Skip to main content

A creature that cannot talk will be a welcome relief.

Anatomy of a Murder

(SPOILERS) The most striking aspect of Anatomy of a Murder on revisit is how atypical it is of the courtroom drama/thriller, even six-decades-plus after it broke new ground. Studio wisdom would dictate you can’t have such an incendiary case and not include whodunnit; it would be anathema to audience expectations. And yet, for Otto Preminger’s picture, the ambiguity of motive, perspective and moral judgement are precisely the point – “the apparent fallibility of the human factor in jurisprudence” as Wiki puts it – occasionally to the extent that one feels one is being lectured, rather than watching a dramatisation.

Indeed, Nick Pinkerton noted it was “maybe more loved by law students than by cineastes”. If Anatomy of a Murder proved to be a hit – 1959’s tenth biggest at the US box office – it isn’t a stylistic template studios have rushed to repeat. Particularly since there are moot factors in the mix that may have tipped the scales: a classic James Stewart turn, much more appealing than his hideous kinky in the previous year’s Vertigo; the censorship-busting language, in the name of “realism”, that saw it contributing to the last round of assaults on the Hayes Code.

It seems the picture’s a go-to teaching aid in law schools (for the defence’s tactics, rather than prosecution’s). It landed at No.4 in the American Bar Association’s Top 25 Legal Movies (To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men and My Cousin Vinny beat it). Although, that list is debatable, quality-wise – Chicago and Amistad manage to creep in there – and for legalese too, if In the Name of the Father’s presence is indicative. Most damning is that The Verdict only makes eleventh place.

Wendell Mayes (The Spirit of St. Louis, Von Ryan’s Express, The Poseidon Adventure, Death Wish) adapted lawyer Robert Traver’s 1958 novel based on his 1952 case as defence attorney (Stewarts’ Paul Biegler shares Traver’s penchant for fly fishing). Both defences rested on an insanity plea of “irresistible impulse”, deriving from an 1886 Michigan state precedent. Both also involved an army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) on trial for killing a bar owner for the alleged rape of the lieutenant’s wife (Lee Remick). Preminger shot entirely on location in Michigan, and the movie uses direct quotations from the book (and case). It doesn’t however, come anywhere near to featuring all 31 witnesses of the actual trial.

Cinematographer Sam Leavitt won an Oscar for the previous year’s The Defiant Ones, but I’m hard-pressed to work out why this was filmed in black and white. Other, perhaps, than Preminger using 12 Angry Men as a reference point; it’s very “as-is”, unfinessed lensing. It may be there was an idea that, rather than noir, Anatomy of a Murder presented a documentarian, “objective filmmaking style”.

As a director, Preminger – son of the attorney general of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, although Wiki qualifies this – “thought that every cut was an interruption”, which explains the unabridged running time as well as how the entirety of something like Skidoo could escape the bin. Pauline Kael was not a fan of his work, considering him “consistently superficial and facile”. I don’t know his filmography well enough to make an assessment, but an argument could be made that his approach was entirely appropriate to Anatomy of a Murder; it’s all about the inability to grasp at the truth, the potential fallibility of judgements made at face value or with limited information or based on another’s perception.

Less excusable are some of the extraneous details, such as Arthur O’Connell, inexplicably Oscar nominated for his role as Biegler’s drying-out assistant defender Parnell McCarthy (Eve Arden’s Maida Rutledge, meanwhile, is the template for every long-suffering assistant since, and a few Moneypennys on the side). Biegler is also a jazz hound, to justify the Duke Ellington score and cameo. As noted too, the movie is something of a text for legal behaviours, which include variously witness coaching, leading the witness and manipulating the jury (Biegler’s “flagrant, sneaking subterfuge” in admitting the lie detector test results); Stewart’s theatrical grandstanding is a bit much at times, even as a performance of someone adept at performing, although it does go to emphasise the idea that the courtroom is at least as much about theatre as clinical detail.

Notably, Biegler entirely embraces the early encouragement “You don’t have to love him. Just defend him”; he doesn’t appear to like client Lieutenant Frederick Manion at all and voices no interest in whether or not he is guilty (likewise, Laura Manion’s possible proclivities; his remit is all about presentation to the jury, and ensuring he is not blindsided by unforeseen details).

Dancer: Do you always wear panties?

As far as presentation is concerned, one surely wouldn’t see Laura’s depiction today without numerous caveats. It’s obviously the prosecution’s gambit to make her out to have lied about being raped, due to the lack of physical evidence, her “attractive jiggle” and “deliberately voluptuous and enticing” deportment. Remick’s performance does nothing to dissuade this view – just as Gazzara’s does nothing to defer the notion that there was no irresistible impulse involved, that the bruises came from his own hand, and that he’s an entirely duplicitous and untrustworthy customer – and her forward manner with any and all men (“Well, it would be very difficult not to look at you” admits Biegler early on) is played up, only meeting its match when Scott’s prosecution assistant Claude Dancer (George C Scott) cross-examines her.

Judge Weaver: The attorneys will provide the wisecracks.

Even beyond that – failing to suggest any trauma on the part of the alleged victim – the attitude of the court generally is remarkably indifferent to the actual act of rape, even given its cruciality to the motive of the case. At one point, Laura’s missing panties are raised as a matter for discussion, to resounding mirth from the assembled. Judge Weaver (non-professional actor Joseph N Wench, an actual lawyer made famous for putting Joseph McCarthy in his place during the hearings) instructs that there “isn’t anything funny about a pair of panties that figure in the death of one man and possible incarceration of another”; there is no sensitivity to, or mention of, the rape of a woman, and indeed, the trial is a frequently very funny and light-hearted affair, for something with such a sombre focus.

So while the lack of sympathy afforded Laura is grist to the mill of casting doubt on the legitimacy of both her and her husband’s stories, there would surely be no wish to go near a story such as this in 2022 – for reasons that are both understandable, given stats on successful prosecutions, but also for more prosaic reasons of progressive censorship – and certainly not one where cheerful indifference to the seriousness of rape would pass without a strong authorial acknowledgement that such indifference was not to be condoned. There’d also be no chance of Laura riding on out of there at the end with her battering hubby; she’d have to be empowered.

Dancer: Mr Biegler is perhaps the least disciplined and the most completely out-of-order attorney I’ve ever seen in a courtroom.

Stewart’s great here at being very Stewart; not quite a last gasp, but his next decade would yield far fewer nuggets in terms of strong roles and memorable performances. Remick and Gazzara are notable, although the latter, never a great one for mainstream Hollywood roles, is particularly splashy, playing against and contrasting effectively with Stewart. Non-actor Welch also has a very easy, commanding presence. It’s Scott who walks off with the movie whenever he has a chance, though; Dancer is as cunning as Biegler but finally outgunned by him, falling into a mantrap of his own making.

The Secret History of Hollywood’s Academy Awards has it that Scott’s later attempt to spurn his Patton Oscar originated with losing Best Supporting Actor (to Hugh Griffith in Ben-Hur) for this movie and calling it a “meat race”; friends said he dearly wanted a statuette, and his then wife Trish Van Devere added so much so that “he became almost completely wrapped up in it. When he didn’t win, he took a hard look, and came to believe it wasn’t healthy to want something so much”. Which led to Scott disavowing the whole shebang. Nominated for six Oscars including Picture, Actor (Stewart), the Supporting Actors mentioned, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography and Film Editing, it went home empty handed, mostly due to Ben-Hur’s sweep of eleven prizes.

Anatomy of a Murder’s poster is probably more famous – certainly more seen – than the movie itself, designed by regular Preminger collaborator Saul Bass. It’s a curious fit with the movie, very much going together with the Ellington score, yet contrasting with the formality of its director’s long, static takes and no-frills photography. Such juxtapositions are ingrained, it seems: on the one hand, controlled and literate in its “anatomy” of court procedure, on the other, indulgent of theatrical flourish and uncensored content. Anatomy of a Murder’s very much a picture of its era, but it remains engrossing, well-nourished and distinctive.

Popular posts from this blog

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 1 (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

If that small woman is small enough, she could fit behind a small tree.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 2 (SPOILERS) I can’t quite find it within myself to perform the rapturous somersaults that seem to be the prevailing response to this fourth run of the show. I’ve outlined some of my thematic issues in the Volume 1 review, largely borne out here, but the greater concern is one I’ve held since Season Two began – and this is the best run since Season One, at least as far my failing memory can account for – and that’s the purpose-built formula dictated by the Duffer Brothers. It’s there in each new Big Bad, obviously, even to the extent that this is the Big-Bad-who-binds-them-all (except the Upside Down was always there, right?) And it’s there with the resurgent emotional beats, partings, reunions and plaintively stirring music cues. I have to be really on board with a movie or show to embrace such flagrantly shameless manipulation, season after season, and I find myself increasingly immune.

Get away from my burro!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (SPOILERS) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme is laid on a little thick, just in case you were a bit too dim to get it yourself the first time, and Huston’s direction may be right there were it counts for the dramatics, but it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to showing the seams between Mexican location and studio.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… dyin’ time’s here!

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome . As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the kind of picture fans of beloved series tend to loathe; when a favourite character returns but without the qualities or tone that made them adored in the first place (see Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull , or John McClane in the last two Die Hard s). Thunderdome stinks even more than the methane fuelling Bartertown. I hadn’t been aware of the origins of Thunderdome until recently, mainly because I was