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Gregory Peck's power as a box-office draw was at its early crest when he signed on as the lead for the British-set courtroom drama The Paradine Case (1947), which would be the final product of the storied collaboration between producer David O. Selznick and director Alfred Hitchcock. While the production had much lavished upon it in terms of the budget and the level of contributing talent, its subsequent legend is due as much to the intrigues that underlay its filming as to those playing out onscreen.
The narrative opens in post-war London at the opulent residence of Major Richard Paradine, a war hero of WWI, since blinded and very recently deceased. Inspectors from Scotland Yard arrive to arrest his beautiful young widow Maddalena (Alida Valli), charging her with murder by poisoning. Family solicitor Sir Simon Flaquer (Charles Coburn) promises her the finest defense available, and sets out to engage prominent barrister Anthony Keane (Peck). With the encouragement of his elegant blonde wife Gay (Ann Todd), Keane agrees to accept the case. Making matters more of a challenge is the trial's assignment to the pompous Lord Horfield (Charles Laughton), who has seldom concealed his disdain for Keane or his courtroom bravado.
The story's true impetus stems from the time of Keane's first tete-a-tete with his new client, where he finds himself completely if unknowingly taken with Mrs. Paradine's beauty and bearing. As the trial preparation progresses, Maddalena acknowledges to her counsel that her past has been less than immaculate; still, Keane's certainty of her innocence remains unshaken. It quickly becomes apparent to everyone close to the attorney, particularly his wife, that Keane has lost his professional distance.
In trying to build a defense, Keane seeks out the major's faithful valet Andre Latour (Louis Jourdan), discovering that he had been the last to see the victim alive. Maddalena angrily bristles at the notion of implicating Latour in the defense strategy; the wounded Keane is now more resolved than ever to establish her innocence at the manservant's expense. The remainder of The Paradine Case plays out within the confines of the Old Bailey, as Keane, in pursuit of his gambit, places his reputation and the life of his client on the line.
Selznick had been fascinated with Robert Hichens' 1933 novel since his days at MGM, when that studio had originally optioned the property. He had been unsuccessful in his 1935 courtship of Greta Garbo to accept the role of Mrs. Paradine; years later, after he acquired the rights, his efforts to lure the Solitary Swede out of retirement for the project were similarly rebuffed. Selznick then turned to Ingrid Bergman, but his onetime discovery had become weary of their professional relationship. The producer resolved to cast an unknown, and turned to Valli, regarded as one of the promising actresses in Italian cinema. With cosmetic corrections to her weight (a crash diet) and teeth, English lessons, and billing her simply under her last name, Selznick had his femme fatale.
Hitchcock, on the threshold of having his own production company and desirous of winding up his contractual obligations to Selznick, signed on to the project. While Hitchcock's relationship with Peck during the making of Spellbound (1945) had been cordial but cold, the director was convinced by Spellbound's box-office receipts to lobby for his casting here. The beautiful British actress Todd, recently impressive in The Seventh Veil (1946) was loaned out by Rank for the role of the wronged wife. Meanwhile, Selznick was consumed by the pre-production phase of Duel in the Sun (1946), and Paradine's production costs mounted as Hitchcock indulged his pursuit for detail, including an elaborate set that provided a meticulous--and ceilinged--reproduction of the Old Bailey.
As the film's daily production progressed, Selznick became dissatisfied with the screenplay rendered by Hitchcock and Scottish playwright James Bridie and started providing daily rewrites after viewing the prior day's rushes. The end result is a rather verbose narrative that never quite builds dramatically from start to finish, with but instances that reveal the director's visual flair such as the trial's-end crane shot of the beaten and broken Keane. Overall, the cast delivered earnest and engaging performances, particularly Laughton (openly defiant of Hitch's requests to underplay), and Ethel Barrymore, who obtained an Oscar nomination for her efforts as Horfield's fragile, beaten-down spouse.
Selznick had desperately needed a hit at that point in his career, and The Paradine Case did not provide one; his total investments in the project topped $4.2 million, and its global receipts came to roughly half of that. Valli and Todd had each hoped the picture would give them the repute in Hollywood that they knew in their homelands, but that didn't come to pass. In later years, Peck himself seldom had a kind word for the experience, but he was well suited for this role; think of it as a dry run for his portrayal of another lawyer - Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).
Producer: David O. Selznick
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: James Bridie, Ben Hecht, Alma Reville, David O. Selznick, Robert Hichens (novel)
Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Film Editing: John Faure
Art Direction: Thomas N. Morahan
Music: Franz Waxman, Paul Dessau
Cast: Gregory Peck (Anthony Keane), Ann Todd (Gay Keane), Charles Laughton (Judge Lord Thomas Horfield), Charles Coburn (Sir Simon Flaquer), Ethel Barrymore (Lady Sophie Horfield), Louis Jourdan (Andre Latour).
BW-115m. Closed captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg