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Anatomy of a Murder


The most striking aspect of Anatomy of a Murder on revisit is how atypical it is of the courtroom drama/thriller, even six-decades-plus after it broke new ground. Studio wisdom would dictate you can’t have such an incendiary case and not include whodunnit; it would be anathema to audience expectations. And yet, for Otto Preminger’s picture, the ambiguity of motive, perspective and moral judgement are precisely the point – “the apparent fallibility of the human factor in jurisprudence” as Wiki puts it – occasionally to the extent that one feels one is being lectured, rather than watching a dramatisation.

Indeed, Nick Pinkerton noted it was “maybe more loved by law students than by cineastes”. If Anatomy of a Murder proved to be a hit – 1959’s tenth biggest at the US box office – it isn’t a stylistic template studios have rushed to repeat. Particularly since there are moot factors in the mix that may have tipped the scales: a classic James Stewart turn, much more appealing than his hideous kinky in the previous year’s Vertigo; the censorship-busting language, in the name of “realism”, that saw it contributing to the last round of assaults on the Hayes Code.

It seems the picture’s a go-to teaching aid in law schools (for the defence’s tactics, rather than prosecution’s). It landed at No.4 in the American Bar Association’s Top 25 Legal Movies (To Kill a Mockingbird12 Angry Men and My Cousin Vinny beat it). Although, that list is debatable, quality-wise – Chicago and Amistad manage to creep in there – and for legalese too, if In the Name of the Father’s presence is indicative. Most damning is that The Verdict only makes eleventh place.

Wendell Mayes (The Spirit of St. LouisVon Ryan’s Express, The Poseidon AdventureDeath Wish) adapted lawyer Robert Traver’s 1958 novel based on his 1952 case as defence attorney (Stewarts’ Paul Biegler shares Traver’s penchant for fly fishing). Both defences rested on an insanity plea of “irresistible impulse”, deriving from an 1886 Michigan state precedent. Both also involved an army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) on trial for killing a bar owner for the alleged rape of the lieutenant’s wife (Lee Remick). Preminger shot entirely on location in Michigan, and the movie uses direct quotations from the book (and case). It doesn’t however, come anywhere near to featuring all 31 witnesses of the actual trial.

Cinematographer Sam Leavitt won an Oscar for the previous year’s The Defiant Ones, but I’m hard-pressed to work out why this was filmed in black and white. Other, perhaps, than Preminger using 12 Angry Men as a reference point; it’s very “as-is”, unfinessed lensing. It may be there was an idea that, rather than noir, Anatomy of a Murder presented a documentarian, “objective filmmaking style”.

As a director, Preminger – son of the attorney general of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, although Wiki qualifies this – “thought that every cut was an interruption”, which explains the unabridged running time as well as how the entirety of something like Skidoo could escape the bin. Pauline Kael was not a fan of his work, considering him “consistently superficial and facile”. I don’t know his filmography well enough to make an assessment, but an argument could be made that his approach was entirely appropriate to Anatomy of a Murder; it’s all about the inability to grasp at the truth, the potential fallibility of judgements made at face value or with limited information or based on another’s perception.

Less excusable are some of the extraneous details, such as Arthur O’Connell, inexplicably Oscar nominated for his role as Biegler’s drying-out assistant defender Parnell McCarthy (Eve Arden’s Maida Rutledge, meanwhile, is the template for every long-suffering assistant since, and a few Moneypennys on the side). Biegler is also a jazz hound, to justify the Duke Ellington score and cameo. As noted too, the movie is something of a text for legal behaviours, which include variously witness coaching, leading the witness and manipulating the jury (Biegler’s “flagrant, sneaking subterfuge” in admitting the lie detector test results); Stewart’s theatrical grandstanding is a bit much at times, even as a performance of someone adept at performing, although it does go to emphasise the idea that the courtroom is at least as much about theatre as clinical detail.

Notably, Biegler entirely embraces the early encouragement “You don’t have to love him. Just defend him”; he doesn’t appear to like client Lieutenant Frederick Manion at all and voices no interest in whether or not he is guilty (likewise, Laura Manion’s possible proclivities; his remit is all about presentation to the jury, and ensuring he is not blindsided by unforeseen details).

DancerDo you always wear panties?

As far as presentation is concerned, one surely wouldn’t see Laura’s depiction today without numerous caveats. It’s obviously the prosecution’s gambit to make her out to have lied about being raped, due to the lack of physical evidence, her “attractive jiggle” and “deliberately voluptuous and enticing” deportment. Remick’s performance does nothing to dissuade this view – just as Gazzara’s does nothing to defer the notion that there was no irresistible impulse involved, that the bruises came from his own hand, and that he’s an entirely duplicitous and untrustworthy customer – and her forward manner with any and all men (“Well, it would be very difficult not to look at you” admits Biegler early on) is played up, only meeting its match when Scott’s prosecution assistant Claude Dancer (George C Scott) cross-examines her.

Judge WeaverThe attorneys will provide the wisecracks.

Even beyond that – failing to suggest any trauma on the part of the alleged victim – the attitude of the court generally is remarkably indifferent to the actual act of rape, even given its cruciality to the motive of the case. At one point, Laura’s missing panties are raised as a matter for discussion, to resounding mirth from the assembled. Judge Weaver (non-professional actor Joseph N Wench, an actual lawyer made famous for putting Joseph McCarthy in his place during the hearings) instructs that there “isn’t anything funny about a pair of panties that figure in the death of one man and possible incarceration of another”; there is no sensitivity to, or mention of, the rape of a woman, and indeed, the trial is a frequently very funny and light-hearted affair, for something with such a sombre focus.

So while the lack of sympathy afforded Laura is grist to the mill of casting doubt on the legitimacy of both her and her husband’s stories, there would surely be no wish to go near a story such as this in 2022 – for reasons that are both understandable, given stats on successful prosecutions, but also for more prosaic reasons of progressive censorship – and certainly not one where cheerful indifference to the seriousness of rape would pass without a strong authorial acknowledgement that such indifference was not to be condoned. There’d also be no chance of Laura riding on out of there at the end with her battering hubby; she’d have to be empowered.

DancerMr Biegler is perhaps the least disciplined and the most completely out-of-order attorney I’ve ever seen in a courtroom.

Stewart’s great here at being very Stewart; not quite a last gasp, but his next decade would yield far fewer nuggets in terms of strong roles and memorable performances. Remick and Gazzara are notable, although the latter, never a great one for mainstream Hollywood roles, is particularly splashy, playing against and contrasting effectively with Stewart. Non-actor Welch also has a very easy, commanding presence. It’s Scott who walks off with the movie whenever he has a chance, though; Dancer is as cunning as Biegler but finally outgunned by him, falling into a mantrap of his own making.

The Secret History of Hollywood’s Academy Awards has it that Scott’s later attempt to spurn his Patton Oscar originated with losing Best Supporting Actor (to Hugh Griffith in Ben-Hur) for this movie and calling it a “meat race”; friends said he dearly wanted a statuette, and his then wife Trish Van Devere added so much so that “he became almost completely wrapped up in it. When he didn’t win, he took a hard look, and came to believe it wasn’t healthy to want something so much”. Which led to Scott disavowing the whole shebang. Nominated for six Oscars including Picture, Actor (Stewart), the Supporting Actors mentioned, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography and Film Editing, it went home empty handed, mostly due to Ben-Hur’s sweep of eleven prizes.

Anatomy of a Murder’s poster is probably more famous – certainly more seen – than the movie itself, designed by regular Preminger collaborator Saul Bass. It’s a curious fit with the movie, very much going together with the Ellington score, yet contrasting with the formality of its director’s long, static takes and no-frills photography. Such juxtapositions are ingrained, it seems: on the one hand, controlled and literate in its “anatomy” of court procedure, on the other, indulgent of theatrical flourish and uncensored content. Anatomy of a Murder’s very much a picture of its era, but it remains engrossing, well-nourished and distinctive.

First published by Now in Full Color on 28/05/22.

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