It's an Alfred Hitchcock film, but it's also not that great. It's a bit brittle and upper-class, steeped in British post-war gentility and only really getting any oomph when the European actors are onscreen. Gregory Peck might be the worst offender, surprisingly.
To tell the truth, I'd never even heard of this one. I chose it blind because it was by Hitchcock. The story involves a beautiful Italian woman (Alida Valli) who's accused of murdering her rich, blind English husband. A hot-shot London lawyer (Gregory Peck) gets a little too involved in her defence and it all ends in a courtroom drama. This was originally a novel by Robert S. Hichens, but David O. Selznick bought the film rights to it in 1933 before it was even published and then spent more than a decade dragging it through development hell. All kinds of different stars, writers and directors had their names attached to it before it ended up with Hitchcock, who was approaching the long-awaited end of a seven-year contract with Selznick. This was their last film together and Hitchcock couldn't get away fast enough. Here's a quote from the man himself:
"He kept writing and writing and rewriting, giving the actors the new pages as they stepped on the set in the morning. This is not the way I work. I cannot work this way. David's version was a compilation of several earlier versions, one of which I wrote, as well as his own brilliant contributions. But that was just like David - trying to do too much and usurp all the credit for himself."
Hitchcock had a perfectly good script before shooting began, incidentally. He didn't need or want an endless stream of rewrites in mid-flow, but that's what he got. In addition Selznick meddled in the casting, forced expensive reshoots and personally did all the post-production, including editing and music. Hitchcock normally planned his budgets carefully, but this one careened out of control and ended up costing almost as much as Gone With the Wind, despite flopping at the box office. On top of that it sounds as if Hitchcock had stopped caring, with the nearest he came to interest in the movie being the games he played with himself in the form of technical challenges as a filmmaker. "This was really David's movie," was how Hitchcock described it afterwards.
On top of all that, the original version of the movie was destroyed in a flood in 1980. The film I watched is a good ten or twenty minutes shorter than other versions that have been played.
None of that really matters, though. It's not on the screen. As for the actual movie, it's a bit stiff-upper-lip and not as involving as it could have been, but it has strong points. One of its chief problems is Gregory Peck, surprisingly, who's demonstrating that big American stars trying and failing to play British isn't just a modern phenomenon. He can't do the accent, for a start. (If it wasn't for one particular line of dialogue, I'd have assumed he was playing an American character.) More damagingly though he never manages to break through the upper-class British-ness of his role and show us what's going on underneath, although of course the guy had always had an understated technique anyway. I normally like Peck a lot and I'd never dream of saying he didn't deserve his 1962 Oscar, but here he's seeming almost disconnected despite the fact that his character's being turned inside-out emotionally. However all that said, he still looks the part. Even a misfiring Gregory Peck still has that movie star quality that means he could carry this movie up Mount Rushmore and back and you'd still want to keep watching him. The man's a classy enough actor that you never doubt him or his integrity for a moment, even when his accent's on an ocean cruise.
To be fair to him, though, the accents are shocking all round. Obviously the Brits like Ann Todd and Charles Laughton are getting it right, but otherwise you'd think we were halfway to California. Leo G. Carroll's nailing it like the old pro he is, but he was born in England and fought in the British Army in World War One. However the film never lets its conviction slip and in the end the accents don't matter.
It's a fairly cold film, to be honest, and no one in it is particularly likeable. The men are over-privileged cold fish who think they always know better than anyone else and at their worst (Laughton) are cruel, smug and creepy. The women are less unsympathetic, but hardly jollier. In particular there's a lot of disturbing loyalty to husbands. One's a saint and a martyr to a husband who's admitted he loves someone else, another's a doormat to a husband who openly despises her and the third is on trial for mariticide. Ann Todd has the plum role of Peck's wife and she's doing pretty well with what she has, but even so she's having to fight against dialogue like that brittle set-piece speech she makes to Peck. Todd manages to make it sound natural, but it was never going to sound warm.
The film's at its most fun when it's actually enjoying its unpleasantness. Charles Laughton is both appalling and a joy. He looks like a paedophile and deserves to get murdered by his wife, but he brings the film to life wherever he goes. He's on particularly fine form in the courtroom, where Peck even got the odd laugh from me thanks to having Laughton to bounce off. Meanwhile Alida Valli and Louis Jourdan make everything far more enjoyable when they get vicious, especially Jourdan. He's almost burning with loathing. Both of them were European stars (from Italy and France respectively) who hoped that this would be their big break in Hollywood, but it wasn't to be. Jourdan I liked, but Valli I wasn't so taken with. There's something cold and unattractive about her beauty, although in fairness for this role she's having to turn on the anti-charm. It took me about thirty seconds to decide she'd murdered her husband, based entirely on her manner when they came to get her.
The film has similarities with Vertigo and in certain ways arguably goes even further. Gregory Peck's character isn't as damaged as James Stewart's, but they both get obsessed with a woman who exists more in their heads than in reality. Peck is determined to prove that Valli is noble and self-sacrificing, even shouting her down when she herself is arguing otherwise. He's consumed by her, but he's barely listening to a word she says and he's assuming that he knows best. There's also some savage thematic material on marriage. Note the way for instance that Charles Laughton and Ethel Barrymore's shocking scene at the end might have been meant as a parallel with the Todd-Peck scene that's following it. If Peck really is going to become a judge, maybe he'll also become another Laughton? Both Todd and Barrymore describe their husbands as having once been kinder and more compassionate, although at least Todd is saying it affectionately. Love is a broken thing in this movie. It's a film in which wives are suffering and silenced while their menfolk are overbearing and blind, in one case literally. This would have been more powerful if the movie hadn't been quite so distancing, but then again that's exactly what's happening between the sexes and furthermore even as subtext it's still extreme.
I must squeeze in one more Selznick comment, though. The overblown music in the the bedroom scene at Cumberland made me wonder what the dickens Hitchcock was playing at, but then I learned it wasn't him who did the music and everything fell into place. Seriously, you'll see that scene and think "retard".
At the end of the day, Hitchcock thought this film a failure. It lost money. You'd certainly never call it rollicking, but it has strong scenes. The courtroom drama gets really good, which was a nice surprise, and it's fun to follow all the duels, such as Peck-Jourdan and Peck-Laughton. At first I thought Laughton's judge was simply briefing himself for the prosecution, but later I decided he was a rather sharp customer. The story can sometimes be all the more astonishing for its very Britishness, with Peck's performance bringing a curious quality that makes the narrative more distinctive and less obvious. The film also ends well. To be honest I'd hesitate to recommend it, but there's a lot going on under its mannered surface.