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Still the best courtroom drama ever, and perhaps director Otto Preminger's finest movie overall, 1959's Anatomy of a Murder never fails to reveal more complexities, no matter how many times one sees it. Robert Travers' tale of a murder trial in upstate Michigan attracted plenty of publicity for its detailed examination of an alleged rape and its racy (for the time) dialogue. Preminger frequently challenged the production code, but Anatomy of a Murder is an adult-oriented drama with integrity. The cast is also outstanding. James Stewart continues his 1950s string of morally ambiguous characterizations, while Ben Gazzara and Lee Remick play the defendant and his wife in a way that does not encourage our sympathy.
Author Robert Travers (attorney John D. Voelker) based his story on a true crime from 1952. Lieutenant Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) surrenders to part-time lawman George Lemon (Russ Brown) for killing Barney Quill, the owner of the local roadhouse. Ex- D.A. Paul Biegler (James Stewart) has been doing more fishing than law work lately. His secretary Maida (Eve Arden) urges him to defend Manion, if only to pay the bills. So does Paul's friend Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell), a failed attorney who needs a good reason to stop hitting the bottle. Paul takes the job even though Manion admits to killing Quill under circumstances that allow little leeway for mercy -- he stalked and shot the barkeep after Mrs. Laura Manion (Lee Remick) came home to report that she'd been raped. Paul must deal with Manion's surly attitude as well as his wife Laura's highly promiscuous nature -- she practically propositions Paul on their first meeting. The new D.A. brings in a 'big gun' from Lansing to combat Paul in the courtroom, Asst. State Atty. General Claude Dancer (George C. Scott). McCarthy does research while Paul looks for a weak spot in the prosecution's case. He finds his opportunity with Barney's bartender Alphonse Paquette (Murray Hamilton), who becomes defensive whenever the alleged rape is mentioned. There's also Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant), Quill's manager and rumored lover. Mary seems an overly reserved and quiet young woman -- is she hiding something?
Anatomy of a Murder's approach is more akin to a docu-drama than a Hollywood potboiler. Filmed completely on location, the show features moody B&W cinematography and a sly jazz soundtrack by Duke Ellington that doesn't telegraph events or put labels on characters. Wendell Mayes' superb screenplay adaptation maintains an objectivity that would become Otto Preminger's trademark. In a courtroom drama of this kind we expect to see certain types: the idealistic defense attorney, the confused but brave defendant, the defendant's distraught, hopeful wife and various supporting characters that are either identifiably good or bad. Anatomy dispenses with these conventions. The defense attorney does not quote the Founding Fathers and the defendant is not seen praying for his deliverance. There is no conspiracy afoot to railroad the defendant. We instead have a group of characters that are just as 'unknowable' as the people in our own lives. Paul Biegler has won the respect of his staff, but he's also a competitive sharpie willing to use courtroom antics to get his way. He even calls himself a "simple country lawyer" to secure the sympathy of the jury. Biegler's interest in the law is strictly professional. He nudges and goads Lt. Manion into suggesting his own very doubtful defense tactic. That Biegler doesn't simply choose the plea himself suggests that he wants the plausible deniability of being able to say that Manion dictated the defense.
Courtroom dramas typically dramatize the search for the truth. Anatomy of a Murder shows how justice takes a back seat to other considerations. No one reveals their true self. Manion is a belligerent man with a strong jealous streak. He shows Laura little affection, leading us to wonder if she invented the rape story, and that her own husband inflicted her bruises and blacked her eye. Alphonse Paquette's outrage at the rape charge is no more credible than Fred and Laura's version of events. Although Biegler insists that there is no such thing as an unwritten law giving a man the right to retaliate on a point of honor, he successfully changes the "narrative" of the courtroom drama to suit his client's case. By the halfway mark the big issue being debated is not the killing, but whether or not Laura Manion was raped. The judge may direct the jury to disregard Paul's leading statements, but the lawyer persists. Biegler is not subverting justice but merely performing his job in a professional manner. The functional ambiguity in these characterizations made Anatomy seem far more sophisticated and subtle than most other dramas of its time.
James Stewart wears his part like an old shoe. Many of his older films reserved at least one grandstanding "Stewart speech" for the actor but this script allows him to channel that habit as a deliberate smokescreen for the courtroom. Ben Gazarra's Manion seems to have an inner rage bottled up inside him. Lee Remick's Laura is a real puzzle: is she just a cheap tease, or is she really a manipulative sharpie, using her charms to distract Paul Biegler. Preminger's casting of the supporting roles is inspired. Relative screen newcomer George C. Scott makes his big shot legal eagle into a preening intimidation machine. Murray Hamilton hides a streak of loyalty and decency behind his unfriendly manner. Kathryn Grant is particularly well cast. Her lack of deep responses to what should be a terribly personal tragedy keep us guessing at her true nature. Is she really innocent? What was her relationship to the dead man, actually?
The director reveals his liberal credentials with his casting of real-life attorney Joseph N. Welch as the honest, law-loving judge who hears the case. Welch spoke the famous words that brought down Joe McCarthy at the Army-McCarthy hearings: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?� The likeable Welch, a non-actor, brings an authentic feel to the courtroom scenes.
In his subsequent films Otto Preminger applied his standoffish, let-the-audience-work directing style to a string of much larger epic stories, that often had too many characters and diffuse plotlines: Exodus, Advise and Consent, The Cardinal, In Harm's Way. The casting wasn't always inspired and the scripts varied in quality. But none of them attempted Anatomy's cautious, non-judgmental approach to character.
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of Anatomy of a Murder benefits greatly from the deluxe presentation. The B&W movie is over fifty years old yet does not seem at all dated. The HD widescreen transfer emphasizes Preminger and cameraman Sam Leavitt's careful compositions. Almost every shot has more than one point of interest.
A standard mono soundtrack is present along with a new alternate 5.1 remix. Disc producer Susan Arosteguy's new video extras offer a number of short featurettes: on Duke Ellington's music, graphic designer Saul Bass's titles and on-set photos taken by Gjon Mili. A 1967 TV show debate between Otto Preminger and William F. Buckley is present, along with newsreel footage from the location. The movie's creative original trailer shows Preminger seemingly in competition with Alfred Hitchcock ... like a bailiff in a court, he swears in each of his actors to tell the truth!
Preminger Biographer Foster Hirsch offers his perceptive views on Anatomy, restating research and opinions from his book. Preminger was allowed to keep most of his controversial vocabulary but was induced to substitute the word "violation" for the more graphic "penetration". Also present is part of an unfinished documentary called Anatomy of "Anatomy" that gives us an intimate look at the group of actors, technicians and artists that convened in the remote Northern Michigan location. An insert booklet contains an essay by Nick Pinkerton and a Life magazine article on Joseph N. Welch. The retired lawyer said he took the role "because it looked like that was the only way I'd ever get to be a judge."
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Anatomy of a Murder Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.