This is the first of a four-part dialogue. The next installment will appear at Self Styled Siren on Friday, May 1.
I'm taking you seriously as to the idea we discussed the other morning, at a delightful-as-usual breakfast at Court Street Grocers. The idea being to rejuvenate our respective blogs with an epistolary exchange about Alfred Hitchcock's 1947 picture The Paradine Case.
(By the way, you see what I did there, with the totes adorbes allusion to our social relationship and our exemplary taste in local food emporiums? I was going for a Korean-tacos-while-watching-Schindler's List effect, which seems to be the thing in arts writing these days. OK, I'll stop now.)
As I mentioned, to you and in a blog post elsewhere, since my mom died I've gone on an enormous Hitchcock jag, for sentimental reasons and maybe other reasons as well. The supplement on the Criterion Collection disc of Truffaut's Le peau douce, a video essay by our friend Kent Jones on the book Hitchcock/Truffaut and its effect on Hitchcock's reputation, a preface of sorts I believe to Kent's feature-length documentary on the subject, certainly stirred up something in my critical consciousness prior to the personal catastrophe that set me on a cinematic sentimental journey of sorts. In any event, my companion in this latest round of Hitchcock studies was a used paperback of a translation of Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol's 1957 book Hitchcock, subtitled The First Forty-Four Films.
The book has a lot to recommend it, not just because Rohmer and Chabrol were astute critics. It’s really fascinating to read a Hitchcock study that ends with The Wrong Man: that is, before at least three Really Significant Canonical works (Vertigo, North By Northwest, and Psycho) and two Significant Pieces of Expressive Esoterica (The Birds and Marnie) (and these are my own categories of course). So the argument that Rohmer and Chabrol make to establish Hitchcock as a major film artist seems peculiarly circumscribed to readers who have the entirety of Hitch’s career to take into account. There’s also the matter of the Catholic conservative perspective of the writers, which leads to them privileging I Confess and The Wrong Man in ways a lot of contemporary critics won’t or wouldn’t.
In terms of formal analysis, they treat The Paradine Case, Rope, and Under Capricorn as pretty much a trilogy, and not just because they’re, you know, subsequent films. Each of the pictures represent a variation on a singular formal perspective, that is, each of the films is a sort of long-take laboratory. The first one, the one we’re most occupied with, The Paradine Case, ran into some trouble in this respect because its producer, David O. Selznick, who also adapted the film’s scenario, was not very big on the long take at all. Here’s Leonard Leff in his book Hitchcock & Selznick, about a day on The Paradine Case shoot: “One day, looking ahead to the fluidity of his Transatlantic pictures, Hitchcock prepared an elaborate tracking shot of [Gregory] Peck and [Ann] Todd. While grips frantically pulled away furniture to make a path, the probing camera followed the actors through a long and arduous take. Todd called the shot ‘frightening,’ but Selznick had the last word: ‘Theatrical.’ Appearing on the set, he ordered the sequence filmed conventionally. Hitchcock unwillingly obliged.”
And so it went, apparently. Still, Hitchcock was able to pull off at least two memorable shots in this vein: the final God’s-eye view of the courtroom, with Gregory Peck’s shattered character, the barrister Keane, nearly staggering out, which shot inspired rapturous praise from Rohmer and Chabrol; and the famous-but-not-famous-enough shot of murder defendant Madame Paradine (Alida Valli) sitting in her courtroom box as witness and lover Latour (Louis Jourdan) enters the courtroom, and the camera tracks his long walk behind and then in front of her. “We had to do that in two takes. The camera is on Alida Valli’s face, and in the background you see Louis Jourdan coming down to the witness box,” Hitchcock recalled to François Truffaut. “First, I photographed the scene without her; the camera panned him all around, at a two-hundred degree turn, from the door to the witness box. Then, I photographed her in the foreground; we sat her in front of the screen, on a twisting stool, so that we might have the revolving effect, and when the camera went off her to go back to Louis Jourdan, she was pulled off the screen. It was quite complicated, but it was very interesting to work that out.”
The shot is magnificent both from a technical point of view—I wonder it you’d actually need to do it as a composite now, given certain advances in technology that we can maybe talk about later—and a pictorial design point of view, and, most important, it registers emotionally. As Hitchcock noted, “We wanted to give the impression that she senses his presence […] that she can actually feel him behind her, as if she could smell him.” Yes, we do get that. The Paradine Case gets pooh-poohed by a lot of self-proclaimed Hitchcock fans because, the murder element aside, it’s more of a melodrama than a thriller. Ostensibly what they used to call “a woman’s picture.” Boiled down, it’s the story of a good man (Peck’s Keane) who falls in love with his client (Valli), which wreaks havoc on his marriage to a good woman (Todd). Complicating factors include Charles Laughton’s judge, who has a weird sick thing for Keane’s wife, and of course Jourdan as Madame Paradine’s paramour. But hell—I think it’s pretty top-flight melodrama, in the Hitchcock mode (which is quite different but equally as cinematically and emotionally astute as the Sirk mode): swift, sharply written, involving, emotionally potent. I think another reason the movie gets short shrift is that there’s a tendency to take Hitchcock himself too much at his word. Rohmer and Chabrol note that Selznick chose the film’s actors (and indeed he did!) and “insisted on Louis Jourdan for the groom, whereas the director would have preferred a ‘clod’.” Sounds as if the fellas agree. Hitchcock amplified this to Truffaut, after grousing that Peck couldn’t “properly represent an English lawyer.” Hitchcock calls the casting of Jourdan the film’s worst flaw. “After all,” he says, “the story of The Paradine Case is about the degradation of a gentleman who becomes enamored of his client, a woman who is not only a murderess, but also a nymphomaniac. And that degradation reaches its climactic point when he’s forced to confront the heroine with one of her lovers, who is a groom. But the groom should have been a manure-smelling stable hand, a man who really reeked of manure.”
Whoa! There’s a lot to unpack there. It’s like he wanted to make the long-form version of Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” Hitchcock’s own sexual idiosyncrasies/insecurities as expressed/implied here aren’t HUGELY unusual, particularly when you take into account the nearly inherent sexism of men of his generation and nationality. But for a director who did so many amazing things with his actresses and his female characters, he definitely had, in this case, a huge blind spot. I think Jourdan is fine here and I know you do too; I think Hitchcock, in his desire to indulge his own paranoia about pretty women walking around with gorillas on his street, underestimates the erotic appeal of the smooth, which Jourdan most definitely represents. Maybe this is where I should get off and let you do some talking…
UPDATE: Here's a link to the Self Styled Siren reply. Stay tuned for Part Three, at this site, on the morning of Monday, May 4. Thanks, as ever, for reading.