Sunday, February 17, 2013

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Director: Otto Preminger                              Writer: Wendell Mayes
Film Score: Duke Ellington                           Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Starring: Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara and George C. Scott

Anatomy of a Murder is one of those crisply filmed, rerecorded dialogue, sterile sixties films that I tend to dislike . . . almost. Filmed in 1959, it’s bordering on that territory, but has enough to recommend it that I can overlook some of the negative production values and embrace the positive qualities it possesses. The story, at least in the beginning, seems simple enough, based on the novel by Robert Traver about an actual 1952 murder case. Ben Gazzara is accused of killing a man who raped his wife. Jimmy Stewart, a former prosecutor in the upper peninsula of Michigan, is engaged by Lee Remick, the defendant’s wife, to defend her husband and the case goes to trial.

The case itself, seen from our modern perspective, certainly lacks the drama it no doubt had in the day. The focus is on Jimmy Stewart as the quintessential defense lawyer who will use any kind of scheme to get his client acquitted. It’s an odd mix, though, because Stewart had for so long been associated with righteous characters in everything from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Rear Window. Seeing him coercing witnesses, coaching his client, and manipulating the jury in the courtroom rankles a bit, but ultimately that's the point, as the film itself winds up being a treatise on the fallibility of the jury system. What made Preminger’s film so controversial at the time was the frank discussion of rape and the casual use of temporary insanity to excuse a murder.

Preminger uses a lot of familiar bits from earlier movies. From his own film, he names the wife of the murderer Laura. In his defense lawyer James Stewart he cops the gimmick used by Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity, never having a match on him and needing someone else to light his cigarette. The older lawyer helping the defense lawyer brings to mind Jack Warden in The Verdict, as does the appearance of the doctor off the train. And the courtroom scenes, which occupy the bulk of the movie, in turn, have inspired everything from Perry Mason to A Few Good Men.

One of the most well known aspects of the film is the score by Duke Ellington. In many ways it’s the precursor to similar scores like that for The Hustler. Earlier jazz scores by composers like Elmer Bernstein in The Sweet Smell of Success were more big band oriented rather than the small group feel of Ellington’s band. More important than the score itself, however, is the use of the score by Preminger. The jazz background is only used outside the courtroom. During the trial there is no score at all. Rounding out the film is a nice supporting cast including Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, Orson Bean and Murray Hamilton. Anatomy of a Murder is not the best courtroom drama ever, but it does challenge our reliance on the jury system to render fair and impartial verdicts. In that, the film is disturbing in a way that all good films must finally be.

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