This is one of the few Hitchcock films I didn’t see in my younger years. And, considering that Hitchcock is one of my favourite directors, and Gregory Peck one of my favourite actors, that is odd indeed. Perhaps I should put it down to the fact that The Paradine Case is not one of Hitch’s best-known works; in fact, he more or less washed his hands off it. And Peck, too, seems to have not really liked it.
Why? At first glance—from the first scene itself—it seems a gripping enough film. The very elegant, almost coldly beautiful Mrs Paradine (Alida Valli) is sitting at a piano, dressed all in black, playing a tune as she sips wine and looks up at the portrait of a military officer, on the wall beside her. Her butler enters, to tell her that a police inspector is here to meet her.
Mrs Paradine looks more disgusted and weary than startled, as if she knew the policeman would be turning up, and has not been looking forward to his arrival.
But she meets the man—an Inspector Ambrose, whom she obviously is already acquainted with. Ambrose, looking somewhat apologetic, tells Mrs Paradine that he’s come to arrest her. He formally charges her with the murder, on May 6, 1946, of her husband, Colonel Richard Patrick Irving Paradine (who was blind), by the administration of poison.
Mrs Paradine is a little shaken, but does not panic or start protesting her innocence. Instead, she calmly asks the inspector if she is expected to accompany him to the police station right now. When he affirms it, she asks the butler to have two things fetched for her—her black fur coat, and her black handbag. [The insistence on the all-black ensemble is now made clear: she is in mourning. But the vivid opulence of her jewellery seems to belie that].
An old family friend, Sir Simon Flaquer (Charles Coburn) comes to meet Mrs Paradine, and she asks him if he will get her a good lawyer. He assures her he will—and that too the best lawyer in town: Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck). Mrs Paradine is worried that Keane will not be keen on defending her…
…and he is initially hesitant. Coburn talks to him, and Keane, who is very busy with other cases, only agrees after much persuasion. Part of the responsibility for that persuasion perhaps lies with Keane’s wife Gay (Ann Todd), who tells Keane that she thinks Mrs Paradine didn’t do it—because she doesn’t look as if she could have. [Mrs Paradine’s photo has been in the newspapers, since this is a fairly sensational case].
In the ensuing conversation, we discover that Gay and Anthony have been married for eleven years now. He’s a very successful lawyer, of course, and she is very proud of him. Theirs is an obviously happy marriage: an easy camaraderie, much affection, and passion.
It therefore comes as a jolt for Keane when he is taken to meet Mrs Paradine, because from the very instant he meets her, he is very attracted to her. She is all that Gay is not. Very superficially, since Gay is fair-haired and soft-featured, while Mrs Paradine is dark-haired and strikingly beautiful. But also, as Keane discovers as the days go by in his interactions with this fascinating client, in other ways.
Mrs Paradine (her full name is Maddalena Anna Paradine) is—[oh, that most exotic of races, according to Hollywood!]—of Italian origin. Keane wonders aloud why she married a blind man (he even goes so far as to question her marrying a man who couldn’t appreciate her beauty; a rather inept question, perhaps). Mrs Paradine answers coolly enough: she was devoted to her husband, she was his eyes. She considered herself fortunate to have been married to him.
The result of this, and of the woman’s smouldering beauty, is that Keane is completely bowled over by her. He is so firmly convinced that she is innocent, that he refuses to listen to anybody else—not to Gay (who is astute enough to realize that her husband feels something more towards his client than mere empathy), and not to Flaquer or Flaquer’s outspoken daughter Judy (Joan Tetzel).
As the days go by, things begin to emerge [note: nothing has yet been mentioned about the circumstances of the murder, except what Inspector Ambrose said during his formal arrest of Mrs Paradine]. Keane, probing Mrs Paradine’s past, learns that it is an unpleasant one—she ran away, when she was 16 (or “said she was 16”; she was actually younger), with a married man. Between the time she parted ways with him and married Colonel Paradine, she had lived with many men.
Keane is by now so besotted by Mrs Paradine that he attempts to rationalize her actions in retrospect—and is taken aback when she hits back at him. Mrs Paradine does not seem to think that her past consists of mistakes; she even admits that she had told her husband all about her past—so there is no chance that that could have shocked him into committing suicide.
In the midst of all these conversations, another individual emerges: LaTour, the late colonel’s valet, on whom the colonel appears to have been almost completely dependent. LaTour had been present when the colonel was found murdered, and Keane begins to think of him as a possible suspect. (Keane, after all, is certain that Mrs Paradine didn’t do it; in that case, the number of suspects is whittled down to LaTour, who was there, and the colonel himself).
Keane, questioning Mrs Paradine about LaTour and whether he could have a motive for killing the colonel, is surprised to hear her refer to the valet as Andre. Such familiarity with her husband’s valet? He is suspicious (perhaps there is also more than a hint of jealousy shining through here?), but Mrs Paradine sets things straight by telling him that it’s nothing like what he imagines.
Keane, however, is not so easily diverted. On the pretext of seeing the scene of the crime for himself, he decides to visit Hindley Hall, Colonel Paradine’s country estate in Cumberland. Keane passes himself off to the housekeeper as being interested in the mansion as a potential place of residence; he doesn’t let on that he’s Mrs Paradine’s lawyer.
While at the place, he also meets Andre LaTour (Louis Jourdan, in his debut role in an English-language film). The way LaTour appears to us, the audience (and presumably to Keane, too) is interesting: his face is always hidden in the shadows. Keane sees him twice: once, when LaTour answers the doorbell and admits Keane…
…and the second time, when LaTour is standing and chatting with the driver of the pony cart in which Keane’s arrived. Keane leans out of the window and calls out to LaTour, asking him if the ex-valet would take him, Keane, around the gardens. LaTour assents, but when Keane emerges from the house shortly afterwards, LaTour is nowhere to be seen. Keane returns to the inn where he’s staying in the neighbourhood, and that evening, Andre LaTour turns up at his room, having surreptitiously knocked at the window.
Theirs is an odd, to-and-fro sort of conversation. LaTour knows by now who Keane is, and Keane makes no attempt to deny his identity. However, Keane does mention that since LaTour is certain to be called in as a witness for the prosecution, it is important that this incident—this meeting between the two men—be kept under wraps.
Not much emerges from it, anyway: just one thing, and that is Andre LaTour’s seeming dislike of Mrs Paradine. Far from being lover-like (as Keane had suspected him to be), LaTour is downright contemptuous of Mrs Paradine. And when the besotted Keane gets annoyed and tries to defend Mrs Paradine—saying that he’s come to know her pretty well in his capacity as her lawyer, LaTour hits back by asserting that Keane does not, in fact, know Mrs Paradine. She is an evil woman, not at all the paragon Keane imagines her.
This has the effect of convincing Keane that LaTour is the murderer.
But—when he suggests this theory to Mrs Paradine, she is vehement in insisting that Keane not drag LaTour into this, not try and set LaTour up as the murderer. Keane tries to plead with her: he has to defend her, and he is convinced she is innocent. The one way he has to do this is to deflect attention from her. No, Mrs Paradine insists. She will not have it. And if Keane is adamant, she will change her counsel—he will no longer represent her.
Keane, desperate, acquiesces. And so they go into the trial, which is presided over by the judge, Lord Thomas Horfield (Charles Laughton), a man who makes no bones over his dislike of Keane. [There is a hint of a connection here with the fact that Horfield has tried, at a recent party—to make a pass at Gay Keane, and she summarily turned him down.]
Who is the murderer? Why does Mrs Paradine seem to be kindly disposed towards Andre LaTour (even if she insists there is nothing between them), while he seems to hate her? What will come of the Gay-Anthony-Mrs Paradine love triangle? How will the trial end?
What I liked about this film:
The cinematography, the angles and frames and the way Andre LaTour’s face is revealed only after he’s already appeared a couple of times onscreen.
The acting. There are some stalwarts here, and among them, Charles Laughton as the often short-tempered, sarcastic Lord Horfield is excellent. So is Ethel Barrymore, as his nervous, timid wife whom Horfield bullies and insults without compunction. Ann Todd, in her role as Gay Keane, the patient and loving wife who finds her trust in her husband shaken—but does not give up on him—is great too.
If you go into The Paradine Case expecting a typical Hitchcock thriller, you may well be disappointed. Even though the identity of the murderer remains a question till almost the end of the film, the suspense isn’t great. The focus isn’t on the murder (even the facts about it—how the colonel was found, what happened then, what had happened before—emerge only during the trial, more than halfway into the film).
Instead, the focus is on the people involved and their relationships with each other: Anthony Keane, Mrs Paradine, Andre LaTour—and Gay, of course. Keane’s fascination for Mrs Paradine; Mrs Paradine’s blow-hot, blow-cold attitude towards him (she seems to be definitely encouraging his attentions at times; on the other hand, she’s downright disdainful and clams up every now and then); and Andre LaTour’s hatred for Mrs Paradine.
Ultimately, that is what The Paradine Case is all about: people, their secrets, their grievances and hidden agendas. Whether it’s the relationship of Colonel and Mrs Paradine (for which we have only Mrs Paradine’s word), or the suddenly-awkward marriage of Gay and Anthony Keane, or Lord and Lady Horfield’s marriage. Don’t see this for suspense; that lags and sags, and there’s too much talking going on most of the time, with very little of any substance emerging.
Sadly, while Gregory Peck is one of my favourite actors, this is one film where he doesn’t quite fit. Not just because the youthfulness of his face doesn’t match the grey streaks in his hair, but more because he doesn’t pull off the Brit lawyer act too well. The accent isn’t especially convincing (though he gets the very broad basics right—like the pronunciation of ‘master’, ‘garden’, ‘answer’, and so on). Even if I’d not known Peck was American, I’d have guessed this wasn’t a native-born Brit.
Watch if you’re keen on going through all of Hitchcock’s filmography. But don’t expect a Rear Window or a Vertigo, or anything in that league. The Paradine Case is not a horrible film, but it’s not a memorable one, either.