Thursday, June 4, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Anatomy of a Murder (1959) 
Directed by: Otto Preminger.
Written by: Wendell Mayes based on the novel by Robert Traver.
Starring: James Stewart (Paul Biegler), Lee Remick (Laura Manion), Ben Gazzara (Lt. Frederick Manion), Arthur O'Connell (Parnell Emmett McCarthy), Eve Arden (Maida Rutledge), Kathryn Grant (Mary Pilant), George C. Scott (Claude Dancer), Orson Bean (Dr. Matthew Smith), Russ Brown (George Lemon), Murray Hamilton (Alphonse Paquette), Brooks West (Dist. Atty. Mitch Lodwick), Ken Lynch (Det. Sgt. James Durgo), John Qualen (Deputy Sheriff Sulo), Howard McNear (Dr. Dompierre), Alexander Campbell (Dr. W. Gregory Harcourt), Ned Wever (Dr. Raschid), Jimmy Conlin (Clarence Madigan), Royal Beal (Sheriff Battisfore), Joseph Kearns (Lloyd Burke), Don Ross (Duane 'Duke' Miller), Joseph N. Welch (Judge Weaver). 
Jimmy Stewart was the Tom Hanks of his day – an actor who spent much of his career being wholesome, and All-American – an everyman. You were always immediately on Stewart’s side when a movie started. Unlike Hanks though, Stewart was more willing to poke at that image a little – used it in service of directors who wanted him to take on darker roles, that the audience only gradually realizes are darker. Hitchcock used Stewart in films like Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958) – and in the audience, you are on his side, even though you gradually realize you are on the side of a Peeping Tom or a necrophilia. And you’re on his side in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder as well – where he plays a defense lawyer, defending an Army officer of killing the man his wife said raped and assaulted her. You’re on his side even though Stewart himself makes clear in the first meeting with his client that he is undeniably guilty of murder, and has to plant the idea of insanity in his head in order to have any chance of getting him off. Anatomy of a Murder is one of the greatest of all-courtroom dramas – and its great perhaps lies in the fact that it is not the story of a crusading lawyer on the side of justice and the truth – the type of character you may expect Stewart to play. No, Anatomy of a Murder is about two sides – the prosecution and the defense – who will do whatever it takes to win, truth and justice be damned.
Stewart plays Paul Biegler – the former D.A. of the area, who was voted out at the last election, and has entered private practice since – although that basically means he does a lot of fishing. He is contacted by Laura Manion (Lee Remnick) to take on the case of her husband, Frederick (Ben Gazzara). Laura says that one night she went to the local tavern by herself – and accepted a ride home from the owner – who instead of taking her home, took her to a secluded area, raped and beat her – and she only survived because she got away. She went home and Frederick – and an hour later, he walked into the bar and shot the man dead. As Biegler explains to both Manion’s that isn’t good – it isn’t self-defense, as Laura was already safe. He didn’t even storm off in a fit of rage – he waited an hour. To make matters worse, Laura isn’t precisely behaving like a victim. She is a constant flirt – flirting with Paul, and just about every other man around. She doesn’t seem all that upset by what happened – and the doctor who examined her couldn’t say whether she’d been raped or not. Therefore, there are two plausible scenarios – one that she was raped, and Frederick took revenge on the man who hurt his wife, the other being that Laura had a fling with the bartender, and Frederick got made, hit his wife, and killed his lover. Neither is acceptable – unless, of course, Biegler can prove Frederick was temporarily insane when he committed the crime.
The film, which runs nearly three hours, takes its time getting to the trial itself. It spends time getting to know the players – Biegler, of course, his aging, alcoholic friend (Arthur O’Connell – who has a kind of redemption arc in the film that I don’t think really fits). It also establishes Laura and Frederick – and the town itself. When the trial does get going, it adds in another great character – hotshot prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) – who never loses, probably at least in part because he doesn’t always play by the rules. Like Biegler, he tries to stretch what he is allowed to do in order to win.
The performances in the film are all top-notch. It is anchored by Stewart of course – giving one of his great performances, doing a version of the cornpone “I’m just a small town lawyer” routine – but in a way that lets you know that he knows he is using it cynically. And yet, basically, Paul is a good guy – and he is basically just doing his job. Most of the rest of the key characters – aside from O’Connell – are played by newcomers. Remnick is terrific as the flirty, sexy Laura – who you struggle to get a real handle on. Gazzara is full of that kind of dangerous charm and hairpin temper ready to explode at any moment. Best of all is a young Scott – all swagger and confidence.
The film was directed by Otto Preminger in the same kind of cool style he always had. He doesn’t drill anything into your head here – this remains a courtroom drama of course, but it’s not a preachy one. The film never even answers the central question it raises – whether or not Laura was raped. It doesn’t answer it, because in essence, it doesn’t really matter. It matters when the two sides are arguing it – but it’s just there to try and convince a jury, and both sides are able to raise enough doubt, that you’ll never be able to tell for sure. The film, it seems, is arguing that – that trials are not about truth and justice – but about winning and losing, throwing up enough information and misinformation to either prove your point, or making proving it impossible. It’s really kind of amazing that basically 20 minutes into the film, Preminger and company tell you that Frederick is guilty – and then the film runs from another two-and-a-half hours where they basically ignore that central fact. I think that is why Anatomy of a Murder is so beloved by lawyers themselves because it really is about their profession in a more fundamental way – the truth doesn’t matter; it just matters what you can argue.

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