Well thank you for sending me a nice slow Vertigo pitch across the plate. Your point is interesting and, I think, valid. But, given the structure of the extant film—it rather is a shame we’ll never be able to see the longer cuts—one has to look at Paradine sideways to get to that conclusion. But I like, anyway. It’s interesting too, that, during this particular period, the mid-to-late 40s (and for me, Hitchcock at the ABSOLUTE “height of his powers” is the stretch starting with ‘43’s Shadow of a Doubt and ending with ‘60’s Psycho), we find Hitchcock’s viewer-identification/sympathy strategies tilted to the female characters, e.g. Ingrid Bergman in both Notorious and Under Capricorn, Ann Todd to a somewhat lesser extent (strictly in terms of screen time, at least) here.
While it’s absolutely a stretch to call Hitchcock a feminist filmmaker, I think there’s still a lot of room to do some critical digging on his depictions of women. (Robin Wood’s chapter on Hitchcock and Bergman in his Hitchcock’s Films Revisited is a good start.) Someone, it occurs to me, could get a nice paper out of the way Hitchcock used his own daughter, Patricia, in his films. As you’ve pointed out elsewhere, in The Paradine Case, the not-well-known-enough Joan Tetzel plays a sarcastic young woman affecting to be jaded beyond her years, an anticipation of Patricia’s snarky senator’s-younger-daughter in 1951’s Strangers on a Train.
In any event, your alternative reading of the movie underscores an almost entirely irrefutable truth about what makes Hitchcock a great filmmaker. He conceived Paradine Case as a way to tell a story that related to his own fears/neuroses: that is, the tale of a good man’s sexual humiliation at the hands of a (Hitchcock’s words) “nymphomaniac” and a “clod.” He did not get that, largely due to Selznick’s hand. But, as you demonstrate, he didn’t get nothing, either. Even when Hitchcock’s explicit plans fail, his instinct does not, nor does his artistry.
One thing I’m increasingly fascinated by is what I hesitate to call the movie’s Pirandellian dimension. Hitchcock famously insisted that the production design recreated the actual interior of the Old Bailey to a very precise degree. This is very much the theatre in which a “real” drama is played. The main actors, or course, are in costume, as they are during a formal dinner party at the movie’s beginning. It’s at this latter scene that Hitchcock meant to establish a particular character dynamic. At this affair, the sight of Ann Todd’s bare shoulder electrifies Charles Laughton’s Judge Horfield. Hitchcock establishes this in a bravura feat of both shooting and editing. He begins with a medium close-up of Laughton entering the party, and then speedily dollies in on the actor/character as something catches his attention. He then cuts on motion to a medium shot of Todd, and this shot itself is already dollying in fast (this was all done before the zoom lens as we know it was developed) to Todd’s shoulder, and once the camera rests on a close-up of the shoulder, the scene cuts back to Laughton’s reaction. We get the picture as surely as getting hit by a lightning bolt. Then Laughton makes his intentions known and brazenly comes on to Todd’s Mrs. Keane. Her refusal to play along is ostensibly what leads to Horfield’s dismissive, contemptuous treatment of Gregory Peck’s Keane in court, but this isn’t followed through with the strength of this initial impetus. I suspect this theme was diluted in the film’s trimming.
In any event, my point is that all of the main characters of the movie, save Laughton’s, are severely circumscribed by the formalities of their environment. Formalities that are so exacting that one can mistake this movie for a period piece. But it is not: its London features electricity and double-decker buses, and an establishing shot of the Old Bailey exterior shows it undergoing post-Blitz reconstruction. In any event, the only reason Laughton’s character is not similarly circumscribed is because of his power. He literally IS the law here. Everyone else is toiling under what the kids nowadays call “the dominant ideology,” and playing their roles within its hierarchy. There’s a definite sadness about this state of affairs expressed in the film. It’s not as if Hitchcock is going full Ford Madox Ford in bemoaning sexual repression (“Is there any terrestrial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the olive-leaves, people can be with whom they like and have what they like and take their ease in shadows and in coolness?”, as we remember from The Good Soldier), but there’s more than an implication of a similar sentiment. It comes across most definitely in the exchanges between Joan Tetzel’s Judy and Charles Coburn’s Simon, father-and-daughter sideline observers of the whole sorry business.
The ornate settings in which Laughton/Horfield plays with unabashed free range (it must be said though that Hitchcock gets a far more controlled performance out of Laughton here than he did in Jamaica Inn, in which Laughton’s super-glazed hamming is delightful nonetheless) are a stark contrast to the dingy confines of the prison where Valli’s Maddalena Paradine dwells through most of the film. If you’ll forgive me, in more sweeping philosophical terms, the difference is to me reminiscent of the red pill/blue pill worlds of The Matrix. No, really. Hitchcock’s intention was different, but not, ultimately, in political terms, THAT different: “What interested me in this picture was to take a person like Mrs. Paradine, to put her in the hands of the police, to have her submit to all their formalities, and to say to her maid, as she was leaving her home between the two inspectors, ‘I don’t think I shall be back for dinner.’ And then to show her spending the night in a cell, from which, in fact, she will never emerge. […]It may be an expression of my own fear, but I’ve always felt the drama of a situation in which a normal person is suddenly deprived of freedom and incarcerated […]”
As Leff relates, this mode of contrast did not please the movie’s producer: “At least three scenes between Valli and Peck occurred in a spare five by six conference room at Halloway Prison. […] Hitchcock often put his actors in confined places to make them (and the audience) sweat. The stark scenes in this virtually unfurnished room—the antithesis of the mahogany-and-marble home of Maddalena Paradine—adumbrate the documentary style of The Wrong Man. Valli and Peck worked on the set for nine days, producing footage remarkable for its severity. Selznick meanwhile badgered Hitchcock to leave the gangster-in-a-cell style to other, lesser studios […]” As astute as Selznick could be, he did not have much of an appreciation for mise-en-scène at times.
I feel bad for self-proclaimed Hitchcock nuts who pooh-pooh this picture, or any other non-thriller Hitchcock. (It’s true that I lean more to Robin Wood’s side than Rohmer and Chabrol’s on Mr. and Mrs. Smith; while Rohmer and Chabrol are correct in identifying that film’s most Hitchcockian scene, said scene is also borderline grotesque, and Wood is right in nailing down the film’s defining weakness, which is that Norman Krasna’s script is a borderline crass rehash of The Awful Truth.) Because no matter what the material, Hitchcock’s always inventing, stretching, testing, film language itself, which is never not interesting. As Rohmer and Chabrol state at the conclusion of their book, “In Hitchcock’s work form does not embellish content, it creates it.” And it’s almost always a kick to watch that miracle take place before one’s eyes. Don't you think?
This is the third of a four-part series. See part one below; part two here; and I'll update when part four appears at the Siren's blog tomorrow, and maybe I'll put up a kind of post-game show when we're done...
UPDATE: The Siren's thrilling (it really is!) conclusion to this exchange is now posted, here.