Noir I Don’t Care For: The Paradine Case (1947)

Gregory Peck looks like the way I felt watching this movie.

As I’ve mentioned a time or two in previous posts, I am a member of a classic movie meetup group that continued to flourish throughout the pandemic; each week, we’re assigned an old movie that’s available on YouTube, and then we gather via Zoom to discuss it. Moderated by Steven Reginald over at Classic Movie Man, these weekly events offer lively discussions and interesting and varied opinions on classic movies, and served to be a beacon of light for me in this otherwise otherworldly past year.

A recent film that was viewed by the group was The Paradine Case, one of the movies that was featured in last year’s Giant end-of-year Dark Pages issue, which focused on films released in 1947. I’d never seen the movie, but I’ve always been intrigued by the promising combination of star Gregory Peck and director Alfred Hitchcock, and I was looking forward to what would surely be a memorable cinematic experience.

As it turned out, the film was memorable, but for all the wrong reasons.

But let me start at the beginning. Set in England, The Paradine Case centers on Maddalena Paradine (Alida Valli – credited only as ‘Valli’), who is accused of poisoning her blind husband, Colonel Paradine. She is defended by Tony Keane (Peck), a hotshot lawyer whose happy marriage to Gay (Ann Todd) hits the skids when Tony falls head over heels for his client. Also on hand are Judge Lord Thomas Horfield (Charles Laughton), who presides over the court proceedings; Horfield’s wife Lady Sophie (Ethel Barrymore); and Andre Letour (Louis Jourdan), the devoted valet for the deceased Paradine patriarch. With such a stellar cast, and a production helmed by the master of suspense himself, I would never have dreamed that I would dislike this film as much as I did. But I did. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons why, starting with . . .

Tony Keane.

See the expression on Mrs. Paradine’s face? That’s about as good as it gets.

Let me say here and now, I love Gregory Peck – To Kill a Mockingbird, Duel in the Sun, The Gunfighter, Yellow Sky, The Yearling – I mean, come on! The man is a cinematic giant (not to mention incredibly easy on the eye)! But I just wasn’t feeling him in this film. I didn’t like his character’s weak nature, his illogical decisions, and the way he so easily turned his back on his seemingly ideal wife and marriage for a woman he barely even knew. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t have a problem with silver screen infidelity, but this just didn’t make sense! Speaking of not making sense, it was primarily due to . . .

Mrs. Paradine.

Alida Valli was excellent in The Third Man, which was released two years after this feature, but in Paradine, I was completely turned off by her zombie-esque performance. She was totally expressionless most of the time – she only caught my attention when she was venting her hatred toward Peck’s character and, frankly, by that time, I’d pretty much given up on the entire production. Her acting was so wooden that it seemed farfetched that she would not only entice the very-married Tony Keane, but also . . .

Andre Letour.

As played by Louis Jourdan in his American film debut, Letour was one of the few characters who halfway piqued my curiosity. To be honest, though, I was only interested in him during his appearance in the film’s (lengthy) courtroom trial, where his previously staid persona frequently erupted into emotional outbursts. Other than these moments, I found him to be almost as boring as . . .

At first, Gay and Tony displayed a playful, sexy relationship that was fun to watch. But then ol’ Stoneface Paradine entered the picture and I just didn’t care anymore.

Gay Keane.

Tony’s doting, loyal wife, Gay Keane was, to me, as dull as dishwater. She was unquestionably incisive, as she was able to detect her husband’s wandering affections before he was aware of them himself. And she was also wise, realizing that if Mrs. Paradine lost her case and was sentenced to death, her husband would be inextricably bound to her. But while some may see the positive aspects of this noble creature, she was simply annoying to me – too virtuous and perfect and self-sacrificing for me to bear. As she said to her husband in one scene, “You’ve been my life for such a long time, Tony. Do you think I could ever want anything bad for you?” Blecch. But Gay wasn’t the only character who annoyed me; this emotion was also directed toward . . .

Lady Sophie Horfield.

I confess that I simply did not understand the purpose of this character. Her husband – the judge – treats her like crap, humiliating her in front of guests and browbeating her when they were alone, turning her into a stammering, anxious, self-conscious shell of a woman. She was only in two or three scenes, but she could just as easily not been in any, and it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. The fact that she was played by Ethel Barrymore, and that Barrymore received an Oscar nomination for the role, is beyond me.

And if my feelings about these characters weren’t enough to solicit my thumbs-down on this feature, there was . . .

The writing.

Riveting dialogue. RIVETING, I tell you!

Let me just give you an illustration. This is the scene where Andre Letour appears at the door of the room in the inn where Tony Keane is staying.

Letour: Can I have a word with you, sir?

Keane: Come in. What can I do for you?

Letour: It is not a question very easy to answer.

Keane: How did you know that this was my room?

Letour: I saw you come up from the lake shore. And then this light go on.

Keane: You’ve been watching the inn for some time?

Letour: Yes. I walked over from Henley.

Keane: To see me?

Letour: Yes sir. It came to my mind it would be well to see you.

Keane: Sit down. Why didn’t you come to the front door? What was your object in coming in the back way?

Letour: They’d all gone to bed, sir, and I didn’t want to disturb the household.

Keane: But you might have come earlier.

Letour: I didn’t care to come earlier, sir.

Keane: Why not?

Letour: I’ll leave that to you, sir.

OH. MY. GOD. Are you SERIOUS. What is the point??? Is there one???? I found so much of the dialogue in the film to be like this – just completely inane, unnecessary, interminable exchanges. It was all I could do to keep from falling out of my chair.

Laughton was everything. But not enough.

In fact, I had only one favorable impression about The Paradine Case, and that was the character played by Charles Laughton: Judge Horfield. Every time he appeared on screen, he instantly became the focal point for me, whether he was hitting on Gay Keane during a dinner party (by literally grabbing her hand and putting it on his leg), or making wry remarks during the court proceedings. In my favorite part of the trial, he drew the laughter of the trial onlookers (as well as my own) when Tony Keane tried to cast aspersions on the character of Andre Letour, referencing his “pathological bias” against women because he’d once had a fiancé who left him at the altar. Horfield observes, “I may be stupid, but I fail to understand what this jilting has to do with the case. After seeing the witness and observing his appearance and bearing, I should be inclined to regard the young lady’s conduct as pathological, not his.”

Unfortunately, Laughton’s performance wasn’t enough to make me appreciate this picture – nor was the film’s direction by Alfred Hitchcock, who is one of my favorites. And from what I’ve read, Hitchcock wasn’t much happier with the film than I was. According to Hitchcock’s biographer, Donald Spoto, the film’s screenplay was re-written on a daily basis by producer David O. Selznick, who was notorious for meddling and micro-managing the movies under his banner. Spoto also stated that Selznick dictated more than 400 memos before filming ended, which surely transformed the movie into something vastly different than what Hitchcock had originally intended. The bottom line is, I didn’t care for this movie, I was disappointed after looking so forward to seeing a new-to-me Hitchcock feature, and I will definitely not be indulging in any repeat viewings.

But in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I was one of the few members of the discussion group who didn’t like it! (How d’ya like THEM apples?)

Have you seen The Paradine Case? What’d you think of it? I’d love to hear your impressions! (Incidentally, there are those who contend that The Paradine Case isn’t film noir . . . but that’s another discussion for another day.)

~ by shadowsandsatin on July 4, 2021.

6 Responses to “Noir I Don’t Care For: The Paradine Case (1947)”

  1. Havent seen it in a long time, but remember thinking I didn’t want to see it again and didn’t rate it as a Hitchcock. Does illustrate it’s difficult for good actors to be better than their material.

  2. I’ve never used the word ‘somnambulistic’ before, but this movie deserves it! Hitchcock also had a penchant for inserting gratuitously unpleasant behavior into story lines. I think Selznick had to stop him from having Maxim blow smoke into people’s face in ‘Rebecca’. No one stopped him from making important characters unnecessarily repellant in ‘The Paradine Case’.

  3. I don’t dislike it as much as you all do, but I can see where the criticism comes from. The word somnabulistic describes it indeed very well.

    My problem with Peck is that – despite his good looks – he was so very often a wooden actor. Especially when he played the good guy. I like him much better bad (Duel in the Sun, Yellow Sky), but then nobility always grates on my nerves.
    Ann Todd was never a particularly interesting actress to me, same goes for Louis Jourdan and Ethel Barrymore was so much better in other movies.

    The laurels rest entirely with Charles Laughton.

  4. I’ve not yet seen this film, but I don’t think I’ve read many rave reviews about it.

    Also, congrats on being elected to the CMBA Board! Excellent news!

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