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The Paradine Case: Hitchcock in the courtroom

The Paradine Case: Hitchcock in the courtroom


‘The Paradine Case’ is perhaps the only courtroom drama film made by the ‘Master of Suspense’, Alfred Hitchcock. The film was based on the 1933 novel of the same name by the English novelist, Robert Smythe Hichens. The iconic Hollywood producer, David O Selznick purchased the rights to Hichens’ novel in 1933, just before it was published, when Selznick was still with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, and yet to form his own film production company. He longed to bring the novel to screen with Greta Garbo. Garbo, in fact was Hichens’ inspiration for the creation of Mrs Paradine. Garbo did consider doing the film, but ultimately turned it down, as she decided to retire from acting.

Soon Howard Estabrook was assigned to write the script, with John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore and Diana Wynyard proposed to star in the film. However, when a draft of the script was submitted by MGM to the censors at the Hays Office, the studio was warned that the script could be rejected since Mrs Paradine was guilty of murder, adultery and perjury, and later committed suicide. Hays Office also objected to the judge being portrayed as a sadist who enjoyed sending people to gallows. Two other drafts of the script were sent in 1942 and 1946, with both of them being approved, after the suicide was removed from the story.

In 1946, it was announced that Hitchcock would direct the film, and that Laurence Olivier would star as Anthony Keane, the Counsel for the Defence. However, Olivier turned the project down, as he was preparing for his production of ‘Hamlet’ (1948). Hitchcock was interested in Ronald Colman for the part, and desired that either Garbo or Ingrid Bergman should play Mrs Paradine. Bergman was unavailable and Garbo turned down the role after the screen test, which allowed Alida Valli to step into the role for her American film debut. Selznick too settled on Valli, considered one of the most promising actresses in the Italian cinema. The film was also the American film debut of the French actor, Louis Jourdan. Both Valli and Jourdan hoped that the film would give them the status in the US that they enjoyed in their home countries, but that did not come about though Jourdan, in particular went on to make many US films including ‘Gigi’ (1958).

Hitchcock considered actors like Maurice Evans, Joseph Cotten, Alan Marshal and James Mason to play Keane. In the end, Hitchcock pushed for Gregory Peck, then at the peak of his box office appeal, while Ann Todd was loaned from the Rank Organisation to play his wife. Charles Laughton was perfectly cast as the lecherous Judge Horfield, while Ethel Barrymore excelled in the role of his wife.

‘The Paradine Case’ was the last film made under Hitchcock’s seven-year contract with Selznick, and it has been suggested that Hitchcock was tired of the association by that time. Hitchcock, in an interview with noted French filmmaker, François Truffaut, said that he and his wife, Alma Reville wrote the first draft of the script together, before bringing in Scottish playwright, James Bridie to do a polishing, however Selznick was dissatisfied with the result, and would view the previous day’s rushes, do a rewrite, and send the new scenes to the set to be shot. Finally, the screenplay was written by Selznick and an uncredited Ben Hecht, from an adaptation of the novel by Reville and Bridie.

The film was in production from December 19, 1946 to May 7, 1947, with retakes done in November 1947. Hitchcock was disgusted with the content and method that were forced upon him by Selznick. He was so bored with the uneasy atmosphere prevailing on the set that he could scarcely wait to extricate himself from the contract with Selznick.

Although some external shots in ‘The Paradine Case’ show the Lake District in Cumbria, the rest of the footage was shot entirely on three sets at Selznick’s Culver City, California lot. Selznick reportedly spared no expense: the set for the courtroom scenes exactly duplicated a courtroom in London’s Old Bailey, photographed, with permission, by unit manager Fred Ahern, and built in 85 days at the cost of $80,000. Unusually, the set had ceilings to allow for low camera angles.

The completed film cost an estimated $4,258,000, almost as expensive as Selznick’s 1939 magnum opus, ‘Gone with the Wind’. Selznick maintained close supervision on the production, and interfered with Hitchcock’s normally carefully budgeted process by insisting on extensive re-takes. When Hitchcock insisted on receiving his contractual $1000 per day fee, Selznick took over post-production himself, supervising the editing as well as the scoring of the film. Selznick even changed the title of the film eighteen times before rechristening it ‘The Paradine Case’ just hours before the premiere.

‘The Paradine Case’ had its world premiere in Los Angeles on December 29, 1947, opening simultaneously in two theatres across the street from each other in Westwood. It then had its New York City premiere on January 8, 1948. On its initial release, the film was 132 minutes long, with Selznick editing Hitchcock’s rough cut that ran almost three hours. After the premiere shows, Selznick pulled the film from distribution and re-cut it for general release, further bringing it down to 114 minutes.

‘The Paradine Case’ was not a box office success, with its worldwide receipts of $2.1 million barely covering half of the cost of production. When released, despite the mixed reviews it received, most critics noted the strong performances of Ann Todd and Joan Tetzel.

Actress, Ethel Barrymore, who enacted Lady Sophie Horfield in the film was nominated for a 1947 Oscar, in the Best Supporting Actress category but lost to Celeste Holm in ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ (1947).

Lux Radio Theatre broadcast a radio adaptation of the film on May 9, 1949, starring Joseph Cotten, with Alida Valli and Louis Jourdan reprising their roles.

In 1980, a flood reportedly destroyed the uncut original version of the film, making a restoration of that version unlikely.

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