The Paradine Case
Several years after the release of this 1947 film Alfred Hitchcock was interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich. Their discussion touches on several valuable points of reference I’ve been curious about for a long while. Hitchcock speaks of Robert Montgomery’s (sad) attempt to shoot The Lady in the Lake consistently from a singular point of view (with ridiculously taciturn Philip Marlowe, compared to his nonstop internal voice in the novella). Hitchcock had clearly concluded that only incompetent (new) directors try this confounding technique, which inevitably results in dreadfully-muddled storytelling that continually violates the rules of “pure cinema”…which he seemed to believe necessarily involves manipulating the audience’ attention with ideas and emotions elicited by carefully-edited, deliberately-orchestrated confusion of the viewer’s point of view. Which sounds to me exactly like modern-media politics, absolutely.
This interview is one of the special features included on the DVD presentation of The Paradine Case. It opens with mention of his dislike for the numerous compromises that film represents because The Paradine Case was specifically and entirely a David O. Selznick project (an 18″-high stack of alternate treatments and scripts) wrecked by the casting of a regular guy, Gregory Peck, and clean-cut pretty-boy, Louis Jourdan in roles that really should have gone to a classy/articulate Ronald Coleman or haughty Laurence Olivier (iconic representatives of the nuanced Existing Order) in contrast to Jourdan Robert Newton (a lowlife, manure-smelling stable hand who somehow became the valet to an honorable gentleman [and remained a permanent servant of Chaos and Disorder]).
So Hitchcock was saddled with a counterintuitive, miscast mess to unscramble, and handed Selznick an objectionable “jigsaw puzzle” to cut that wasn’t what Selznick expected…and it shows in the final cut.
Having not yet turned to the expert commentary for supporting evidence, I see in The Paradine Case a scathing denunciation of 20th Century British hypocrisy, in that a simple case of murder results in 114 minutes of yammering heads constantly dancing around simple truths; a very beautiful, young European woman with “an unattractive past” marries a very-rich, older, blind gentleman, whose long-time valet lusts after her, and the feeling’s mutual. When the old man dies, Mrs. Paradine is arrested and defended by a wily-but-otherwise-irreproachable barrister with an unblemished record of legal victories and an entirely class-appropriate wife…and he lusts after his client, also, because she’s really hot.
Hitchcock seems to denounce the lofty (and superficial) appearance of ideal living that floats (like delusional bullshit) on a sea of repressed biological imperatives, unmentionable passions, and real, vital impulses denied in favor of the conformist’s facade of civilized and rational decisions/actions/lies; arguably-necessary, institutionalized hypocrisy. But that’s not how this story unfolds.
The dance of partial truths, slowly revealed in and out of courtroom scenes, consumes 105 minutes of the film’s running time, as respectable outward appearances of each of the principle characters gradually dissove into degraded blinds of intentional misrepresentations of who these people really are.
Mrs. Paradine, almost to the end of the film, continues to stonewall the prosecutor (and everybody else) by maintaining that the valet’s untoward and unthinkable attentions to her always turned her stomach, obviously, because he was a servant, reciprocity was absolutely unthinkable (an absolutely hypocritical circular argument). A few minutes later, due to unforeseen offscreen events, she’s hopelessly confessing to stuff that would have shortened the film by about 104 tedious minutes.
This film is beautifully lighted, and packed with interesting actors who play interesting parts (none of which, unfortunately, is a dilligent, intuitve cop or infallible amateur detective), but every moderately-interesting aspect of the film resolves in Mrs. Paradine’s ultimate confession which I find remarkably suspect. She’s told partial truths throughout this tale of divided loyalties and tight-lipped betrayals that lead to a final, convenient confession that everyone somehow believes. This sudden, miraculous confession frees the shaken, lovesick, fallen barrister to implore his stalwart wife’s forgiveness, which she gives by asking that he soldier on without giving another moment’s thought to the dark temptation of discrete retirement from a public life (that floats serenely on a massive shelf of really stinky classist bullshit). The (plucky and vaguely uplifting) End. A few early minutes alone with Kelly, Sipowicz or Simone could have worked visual wonders with Mrs. Paradine’s faulty confessional narrative.
I think Hitchcock’s belief in “pure cinema” is valid, although I’m not entirely sure what he’s really talking about. He also condemns the use of the handheld camera (increasingly frequently employed [along with camer operators who have neurological disorders] since the date of his death) as another crutch of the novice director, proclaiming that the magic of storytelling takes place primarily in the process of editing to illustrate the cause of the viewer’s idea or emotion (photographed subjectively), then the effect of the actor’s physical, vocal and facial response (photographed from the outside of the actor), what follows is the selective intercutting of causes and effects from numerous points of view that lead the scene onward through to a capsular, empirical summary of the physical, mental and emotional content of the photographed and verbal event.
Maybe I’m overreacting to 90+ years of cinematic storytelling from multiple points of view (with literal intertitles) and 80+ years of characters telling the audience what they’re experiencing. It seems to me that “pure cinema” is more difficult to execute than the stuff we’ve been watching. That it’s vastly more difficult to show a story than to tell it, and harder still to show events from a singular, consistent point of view. Maybe I’m agruing ruinously to reduce filmmaking to a kind of theatrical presentation of mime in which events unfold in realtime before a sedentary audience. Maybe I simply don’t recognize the cinematic validity of yammering actors, cameras that flit about like omniscient fairies and the failsafe standby of omnipotent, manipulative editing. So maybe I’ll have to stop my own yammering and get on with the process of doing the things I’ve been yammering about; make an illustrative example.
The camera’s point of view doesn’t have to be that of the protagonist. It might belong to a fly on the wall, the protagonist’s dog, a surveilance bug in a cufflink, a rosebud…or a magical fairy that flits about through space and time that nobody whose photographed notices, except Bing and Bob who sometimes played comic asides directly at it.
It’s nice to find The Lady in the Lake (a massive disappointment) discussed by an incontestible authority, although I think Hitchcock trashed the film for wrong and illogical reasons. No mention of Dark Passage yet, and With the Angels was shot long after his death. I wonder what he’d make of them. A year after starting this blog, examples of subjective POV continue to be few-and-far-between, but I’m still looking and still thinking.
A COUPLE OF HOURS LATER — Bill Krohn and Stephen Rebello provided an unusually rich and informative commentary that underscores the working incompatibility of Selznick’s and Hitchcock’s last collaborative effort together, citing Selznick’s overzealous elimination of 16 minutes of the film that might (paradoxically) have made it a significantly less tedious and talkative cinematic experience. They also point out the long takes with which Hitchcock had begun to experiment, immediately preparatory to making Rope, and the ubiquity of lighting fixtures and practical lighting signatures that point to Welles’ influence in the use of unusual camera angles to incorporate ceilings and the elaborate set decorations Selznick loved to “enamel” into ornate set pieces for The Selznick Studio Signature. Cost overruns and contextual considerations place this film (in my mind, at least) in contention with The Magnificent Ambersons as the most butchered offspring of a catastrophic divorce; Dave’s and Al’s, certainly, but also Mr. and Mrs. Selznick’s. (Cross reference Jennifer Jones with David Ø’s infidelity.)
What might have been Hitchcock’s intelligent indictment of the closed and patriarchal English justice system has survived Selznick’s ultimate final cut as something resembling a public apology to his estranged wife for betraying her. Krohn and Rebello also give credence to the suspicion that Welles and Citizen Kane influenced Hitchcock in the near-final scene in which Laughton and Barrymore dine alone at opposite ends of a very long table illustrative of late-stage marital pathology between coupled and uncommunicating partners in a formerly-plucky relationship devastated by the husband’s class, occupation, sexual eccenricities and wanton abuse of power; business-as-usual. Conversely, picture AH and OW sitting together for a late-in-career conversation; two boy-geniuses went to Hollywood, one of them didn’t survive the opportunity, but they eventually arrived at identical, rotund profiles, as though from mutual respect. That’s a half-way decent premise for a thesis or a play.
One of the long-lost scenes Selznick scrapped got Ethel nominated for a supporting oscar. On to Rebeccett.
Yup! Rebecca is one insanely excellent chunk of immortal entertainment! Now picture it from Jasper’s point of view, and Ben’s and that DeWinter ancestor’s portrait’s…and Danvers’. Happily, I was never in danger of marrying Rebecca, we were only the best of friends. I guess that makes me George Sanders.