Thursday, August 18, 2011

Retro Review- Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Otto Preminger)

When courtroom dramas are good, they are like thrillers minus the action scenes. I've always been a fan of the genre mostly thanks to Dick Wolf's Law & Order which stared Sam Waterston as the hard-working attorney Jack McCoy for I believe seventeen years of the show's run. Some popular films that I know of (some that I've seen) that also exemplify this genre include- Judgement at Nuremberg, Witness for the Prosecution, A Few Good Men, The Verdict, To Kill a Mockingbird, and one of my favorite films of all-time, that actually is a twist on the courtroom drama as it is from the jury's point of view, 12 Angry Men. The film I'm going to be talking about, Anatomy of a Murder, is also a part of that pantheon thanks to its ensemble acting, masterful directing, and unique script (something that I'm still not sure how I feel about).

In upper Michigan, small-town defense lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is asked by Laura Manion (Lee Remick) to defend her husband, Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who is being charged for murdering the man who raped Laura. After some debate, Paul ends up taking the case, but runs into several problems, one of which is that the prosecution has asked a slick city attorney (George C. Scott) to come sit in on the proceedings.

The film is directed by Otto Preminger (Laura) who gave a fantastic performance opposite William Holden in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17. Preminger obviously understands the art of acting and he along with Jimmy Stewart, show us a complex character who is stuck in a complex case. Paul's speaking style shows his rural roots and he is quite laid back. This does help to hide his sharp legal mind which can be shown in his calm questioning of a witness at one moment and then his disguised "smoke-screens" which include theatrics that I'm pretty sure would get anyone held in contempt of court these days on any procedural crime drama on television. Stewart is completely convincing in the role, but that doesn't come as a surprise as he is one of the greatest actors to have ever lived.

Laura is an interesting character- a flirtatious rape victim? Throw in the fact that Frederick's questionable temporary insanity becomes his defense and I at first had a tough time really wanting to side with Paul when it came to his defendants. Eventually, things change as Laura and Frederick's marriage comes to the forefront of the case and you begin to see different sides to their personalities. George C. Scott is intense as Claude Dancer and the rest of the cast does a fine job, but the performance I was most pleased with was that of Gazzara. You can see the anger in him and the confusion he may or may not feel about what is happening. How much is he holding back? Does he hit his wife? Is his defense just an excuse for a man who may not have morals? The film's ending doesn't help with some of the ambiguity one might feel towards Frederick, but the conclusion is more creative than it is resolving.

I wish at the end that we could have seen what happens between Laura and Frederick as instead we get a quick verdict and then Paul is driving down the road with Parnell (Arthur O'Connell, another great performance) to the jazz score (more on that in a second). Then again, when Paul goes to pay one last visit to the Marion's, what he ends up finding perhaps speaks to all we as the audience need to and should know. I also found myself questioning how much we needed to know about these characters lives before the trail, but it all ends up fitting in if you stay until the end. You need to understand what we see of Paul so when we move the trial (which does admittedly take up a huge portion of the film), we can enjoy what Paul has up his sleeve while combatting what the prosecution has up theirs. The cinematography and the editing also keeps one on their toes; great filmmaking all around.

As for the score, it was composed by jazz musician Duke Ellington (who was apparently on set most of the time working with Preminger on the music as they filmed) and his style is a unique choice for the score, but like my previous review of the all-zither score in The Third Man it somehow oddly fits. Add a Saul Bass title sequence and you have nicely stylized and memorable film.

1 comment:

  1. Great review!

    We're linking to your article for Academy Monday at

    Keep up the good work!