar winner GONE WITH THE WIND which is also the record holder for box office in adjusted dollars - yes, it even beat AVATAR. Name any film you think was a massive hit, GONE WITH THE WIND made more money in adjusted dollars. Selznick was also legendary for his ego and for micro-managing to the point of insanity. He would send lengthy memos to *everyone* involved in one of his films explaining what he wanted in minute detail. Often the memos were wacky - he once sent a 30 page telegram... and the last line of the telegram said to disregard the telegram! In the 1970s someone collected many of these crazy memos and published them in a book, MEMO FROM DAVID O. SELZNICK - I have a copy somewhere. At first, reading the memos made my brain hurt... then they became laugh-out-loud funny. He wrote memos on things so small and insignificant you wonder how he found the time to do anything else. So, imagine the lunatic, egotistical, head of production for the studio writing a screenplay...



To be fair, Selznick began in the story department at MGM - because in those good old days of Hollywood they promoted *screenwriters* and people who worked in the story department to producers and heads of production. Hollywood back then was not about deals and lawyers and agents, it was about *stories*. From the story department he worked his way up to producer at MGM, and produced a string of hits - which probably didn’t help that out-of-control ego of his. He married his boss’s daughter, Irene Mayer, and decided that he was too good for MGM, so he quit and started his own company - Selznick International. If you are ever on the Sony lot, you can still see his building. It looks much smaller than it does on film.

Selznick was the guy who brought Alfred Hitchcock over from England... and brought a bunch of European stars to the United States, including Ingrid Bergman. What he would do is sign them to a long term contract with his “studio”, which had yet to make a single film. Then he would “rent them” to another studio for more money... and make a profit. So, let’s say he was paying Ingrid Bergman $1X a month, he would rent her out to MGM for $5X and keep the difference. Bergman got paid the same no matter what. Because Selznick and Hitchcock did not get along, Selznick “rented” Hitchcock to other studios from 1941-1944 for five different movies, and basically lived off the money Hitchcock earned for him. Pimp-daddy Selznick. The director of an Oscar winning film could get top dollar... and all of that money went into Selznick’s pocket. During that period of time he made only one movie as a producer - SINCE YOU WENT AWAY... the rest of his money was from pimpin'.

Though he made a handful of successful movies at his “studio”, the film he made in 1939 was the one he’s best known for - GONE WITH THE WIND.

I think that film ruined him.

Imagine making the biggest box office film of all time *and* having it win Best Picture Oscar. What do you do for an encore?

Well, the year after he won Best Picture Oscar for producing GONE WITH THE WIND, he won Best Picture Oscar for producing REBECCA... directed by Alfred Hitchcock.



After that Selznick seemed to be *exclusively* trying to make movies that would be massive box office hits *and* win the Best Picture Oscar. Because Hitchcock was under contract to him, he was either being “rented” to some other studio or producer or making some film for Selznick. Some of these films, like SPELLBOUND, were “Hitchcock movies”, but THE PARADINE CASE is pure Selznick... a big glossy soap opera of a film that seemed created to pander to both the mass audience *and* the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences membership. The film starred his new discovery from Europe Alida Valli (THE THIRD MAN), who he hoped to rent out as soon as she became a star, and Gregory Peck - another contract player, and a young hunky French actor he was grooming for stardom, Louis Jourdan (SWAMP THING). Hitchcock disliked the project, but was under contract and had no choice but to make it. Hitchcock brought in his own writers, and Selznick didn't send anyone to pick one of the writers up at the airport - so he flew back home. Eventually Selznick took over and wrote the screenplay himself, which Hitchcock must have loved. Hitch and Selznick were battling every day on the set. It’s hard to believe that this film falls between NOTORIOUS and ROPE on Hitchcock’s resume, because it’s so unlike either one of those films... it’s overwrought.

It was also Hitchcock’s last movie for Selznick - he walked off the set at the end of shooting. His contract was complete, and he was now a free man...

THE PARADINE CASE was a massive box office flop.



Nutshell: In London, rich and beautiful widow Mrs. Paradine (Valli) is about to sit down to dinner when the police arrive and arrest her for the murder of her husband. She gets the most respected criminal barrister in England, Anthony Keane (Peck) to represent her in his robes and powdered wig...

Okay, while you’re wondering how Peck did with his British accent, we’ll get on with the synopsis.

Because Mrs. Paradine is the most beautiful and seductive woman in the world, Keane’s wife Gay (Ann Todd) becomes jealous and worries that she will lose her man. Keane’s older law partner, Sir Simon (Charles Coburn) also worries about this, but his college girl daughter hopes that Mrs. Paradine will break up the marriage and then dump Keane so that she can swoop in and take him, because she thinks he’s a dreamy older man.

Oh, speaking of older men, the trial’s Judge (Charles Laughton) is a complete letch and keeps hitting on Keane’s wife. It’s kind of implied that if she sleeps with him, he may favor her husband in the case. Though his character doesn’t show up for a while, Louis Jourdan plays the dead Mr. Paradine’s valet Latour who may or may not have been playing hide the salami with Mrs. Paradine while her husband slept in the next room. I know that I’m leaving out some people who were either having sex with other people or at least wanted to have sex with other people, but you get the idea.



The first 2/3rds of the story takes place before the trial while all of these people are trying to get into each other’s pants. The last third is all in the courtroom - but far from Perry Mason excitement. There are only two suspects and no surprises. The story isn’t about who the killer is, it’s about who is gonna sleep with who and who already slept with who. Sex for the mass audience, powdered wigs and frilly shirts for the Academy.

Peck doesn’t even attempt a British accent.

Experiment: I’m sure that the main experiment was trying to get through the film without killing Selznick...



But the film has one amazing shot - as Mrs. Paradine sits at the defendant’s table in court, Latour enters the court room behind her and walks to the witness stand, and Hitchcock does a great composite shot with Mrs. Paradine in the foreground (one element) and Latour walking in the background (the other element) with both images moving so that it seems as if she can *feel* him entering the courtroom and - without looking back - *sense* him as he walks around her. It’s a great shot concept - she knows he is there without ever seeing him.

There is also the reverse of the shot, from Latour’s POV when he leaves the witness stand. Basically one great shot done twice.

Oh, and a nice overhead of the courtroom when Keane leaves after realizing his client is guilty.

Hitch Appearance: Leaving the train station, carrying a cello.

Great Scenes: Well, no suspense scenes, so let me talk about some of the soap opera stuff.

The opening scene where Mrs. Paradine is arrested is shocking, and managed to find a way to sneak in the victim visually. A huge painting of Mr. Paradine hangs on the wall, and is the center of much of the scene. But there is some great confusion by Mrs. Paradine about how one is supposed to get arrested - they just served dinner, will she be allowed to eat first? And what about packing a bag? She has no point of reference.



At the police station, she is searched and stripped and a matron goes through her beautiful hair with a comb searching for contraband. Hitchcock has done similar scenes that were even better - involving fingerprint ink you can’t remove. I would have gone full-force and had them delouse her with spray hoses, but it seems like everything is blanded... probably due to Sezlnick’s screenplay.

There’s a great scene with Charles Laughton as the horny old judge who sits next to Peck’s wife on the sofa and grabs her hand and puts her hand on her leg (stealing a feel) and makes it pretty clear that he wants to screw her and that it would be good for her husband’s trial if she said yes. Laughton steals every scene he is in - almost rescuing the film. Almost.



There’s kind of a spooky scene where Peck goes to the scene of the crime - the Paradine country estate - and it’s closed up, dark, spooky... and has a Mrs. Danvers-like woman showing him around... and Louis Jourdan’s valet seems to appear and disappear without ever leaving or entering a room. There’s more atmosphere in that scene than in the rest of the film.



The courtroom trial is boring because we have two suspects: Mrs. Paradine and the valet Latour, and neither tries to blame the other or has any shocking witness stand reveals. The one and only is that Mrs, Paradine may have visited Latour’s room after dark.

In HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT, Hitchcock complains about all of the casting - and rightly so - but spends a great deal of time explaining why Louis Jourdan was dead wrong as Latour. If that is supposed to be the big shocker in court, it doesn’t work if she was sleeping with some beefcake guy like Jourdan. He’s better looking than she is!



There’s only shock if Latour is *ugly* - and this goes back to my problems with UNDER CAPRICORN - Hollywood often makes the mistake of hiring pretty people when the role requires really ugly people. That film was another woman-who-sleeps-with-a-man-beneath-her story, and Bergman and Joseph Cotton seem like a reasonable pair. In PARADINE, Valli is a beautiful woman, but Jourdan is a beautiful man. They belong together - no shock. You can “tell us” that Jourdan is a servant and Valli is wealthy and that it is scandalous for her to sleep with him, but there is no class distinctions on screen. There are only *physical* distinctions.



Hell, she goes to his room! If the script would have made him the groom and had him sleeping in an apartment in the stables and the first time they got busy was after a ride on the floor of the stable amongst piles of hay and manure, we have something! And that is something that a *screenwriter* can do to guard against casting issues. We can create a *situation* that is shocking, so the casting won’t kill the scene.

An *idea* doesn’t show up on screen, only the execution of the idea - the image or dialogue that turns the idea into something concrete that we can see or hear. The *idea* of sleeping with a man below her class needs to be turned into something we can see or hear. Since we are not involved in casting as screenwriters, it has to be a situation or dialogue. That roll in the hay (and manure) - whether we do that with actions (visual) or with courtroom testimony (dialogue) we need to get it out there. But we do not have shocking testimony or shocking visuals... Instead we have a very dull Q&A of suspects on the stand who do not want to incriminate each other so they don’t really say anything.

Sound Track: Excellent score from the always dependable Franz Waxman.

THE PARADINE CASE is basically a big glossy soap opera with a couple of interesting shots, that Hitchcock practically disowned. He walked off after his rough cut, leaving David O’Selznick to sort out the rest. I’m sure he sent a 30 page memo to Hitchcock afterwards.

- Bill

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The other Fridays With Hitchcock.

3 comments:

Richard J. McKenzie said...

The Paradine Case
or
How to force an auteur to direct a Jacqueline Susann novel in order to win trophies for excellence.

from Rebecca:
"SCREEN PLAY BY ME, THE PRODUCER, THE WRITER, I DID IT ALL, ME, ME, ME."

Yikes.

martinb said...

That book, Memo from David O. Selznick, is what first got me interested in what goes on behind the scenes in movies, and ultimately in trying my hand at scriptwriting. I was fascinated by the lengths he'd go to get something right, and the level of detail he worked at.

Before reading it, I'd assumed they made it up as they went along.

borgusfilm said...

Also the first Hitchcock film appearance for John Williams, albeit a non-speaking role.

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