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The Criterion Completist – Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

May 27, 2012


written by: Wendell Mayes (screenplay) and John D. Voelker (story)

produced by: Otto Preminger

directed by: Otto Preminger

rating: none

runtime: 161 min. 

U.S. release date: July 1, 1959

DVD/Blu-ray release date: February 21, 2012


The famous opening title sequence for Anatomy of a Murder was designed by graphic designer Saul Bass, and uses cut-out animation of a crudely drawn dismembered body interwoven with a brisk jazz score over the credits.   It has a very modern feel to it (as does the film’s poster, also designed by Bass), and signals this as a very modern film for 1959.  Director Otto Preminger has always been known for pushing the envelope in his movies (Bass had also designed a similar credit sequence for Preminger’s earlier controversial film “The Man with the Golden Arm”), and here he again courted infamy with frank discussions of divorce, violence and sexuality.  Preminger intuited that this was the beginning of the end for the blissful post-war era of America, and the start of a darker, more open time for the country, and with this film, he cemented his legacy as one of the finest film directors ever.

“Anatomy of a Murder” is based on a true story, and the script is based on a book by Robert Traver, the pen name of real-life lawyer and Judge John Voelker.  James Stewart plays Paul Biebler, a slightly washed-up defense lawyer in Upper Peninsula Michigan, who was voted out of office when he was District Attorney.  He now has a small private practice, and likes to go fishing while his secretary and legal assistant Maida Rutledge (Eve Arden) grumbles about the lack of business, and his drinking buddy and fellow lawyer Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell) drops by late at night to hang out and read old law books.  This quiet existence is quickly shaken up when he takes on the case of Frederick Manion (played by a very young and striking, Ben Gazzara), an Army lieutenant accused of killing a bartender who allegedly raped his wife, Laura (Lee Remick).



The movie is roughly divided into two parts. In this first half we see Paul and his team slowly gathering information and attempting to build a defense, which eventually takes on the form of a temporary insanity plea for Frederick, that he was out of his mind when he shot the supposed rapist.  Paul interviews key witnesses, visits the bar where the shooting occurred, and spends lots of time with the defendant’s wife, Laura.  Lee Remick is the true star of this first half, coyly flirting with and befuddling the usually stoic James Stewart, her simmering sexuality throwing a cloud of suspicion over the truth of what really happened on that night.

In one unbelievable scene at a swinging jazz club, we see Paul sitting in on a punchy piano duet with none other than Duke Ellington (!), the creator of the film’s perfect score, when he sees a drunken Laura flirting and dancing with a soldier.  He drags her outside and scolds her about her completely inappropriate behavior (in light of the circumstances – Frederick in jail, the upcoming murder trial, etc…), telling her to “save that jiggle for your husband”.

“Anatomy of a Murder” really kicks into high gear in its second half, which is entirely taken up by the murder trial, which becomes an epic battle of wits and wills between Paul and slick fiery prosecutor Claude Dancer, played by George C. Scott in one of his earlier roles.  The trial is overseen by Judge Weaver, played by real-life attorney Joseph N. Welch, who gained international fame as a key player in the McCarthy hearings, where he berated the Senator with the now famous line “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”  



Scott is perfectly cast as the prosecutor, cold, icy, intense, and suave; he methodically punches holes in the defense, and intimidates the witnesses by getting right up in their faces.  But really, has there ever been a greater actor in the courtroom than James Stewart?  Here, he is simply captivating, strolling around the courtroom as he casually and effortlessly dismantles the prosecution’s case, even though privately he has doubts as to the outcome of the case.  One minute he is calm and collected, and the next he is raging and shouting in objection, doing everything he can to salvage his case and save his client.

Throughout all of these fireworks, Preminger pulls his camera back, and lets us view the proceedings as if we were a member of the jury.  And despite the nearly three-hour running time, I was glued to the edge of my seat the whole time as every detail of the case was debated and sweated over, and as these two men engaged in long, intense discussions of sexuality, war, morality, violence and religion.  Preminger gives us no easy answers, and even though we get a verdict in the case, the truth about what really happened seems more uncertain than ever before.  All told, with incredible acting by an all-star cast, cameos by jazz legends and legal giants, and a crackling razor-sharp script, “Anatomy of a Murder” is easily the best courtroom film I’ve ever seen, and a true classic of American cinema.

The Criterion edition touts a new, cleaner soundtrack and digital transfer, but the extras are mainly essays and later interviews with Preminger on his career.  A web exclusive article on Criterion’s website has an illuminating article written by Robert Traver about Duke Ellington (the man ate only steak and grapefruit!) and an overview of the life of Joseph Welch.



RATING: ****




Matt Streets saw his first film in 1980, when his parents took him to see Robert Altman’s “Popeye” at the Tivoli Theater in Downers Grove, IL.  Since that rocky start, he has become a lifelong movie fan, and has written film reviews on and off since giving “Medicine Man” two stars for his high school newspaper back in 1992.  He is currently attempting the insane feat of watching every single film in the Criterion Collection as The Criterion Completist.

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