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Otto Premingers Anatomy
of a Murder was considered daring for its sexual frankness in 1959. Not surprisingly,
the sensationalism seems dated today. Moreover, forty years of television courtroom dramas
have diminished the freshness of the films cat-and-mouse trial proceedings, which
have grown overfamiliar and predictable. But Anatomy
of a Murder boasts several compensating strengths. The A-list cast is headed by James
Stewart at the pinnacle of his career following two classic Hitchcock films, Rear Window
(1954) and Vertigo (1958). Saul Basss title sequence
remains a marvel of jagged op-art abstraction. The films trump card is Duke
Ellingtons jazz score. Only in recent yearsnotably with the 1999 CD release
of the remastered soundtrackhas Ellingtons score been appreciated on its own
merits for its unique tonal complexities.
Wendell Mayess screenplay efficiently distills the best-selling novel by John D. Voelker (using the pen name Robert Traver). Voelker, a Michigan Supreme Court Justice, based the story on an actual 1952 murder at the Lumberjack Tavern in Big Bay. The novels North Woods setting is so evocative that Preminger decided to shoot the movie on location in Michigans Upper Peninsula. Trial scenes were filmed in the Marquette County courthouse. Voelkers own 80-year-old house was used as the home and office of attorney Paul Biegler, played by Stewart. An unfortunate hallmark of Otto Premingers slick directorial style is that many of the interior locationsespecially the courtroomare used as unimaginatively as Hollywood studio sets. Exteriors are flavorful, but the film squanders more opportunities than it seizes. Anatomy of a Murder never fulfills the exciting promise of its noirish opening scenes with Paul Biegler driving into town at dusk and passing wan streetlights and flickering neon aglow in the summer night air.
Returning home from a fishing vacation, Biegler learns of a nearby slaying that occurred in his absence. Army Lieutenant Manion (Ben Gazzara) is being held in county jail charged with killing a bar owner named Barney Quill. Lieutenant Manion claims that Quill raped Manions wife, Laura (Lee Remick). Laura Manion confirms the allegation in a phone call to Biegler and begs the lawyer to defend her husband. Also encouraging Biegler to take the case is his best friend, an alcoholic retired attorney named Parnell McCarthy, played by Arthur OConnell with the kind of giddy insouciance that comes from an actor knowing hes landed the supporting role of a lifetime. (OConnells subsequent career was a wasteland of Disney movies and Irwin Allen disaster epics.) Biegler tells his old friend that hell take the case only if Parnell agrees to stay off the booze and assist Biegler at the trial. OConnells funniest moments are throwaway gags enlivening the margins of the film, such as offhandedly snuffing out his cigarette on Bieglers office woodwork, or an embarrassed belch caused by his sober regimen of carbonated strawberry soda.
Anatomy of a Murder belongs to James Stewart in much the same way as To Kill a Mockingbird belongs to Gregory Peck. Both actors are iconic standard-bearers of bedrock American moral values. Stewarts Paul Biegler and Pecks Atticus Finch are idealized personifications of liberalism and fair-minded jurisprudence. In addition to being lawyers, both characters are single men in the guise of father-figures (perhaps because instinctively we equate justice with parental love rather than romantic love). Stewarts performance is the more purely entertaining of the two. He isnt saddled with the weight of sanctimony that burdens Pecks Atticus Finch. Biegler smokes cheap cigars, plays jazz piano, and ogles Lieutenant Manions wife. But the paternal aspect of his role is never in question: Biegler forcefully removes the drunken and oversexed Laura Manion from a road house tavern on the eve of the trial and sternly lectures her. (The road house scene is inadvertently risible: in a 1950s Lake Superior resort community that might convincingly host a polka band, Preminger puts Duke Ellington in the scene as the leader of an all-black jazz combo playing hot dance numbers for the all-white locals.)
The film breezily wears its two-hour-and-forty-minute running-time. Stewart is rarely offscreen. He holds his own against a younger generation of actors like Gazzara, Remick, and George C. Scott, who plays the arrogant big-city prosecutor intent on wiping the courtroom floor with what he misperceives as Paul Bieglers folksy inexperience. The trial judge is played by real-life Boston attorney Joseph N. Welch (famous for admonishing Senator McCarthy during the televised 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings: Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?). Welchs performance in Anatomy of a Murder is oddly engaging, although his goofy charm is largely a function of his non-actors line readings. Rounding out the cast is the reliable Eve Ardenin a quintessential Eve Arden roleas Bieglers wisecracking secretary eager that the Manion case might bring her a long-overdue paycheck.
Least appealing is the films prurience masquerading as adult content. Tedious repetition of the word panties seems aimed at getting a rise from 1959s equivalent of Beavis and Butt-head. The films leering libido at times victimizes Lee Remick as much as the story line victimizes Laura Manion. Its not difficult to see Laura Manion as a precursor to the defiantly sluttish Amy Sumner, played by Susan George in Sam Peckinpahs Straw Dogs (1971). But whereas George appeared cognizant of the ambivalence and hostility behind Peckinpahs conception for her character, Remick seems little more than a clueless Hollywood ingenue told to act dirty. Perhaps its a fine line, but its the difference between an actress who is in control of her degradation and an actress who isnt.
- Bob Wake