Love as Obsession: Reading Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case

In his seminal book The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, Christian Metz remarked ‘…film is like a mirror… although… everything comes to be projected, there is one thing, and one thing only that is never reflected in it: the spectator’s own body…the mirror suddenly becomes a clear glass’. We will here, try to understand and expand the validity of the above statement taking Alfred Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947) as our reference. This courtroom drama is unfortunately, one of his least discussed films.


Extending the above quote, we can argue that the other side of the mirror which Metz identifies as the ‘clear glass’ is nothing but the window which enhances the frame and lets the audience look inside – the story, the character, the psychological reverberation. And at the same time we can also argue that the different characters of any particular film can decide to position themselves in front of either. In my reasoning here, for the film at hand, the male characters stand in front of a mirror where their vision is obstructed by their own reflection, whereas, the female characters position themselves in front of the open window so that they can look beyond the obvious. Sans one, the central Mrs. Maddalena Anna Paradine who is the fulcrum of the two opposing forces. As in a painting where the mirror and the clear glass or the mirror and the open window converge in the human face, similarly, here, the portrait of Mr. Paradine is the third point of tension apart from the mirror and the window as we will soon see.

Apart from Mrs.Paradine, there are mainly three female characters in this film who are of importance – Gay (wife of the lawyer Anthony Keane aka Tony), Lady Sophie Horfield (wife of Judge Lord Thomas Horfield) and Judy (daughter of Sir Simon). There is a uniformity in all these three female characters and also in Mrs Paradine – they are uniform in their personal integrity and strengths in-spite of being very unique in their diverse individual traits. Except Judy, for the other three female characters (including Mrs. Paradine) primarily this strength comes from their ability to love – their obsession with their beloved which makes them look beyond the petty jealous dividends. This makes the film very unique in reference to the fact that this is a Hitchcock film and by no extension of imagination we can generally conclude that Hitchcock was fond of strong female characters. Hence, as a Hitchcock film audience, this comes as an exception to us.

As mentioned earlier, we can now focus on the female (and not feminine) gaze in the film. Gay watches Tony constantly, and she is aware that he ‘watches’ Mrs. Paradine. Gay is a very intelligent woman who knows her husband probably more than her husband himself. Gay recognizes Tony’s fascination for Mrs. Paradine the very first time he sees Mrs Paradine. In an interesting camera position we, as spectator, come to know of Tony’s reading of the case and Mrs. Paradine to Sir Simon from Gay’s perspective, her point-of-view. The director rolls the ball right from the word go here and to balance that, in that very scene, we find Gay naturally inquisitive and artistically sympathetic to the rich and beautiful client of her husband (‘Her photograph looks nice’ she says).


In a slightly later scene, in the dinner party sequence at the Horfields we find Lord Horfield’s lurid gaze at Gay’s open shoulders and his attempt of seduction of Gay behind Tony’s unsuspecting back. Here again Gay rises to her strength and maneuvers Lord Horfield’s possessive gaze at her ring to Lady Horfield’s appreciative gaze as she quips -‘Lady Horfield was admiring it. It pleased me so much because she has such good taste–in most things’. Here again as in a beginning shot of the dinner party sequence, we find a lot of solidarity between Lady Horfield and Gay even if Lord Horfield tries to write off his wife as an idiot. Gay’s best friend Judy also demonstrates traits of strength in her character. She is one of the first who guesses the extent of Tony’s infatuation as love for Mrs Paradine and also the likely affair between valet Latour and Mrs Paradine which probably holds key to the case. Unlike Gay, however, she is more animated in her expression as she tries to tear apart Tony in a fit and like Gay she also doesn’t want Mr. Paradine to be hanged -‘No, I don’t hope they hang her. I don’t like breaking pretty things.’ However they remain inactive, not passive, in their participation of the drama. We find these female characters watch the trial from the gallery watching ‘the woman’ and ‘their men’ – husbands and father. The controlling gaze is that of women here though it is so sublimely inactive. And in their wait for the final judgment, they show more maturity than their counterparts, and as mentioned earlier – more strength of will. In a touching scene Gay explains to Judy – ‘Just because a man, a husband, fancies another woman, you don’t treat him as a criminal. It’s very painful, but it’s painful for him, too. He’s very fond of me and I’d like to keep him so.’

Finally after the drama subsides, Lady Horfield’s compassionate mind is opened as she reasons with her husband ‘Who needs pity more than a woman who’s sinned? Doesn’t life punish us enough, Tommy, doesn’t it? Why must we be cruel to each other?’ In the last scene, Gay meets Tony in Lord Simon’s office and touches Tony’s soul ‘My husband is the most brilliant man I have ever known’. She doesn’t ask for anything else, she only asks for his return, as the most enigmatic lawyers of the town. It is the unflinching power of these women to love which keeps them moving, and gives them ability to wait for their beloved, who, to them, probably can do no wrong. And it is they who help their husbands look beyond the open window into the future of promise and belief.

The primary male characters in the film are Tony and Lord Horfield and to a certain extent valet Latour. Whereas Latour’s character is not explored in much details but it is he who was a pawn in the hands of Mr. Paradine. His arrogant swagger within the court and final breakdown shows his emotional weak side and in this regard he is no different from Tony – the only difference, his faith in love was already shattered and Tony’s was about to be! Lord Horfield’s failure to acknowledge and appreciate the love and affection that Lady Horfield has for him made him a pitiable character – in the court scenes his sadist overplay in his judgment of a beautiful woman makes his downfall complete.

However, it’s Tony who seems the weakest male character in the film – in the final court room tension, his dramatic toil to uphold Mrs. Paradine’s image of a saint gets snubbed rather pathetically by his client herself. Mrs. Paradine’s humiliation of Tony by admitting her guilt in murdering her husband ends Tony’s voyeuristic pleading of the case and in choosing her own death, Mrs. Paradine puts Tony in perspective – his realization about him and her and about Gay. In a previous scene, during the initial stages of their relationship, it is apparent always, that the charm of Mrs. Paradine is casting its spell on Tony as Tony announces to Sir Simon -‘I want the whole world to see her as I do, as a noble, self-sacrificing human being that any man would be proud of.’ The final realization of his own stance throughout, his blind faith in the woman whom he loves turns Tony into a foolish, irresponsible person, and he stands facing the camera, his mirror as Gay embraces him with her warmth.

As deliberated earlier, the meeting point of the mirror and the window is the human face, a portrait – the face of Mrs. Paradine. Like the other female characters in the film, Mrs. Paradine is also a character woven with lot of strength, however unlike the other women, she doesn’t wait. She makes things happen around her, before the story unfolds and also as it progresses, through to the final climax. She is a woman who has felt the male gaze upon her for long and she has learnt to turn it to her advantage. When Sir Simon tells her that she will like Tony she replies – ‘That’s not as important as his liking me, is it?’ She is accustomed to controlling men – how to turn ‘men’ to ‘her men’ as she honestly states the reason for her marriage to a much older Mr. Paradine: ‘He was married, respected; I took advantage of him.’ Even before that, in the taut opening scene, Mrs. Paradine makes us aware of the male gaze on her – the portrait of her dead husband (who was blind anyway!) and she reflects -‘I think the artist has captured the blind man’s look quite wonderfully.’ She knows, she is her husband’s eyes and she controls how he would see the world and more importantly her. As mentioned, she doesn’t wait, she takes her own decision – in scorning Tony for forcing Latour to suicide and then admitting her own guilt. Hereby she chooses her own death – the extreme and most free choice left for a woman refusing to submit to male judgment and control. Thus, Mrs. Paradine refutes the male dominance on her psyche and her body till the very end.

In the most poignant renditions of portrait as the meeting point, we find Tony in Mrs. Paradine’s bedroom when he visits the estate in search of background information. The scene creates an illusion of Tony with Mrs. Paradine in her bedroom as he stares at the portrait of her over the bed. As the camera moves, the portrait comes closer to Tony and finally shifts laterally away from him – his image of her is bounded and static like the portrait and she remains elusive to him. It is this ‘static image’ of her which is rendered again in the courtroom – in a three-sixty degree panning of the camera around the sitting Mrs. Paradine resembling her as an architectural edifice. In the first shot of another sequence, the camera holds on Mrs. Paradine as she almost ‘feels’ Latour’s presence, he comes into the background when the camera starts panning around the court holding both of them. And slightly later, a reverse tracking shot that continually frames Mrs. Paradine as Latour leaves the courtroom in a similar path. These two shots in conjunction – a forward and reverse semi-circular route being traversed keep Mrs. Paradine in the centre. These two shots in the court-room heighten the obsession around Mrs. Paradine – her self-obsession (with Latour), Tony’s obsession of her and finally the audience’s obsession of her with respect to her stance on love or the lack of it.

The Paradine Case thus becomes an interesting reading for obsession with love. The focal point balances around the self-reliant strong woman in Mrs. Paradine – so do I think. Or is it another Hitchcockian MacGuffin?

 Glimpses of the court scene in The Paradine Case

(The article first appeared on SILHOUETTE MAGAZINE. Visit the link for many such articles on Indian & World Cinema)

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