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Indeed No Ordinary Woman: Wallowing in Fantasy in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947)

Made during a somewhat maligned period in the ‘40s, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case is one of his lesser seen films, which is a shame as it has plenty to offer fans of his more classic titles about obsession, crime, and fantasy, like Strangers on a Train (1951) and Vertigo (1958). Fortunately, Kino Lorber have recently released it on Blu-ray with a slew of special features that help provide some context for this strange misadventure that follows a celebrated attorney, Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck) who defends Mrs. Paradine (Alida Valli) when she is accused of murdering her blind husband, but complicates the trial—and his own marriage to Gay (Ann Todd)—when he falls in love with Mrs. Paradine and becomes determined to prove her innocence.

Hitchcock’s last collaboration with producer David O. Selznick, The Paradine Case is fraught with difficulties because of their creative clashes. For Rouge, Douglas Pye wrote: “We know that Selznick determined the major casting, ordered many retakes, overruled Hitchcock’s intention to shoot extensively in long takes and re-edited after previews, so that conflicts of intention are built into the fabric of the film.” Despite these hiccups, the film is an interesting interpretation of some of the director’s beloved themes and even borrows a whiff of the Gothic flavor that so saturates Rebecca (1940) and, as such, it falls somewhere between staid courtroom drama and Gothic noir.

Hitchcock’s male protagonists are often caught up in fantasy, falling in love with imaginary womanly beings of their own creation that generally don’t align with reality. This is certainly the case in a number of classic film noir titles, such as Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) or Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945), and even occasionally applies to Hitchcock’s female protagonists, as in Shadow of a Doubt (1943), where a young woman has a dangerously idealized view of her uncle, though she comes to learn that he is might be a serial killer. The Paradine Case explores this theme, as Keane becomes obsessed with the elusive Mrs. Paradine—who at one point is described as “indeed no ordinary woman”—and, with only a little encouragement from her, crafts a narrative in his head that involves rescues or saving the damsel in distress (another of Hitchcock’s beloved themes). But as in Vertigo and Marnie (1964), it becomes clear that rescuing the ambiguous love object from her perceived difficulties is a potentially nightmarish course of action.

Many of Hitchcock’s films from this period involve a protagonist—often female—who loves a complicated, even tormented second character and believes, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that this person is worthy of love and redemption. Hitchcock explored variations of this theme with Rebecca, Suspicion (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), Under Capricorn (1949), and Stage Fright (1950). Many of these involve married couples or romantic pairs, riffs on Hitchcock’s “wrong man” theme, and lovers with dark secrets and hidden pasts. And many of these borrow from the Gothic “woman’s film” popular at the time, a trend effectively kicked off by Rebecca, where a woman is trapped in a foreboding old house with a potentially murderous lover.

In The Paradine Case, the past remains inaccessible and Keane must learn about Mrs. Paradine and her relationship with her husband—as well as her own seedy past—through her own testimony and stories from members of the Paradine household. Unlike film noir, where dream sequences, memories, and flashbacks were a staple, Hitchcock seemingly intentionally avoids this avenue. This refusal to show events as they supposedly occurred also serves to further silence Mrs. Paradine and one of the film’s core themes—and part of what makes it fascinating—is the silencing of women, both by the narrative and by the male characters, and their attempts to communicate, a theme shared by Under Capricorn. Douglas Pye writes, “Through most of each film, therefore, the women are unable to speak authentically for themselves and their silence produces a situation in which others speak for and about them. Both films, one might say, tell the story of a woman, silenced by men, who finally and extraordinarily speaks in a way that breaks the dominant (and gendered) constraints of language and of silence.

Mrs. Paradine’s silence is contrasted with the numerous speeches given by Gay, which provides an interesting parallel to film noir tropes. Gay is representative of the stereotypical wife type, supportive and wholesome, who the male protagonist loves but seems to find boring and confining. She begins the film quite naive, convinced of Mrs. Paradine’s innocence because “nice people never murder their husbands,” which Hitchcock manages to establish as a delusion immediately, while still maintaining an air of uncertainty around Mrs. Paradine’s guilt or innocence. Mrs. Paradine, on the other hand, is effectively a stand in for the femme fatale—or rather, the femme fatale from a different vantage point, after her arrest and imprisonment—whose erotic quality is intimately bound up with her mysteriousness. Her difficult past and complicated sexual history, which she confesses to upfront, only provides Peake with more reasons to imagine her as someone who can and must be rescued. She refers to herself as “a woman who has seen a great deal of life,” during a particularly uncomfortable scene where she discusses her storied love life, including a tale of how she seduced a married man when she was just a teenager.

The decision to cast Valli in the film inevitably changed its course. The role was initially supposed to go to Greta Garbo—who in turn had inspired the character in Robert Smythe Hichens’ source novel—and it would be easy to imagine her in the film, though not perhaps starring opposite Gregory Peck (I can’t help it, I just don’t care for him—though Laurence Olivier had originally signed on for the role of Keane). It would also be a very different film if another of Hitchcock’s regular actresses from this period had appeared as Mrs. Paradine. Ingrid Bergman excelled at playing sympathetic, doomed characters with troubled pasts that, as viewers, we desperately want to be rescued: she takes on this role for Hitchcock in Notorious and Under Capricorn, but it’s also the foundation of one of her most famous performances in Casablanca (1942).

Valli notably does not have this effect, which is both a strength and weakness of The Paradine Case. As in The Third Man (1949), she remains inaccessible, enigmatic, even sphinx-like. Admittedly, it’s difficult for me to watch Valli in a film from this period without reading sinister notes into nearly all of her characters, as I will never be able to separate her from her incredible role in Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960). Quite simply, I went into The Paradise Case certain she was guilty, which results in a much darker interpretation of the film. Trusting Hitchcock implicitly, it’s my belief that this was intentional on his part, but it also undermines a reading of the film where the viewer is genuinely not sure if she is innocent or guilty. Somewhat later, Billy Wilder more effectively pulled off this conceit with Witness for the Prosecution (1957), where Marlene Dietrich costars as the ambiguous wife of a man accused of murder.

Notably, both The Paradine Case and Wilder’s film include appearances from the great Charles Laughton, who—perhaps inadvertently—sets the tone of The Paradine Case. Laughton’s Judge Horfield is the most overtly evil character of the film, though he is not the antagonist. He wields his power jealously, openly hits on Gay, and is knowingly cruel to his doting wife (an expertly used Ethel Barrymore), offering up one of the film’s many conflicting views of marriages and couples. He attempts to seduce Gay at a dinner party, pressing himself close to her on a sofa, trapping her hand between his larger ones, and placing her hand on his knee—all within feet of her husband. This seedy, somewhat repulsive tone is present in Notorious and more overtly in later films that explore serial murder like Psycho (1960) or Frenzy (1972), and even Marnie with its grisly scene of marital rape on an enforced honeymoon.

At one point, Gay remarks that “men who have been good for too long get a longing for the mud and want to wallow in it.” It seems like she’s really saying that all men want to wallow in filth, even the best men, through sexual fantasies absent from the domestic sphere. It’s a curious contradiction that lives in the heart of the film, as it is quite openly implied that Gay and Keane have a highly sexual marriage; but ultimately he is still swept away by his fantasy about Mrs. Paradine, her lurid past, and her potential transcendence of that. There is a telling sequence where, for no particular reason, Keane travels to the Paradines’ opulent home, seemingly because he has a need to see the site of the murder—Paradine’s bedroom—but particularly Mrs. Paradine’s bedroom, where an unusual tracking shot follows his gaze as he looks at her undergarments and lingerie strewn about her open luggage. The film has numerous, though subtle scenes set in bedrooms.

One of Hitchcock’s most troubling and fascinating themes is his portrayal of sexuality, which here is an ultimately violent, fatal force. Douglas Pye writes,

The film imagines female desire unconstrained by marriage as murderous, the woman’s sexual independence taking the extreme form of a capital offence. […] Hitchcock’s interests in stories of guilty women is inseparable from a concern with the psychopathology of his leading male characters. Again Rebecca is a decisive film, at the heart of which is Maxim’s attempt to find a wife who can never duplicate the threat embodied by Rebecca. Devlin (Cary Grant) in Notorious is another version of the hero incapable of dealing with a woman’s independent sexuality, his cruel treatment of Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) rooted in sexual insecurity.”

Though The Paradine Case waits until the bitter end to reveal this information, Mrs. Paradine ultimately has murdered her husband, because she was in love with his valet (French actor Louis Jourdan in his US debut). He attempted to end their affair, out of shame and inspired by love and loyalty for his employer, inspiring her to murder her husband. Perhaps subconsciously sensing her desire for the valet, Keane becomes irrational and jealous, determined not only to find fault with the man, but to pin the murder on him. There’s an exquisite sequence where the Frenchman comes to see Keane in a hotel room and is interrogated; as their conversation becomes more heated, the top of the shot is framed by crystals, which look like knives or jagged teeth.

Though not quite as mean-spirited as Hitchcock’s somewhat later look at marriage and spousal murder in Dial M for Murder (1954) or even another film from the period like Preston Sturges’ relentlessly bleak black comedy about marital jealousy, Unfaithfully Yours (1948), The Paradine Case is unfairly passed over in Hitchcock canon and deserves a reappraisal, thanks to its examination of the fantasies that men impose upon women and the often destructive, even fatal attempts by women to escape from these false narratives.

Kino’s excellent Blu-ray release will hopefully introduce the film to a new audience. The numerous special features—which includes an audio commentary from Stephen Rebello and Bill Krahn, an interview about the film between Truffaut and Hitchcock and another between Peter Bogdanovich and Hitchcock, the radio play adaptation of The Paradine Case with Joseph Cotten (who, for my money, should have starred in the film but at least reunited here with his The Third Man costar Valli), and more—help to place the film within an appropriate context in terms of its troubled production history, but make it clear that this is one to wallow in. Hopefully next, Kino will turn their attention to its unofficial companion piece, the equally neglected and similarly themed Under Capricorn.

About Samm Deighan

Samm Deighan is Associate Editor of Diabolique Magazine and co-host of the Daughters of Darkness podcast. She's the editor of Lost Girls: The Phantasmagorical Cinema of Jean Rollin from Spectacular Optical, and her book on Fritz Lang's M is forthcoming from Auteur Publishing.

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