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Otto Preminger’s 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 film’s 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 Bass’s title sequence remains a marvel of jagged op-art abstraction. The film’s trump card is Duke Ellington’s jazz score. Only in recent years—notably with the 1999 CD release of the remastered soundtrack—has Ellington’s score been appreciated on its own merits for its unique tonal complexities.
Wendell Mayes’s 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 novel’s North Woods setting is so evocative that Preminger decided to shoot the movie on location in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Trial scenes were filmed in the Marquette County courthouse. Voelker’s own 80-year-old house was used as the home and office of attorney Paul Biegler, played by Stewart. An unfortunate hallmark of Otto Preminger’s slick directorial style is that many of the interior locations—especially the courtroom—are 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 Manion’s 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 O’Connell with the kind of giddy insouciance that comes from an actor knowing he’s landed the supporting role of a lifetime. (O’Connell’s subsequent career was a wasteland of Disney movies and Irwin Allen disaster epics.) Biegler tells his old friend that he’ll take the case only if Parnell agrees to stay off the booze and assist Biegler at the trial. O’Connell’s funniest moments are throwaway gags enlivening the margins of the film, such as offhandedly snuffing out his cigarette on Biegler’s 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. Stewart’s Paul Biegler and Peck’s 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). Stewart’s performance is the more purely entertaining of the two. He isn’t saddled with the weight of sanctimony that burdens Peck’s Atticus Finch. Biegler smokes cheap cigars, plays jazz piano, and ogles Lieutenant Manion’s 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 Biegler’s 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?”). Welch’s performance in Anatomy of a Murder is oddly engaging, although his goofy charm is largely a function of his non-actor’s line readings. Rounding out the cast is the reliable Eve Arden—in a quintessential Eve Arden role—as Biegler’s wisecracking secretary eager that the Manion case might bring her a long-overdue paycheck.
Least appealing is the film’s prurience masquerading as “adult” content. Tedious repetition of the word “panties” seems aimed at getting a rise from 1959’s equivalent of Beavis and Butt-head. The film’s leering libido at times victimizes Lee Remick as much as the story line victimizes Laura Manion. It’s not difficult to see Laura Manion as a precursor to the defiantly sluttish Amy Sumner, played by Susan George in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971). But whereas George appeared cognizant of the ambivalence and hostility behind Peckinpah’s conception for her character, Remick seems little more than a clueless Hollywood ingenue told to “act dirty.” Perhaps it’s a fine line, but it’s the difference between an actress who is in control of her degradation and an actress who isn’t.
– Bob Wake