It's been a while since I'd seen Otto Preminger's Anatomy Of A Murder (1959), but some movies are just too good to forget. It's adapted from former attorney John Voelker's eponymous 1958 best-selling novel (which itself was loosely based on a 1952 murder case) and, at 160 minutes in length, doesn't feel nearly as lengthy as it should. Featuring memorable performances by Jimmy Stewart, Ben Gazzara, Lee Remick, George C. Scott and many more, this entertaining and engaging slice of drama also throws in a healthy dose of comedy, mystery, and language that ruffled plenty of feathers upon its theatrical release.
Our murderer is US Army Lieutenant Frederick Manion (Gazzara), who killed former boxer Barney Quill in cold blood after Quill allegedly raped his wife Laura (Remick). Since the murder took place an hour after the attack, this seems like a pretty open-and-shut case...and if that wasn't enough, Laura's appearance and flirty demeanor seem to indicate that she was never all that happily married to Frederick in the first place. Enter Paul Biegler (Stewart), a local lawyer and former District Attorney who Laura hand-picks to represent her husband. Using a cleverly assembled story, home-spun charm and theatrical presentation style, Biegler must compete with the local DA and aggressive prosecutor Claude Dancer (Scott). Trading jabs before the exasperated Judge Weaver (Joseph Welch), Biegler and Dancer use every trick in the book to coax the jury and audience members through miles of ambiguous moral (and legal) territory.
Anatomy Of A Murder burns slowly during its well-paced 160 minute lifespan, building a strong foundation around key players that will easily engage anyone with an interest in legal drama...and maybe anyone without. The film's "coarse" language (panties, rape, sperm, bitch, etc.) must have made plenty of folks uncomfortable back in 1959, yet it feels right at home within the backdrop of a murder trial that plays out more like a three-ring circus. From Biegler's reliance on the catch-all "insanity plea" to both sides' use of flash and sneaky tactics to win over subjective jury members, there's plenty more to get upset about. The fact that Anatomy Of A Murder's foundation is so strong almost lets it get away with...well, murder. Very few characters are genuinely likable on either side, the ending is deceptively downbeat and you'll probably disagree with the verdict. But while it lasts, Anatomy Of A Murder is still wickedly enjoyable.
Released as a "Columbia Classics" DVD all the way back in 2000 and, more importantly, as separate Criterion Blu-ray and DVD editions last year, Anatomy Of A Muder makes an unlikely third appearance on DVD as part of Sony's "Choice Collection" line. Though not without one bright spot, this barebones "burn-on-demand" title is a far cry from the available Criterions and unnecessary in almost every respect.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
The good news is that this disc appears to include the excellent Sony remaster also used for Criterion's DVD/Blu-ray editions; though I can't state that with authority, the 1.77:1 anamorphic framing and level of clarity seen here wouldn't indicate any other possibility. This clean, crisp image is free from any major digital imperfections, while black levels and shadow detail are quite good in all but the darkest of scenes. Only the Criterion Blu-ray would obviously offer any sort of visual upgrade, as this easily outshines the older "Columbia Classics" DVD. It's fine treatment for a film that certainly deserves the attention.
The audio is less ambitious but offers little to complain about. Presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono, this dialogue-driven film sounds clear and is free from distortion and major instances of popping, clicking and other problems associated with most older films. Unfortunately, two options are absent that the Criterion releases offer: a newly-restored 5.1 remix and English subtitles. The former, of course, isn't required to enjoy Anatomy Of A Murder, but the absence of the latter is just one of many strikes against this disc.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
This burn-on-demand release has no menu; after loading, the movie just plays automatically and loops when finished. It's packaged in a black keepcase and includes the standard "Choice Collection" artwork, no insert and black text printed on a plain white DVD-R. As expected, there are no Bonus Features
It's a sad, sorry state of affairs when a certified classic like Anatomy Of A Murder is demoted to "burn-on-demand" status from a major studio, especially when superior Criterion DVD/Blu-ray editions are still in print. Featuring a complete lack of extras, basic packaging, no menu/subtitles and an unreasonable price tag, about the only positive side of this release is that it visually outshines the old "Columbia Classics" DVD. But with Criterion's DVD currently being offered cheaper from Amazon (and their Blu-ray also priced competitively), I can't imagine anyone settling for less at a similar price. So, unlike the tense legal battle presented during Anatomy Of A Murder, this pointless release leads to a quick, easy verdict: Skip It.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.