Based on the famous Traver novel, ANATOMY OF A MURDER is an extremely complex film that defeats easy definition. In some respects it is a social document of the era in which it was made; primarily, however, it is a detailed portrait of the law at work and the machinizations and motivations of the individuals involved in a seemingly straight-forward case--and in the process it raises certain ethical issues re attorney behavior and the lengths to which an attorney might go to win a case.
Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a small-town lawyer who has recently lost a re-election for the position of District Attorney and who is down on his luck--when a headline-making case involving assault, alleged rape, and murder drops into his lap. As the case evolves, there is no question about the identity of the killer. But a smart lawyer might be able to get him off just the same and redeem his own career in the process, and with the aid of an old friend (Arthur O'Connell) and his formidable secretary (Eve Arden), Biegler sets out to do precisely that. Opposing him in the courtroom is Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), a high powered prosecutor who is equally determined to get a conviction... and who is no more adverse to coaching a witness than Biegler himself. The two square off in a constantly shifting battle for the jury, a battle that often consists of underhanded tactics on both sides.
The performances are impressive, with James Stewart ideally cast as the attorney for the defense, Ben Gazzara as his unsavory client, and a truly brilliant Lee Remick as the sexy and disreputable wife who screams rape where just possibly none occurred; O'Connell, Arden, and Scott also offer superior performances. The script is sharp, cool, and meticulous, the direction and cinematography both effective and completely unobtrusive, and the famous jazz score adds quite a bit to the film as a whole. Although we can't help rooting for Stewart, as the film progresses it seems more and more likely that Remick is lying through her teeth and Gazzara is as guilty as sin--but the film balances its elements in such a way as to achieve a disturbing ambiguity that continues right through to the end. If you expect a courtroom thriller with sudden revelations and twists you'll likely be disappointed in ANATOMY OF A MURDER, but if you want a thought-provoking take on the law you'd be hard pressed to find one better. Recommended.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
Otto Preminger, who produced and directed this fine courtroom drama starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, George C. Scott and Ben Gazzara, had a knack for translating best-selling mid-cult novels to the screen (The Man with the Golden Arm (1955); Exodus (1960); Advise and Consent (1962) and others) usually in a nervy manner, sometimes heavy-handed, sometimes pretentious, but always worth a look. Part of his secret was star power. Like Hitchcock, he liked to go with big names supported by fine character actors. And part of his secret was his long experience in both the theater and films going back to the silent film era. He knew how to put together a movie. But more than anything it was his near-dictatorial control over the production (something directors seldom have today, and never in big budget films--Preminger's were big budget for his day) that allowed him to successfully capture the movie-going audience at midcentury.
This and Laura (1944) are two of his films that go beyond the merely commercial and achieve something that can be called art. Seeing this for the first time forty-three years after it was released I was struck by the fine acting all around and the sturdy, well-constructed direction. James Stewart's performance as the Michigan north country lawyer Paul Biegler might shine even more luminously than it does except for a certain performance by Gregory Peck three years later as a southern country lawyer in the unforgettable To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Lee Remick, in a frank, but imperfect imitation of Marilyn Monroe, co-stars as Laura Manion, the wife of army Lt. Frederick Manion (Gazzara) whom Bielger is defending on a murder charge. The defense is temporary insanity because the man he shot raped his wife. Bielger slyly gains sympathy for his client by deliberately allowing it to come out that Laura is sexy and flirtatious enough to drive any man crazy. Indeed, he tricks the prosecution into doing his work for him. George C. Scott plays Claude Dancer, a big city prosecutor, with snake-like precision while Gazzara manages to combine introspection and cockiness as the young lieutenant. Fine support comes from Eve Arden (best known as Our Miss Brooks on TV and in the movie of that name) as Biegler's loyal secretary and Arthur O'Connell as his alcoholic mentor. Kathryn Grant, who gave up a promising film career to marry Bing Crosby and have children, has a modest role as the murdered man's daughter.
I've seen many courtroom dramas, some real, some fictional, since this film first appeared, but I have to say it stands up well. The action (for the most part) feels realistic and the tension is nicely created and maintained. The resolution is satisfying and the ending is as sly and subtle as any country lawyer might want. Incidentally, if this movie had more total votes cast at IMDb, it would rank in the top one hundred of all time, which is where it belongs.
See this for James Stewart whose easy, adroit style under Preminger's direction found full range. Although he gave many fine performances, I don't think Stewart was ever better than he was here.
This film hooks you in the first minute with Saul Bass' brilliant titles and Duke Ellington's music, and then has you caught for the duration in the next few scenes; the dialogue is sharp and intelligent, and at the age of 50, Jimmy Stewart gives one of the best performances of his illustrious career, as Paul Biegler, an attorney who would rather be fishing than getting fees for his work. Stewart is so natural, so real, and so immensely likable. He's the kind of guy you wish you could have in your family, but wily enough to argue a good defense in court.
Lee Remick has just the right amount of provocative sensuality as Laura Manion to make one wonder what exactly happened on the "fateful night" in question.
After playing Southern belles in both "A Face in the Crowd" (1957) and "The Long Hot Summer" (1958), Remick was offered the role of Laura because Lana Turner, who was supposed to play the part, refused to wear an "off-the-rack" wardrobe, and wanted dresses designed by Jean Louis (hardly what a Army wife would be wearing). It was a big break for Remick, and she makes the most of it.
The entire supporting cast is superb: Ben Gazzara as the intense Lt. Manion, Arthur O'Connell as Biegler's assistant and friend, Eve Arden as Biegler's loyal secretary. George C. Scott is Dancer, the Assistant State Attorney, and Joseph N. Welch, who gained fame for being the Special Counsel for the Army in the Army-McCarthy Congressional hearings, is a delight as Judge Weaver. Duke Ellington makes a cameo appearance as Pie Eye, and even Muffy the beer drinking dog does a great job. Otto Preminger's direction flows at a lovely pace, with a balance between the dramatic tension and thoughtful scenes tinged with humor.
There were Oscar nominations for Best Actor, Supporting Actor (both O'Connell and Scott), Picture, and Editing (all losing to "Ben Hur"), as well as Sam Leavitt's beautiful b&w cinematography (lost to "The Diary of Anne Frank") and Wendell Mayes marvelous screenplay adaptation of the Robert Traver best-seller (lost to "Room at the Top"), proving that 1959 was a great year at the movies.
I love courtroom dramas, and this is one of the best ever made; it's unpredictable, with a very authentic feel to it, perhaps because the author, using the pen name of "Robert Traver", was actually Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker.
Total running time is 160 minutes.
on February 1, 2002
A couple of years ago, there was a poll conducted among legal professionals (lawyers, judges, etc.) on what they felt was the best and most accurate courtroom picture ever made. "Anatomy of a Murder" was the unanimous choice. Those seeking to enter the legal profession will certainly enjoy this film, but so will those who have a love for classic Hollywood films. Otto Preminger was one of the best directors working in the Hollywood when the studio system began to collapse, and this is probably his best film.
Tightly constructed with a superb cast and crisp writing, this is mainstream entertainment of the highest order.
Never one to let censorship interfer with reality, Preminger often tackled controversial subjects without sanitizing it. His groundbreaking films no longer seem controversial today, but because he never flinches from his subject matter, his films tend to date better than most of the period.
People have complained that this DVD is pan and scan. While it is full frame, it's not actually pan and scan. The film was originally photographed in a way that captured a full frame image, but was intended to be shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio with the aid of a matte. As such, the film was composed for this aspect ratio. What they did for this DVD is transfer the entire image, exposing parts of the frame that was never meant to be shown. As a result, you have massive headroom in some shots, much more than originally intended, and the added open space ruins the tight compositions that were intended for each shot.
Of course, there are people out there who could care less and just want to fill their TV screens. However, if you really want to see the film in an appropriate setting, seek out the import version of this DVD at amazon.co.uk, which has been matted to the appropriate 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
on December 10, 2007
The original aspect ratio of this film is 1:85:1 (see IMDB).
The US DVD box from Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment contradicts this, saying:
"This film is presented in a FULL SCREEN VERSION which preserves the original theatrical aspect ratio, approximately 1:33:1."
In civil society, this may be called false advertising. The box does not contain what the box says it contains.
The DVD itself warns as it begins playing that the film "has been modified to fit your TV". In other words, it was re-edited in the 80s or 90s by another (anonymous) director/editor using the notorious 'pan and scan' technique, which cuts off the right and left edges of widescreen films, and adds new camera movements and re-scales some images to make certain that the action remains on screen in the new, square-ish ratio.
Amazon's Internet Movie Database correctly identifies the aspect ratio. Columbia distributes THAT version in Europe (which is why when you search for this film on Amazon, the European release comes up too). If you buy that version in the US, you'll pay a little more, and you'll have to use a region-free dvd player to view it. Here's the link for that version:
Anatomy of a Murder European DVD
Your second option is to buy this movie from Amazon Unbox, which presents it in its correct aspect ratio:
Anatomy Of A Murder from Amazon Unbox
Your third option is to wait on buying this until they release the original.
on June 23, 2012
Recently I swallowed hard and paid Criterion's price for a Blu-ray disc of "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959) which has long been one of my favorite films. I think I've watched it 20 or 30 times since I saw it in a theater in 1959. Reminds me of one of George S. Kaufman's barbs: "What's the matter? Didn't you get it the first time?" At any rate, the Blu-ray is terrific and we see it the way it was originally photographed and not the damned 4 x 3 screen with which Columbia/TriStar butchered the DVD release.
It's among my favorite courtroom dramas along with "Inherit the Wind" and "Judgment at Nurmenberg."
The choice of Duke Ellington and his Orchestra for a music score was interesting. Big bands were in decline since the end of World War II as many of the musicians of the day had been drafted and the rise of television did the rest. People at one time liked to go out at night and dance or go to the movies and now they were sitting at home watching their new TVs. Ellington and Count Basie were the last two black bands still in the business but by the early 50s Ellington was ready to pull the plug. The era of his greatest popularity had been the 30s and 40s. Then something unexpected happened. George Wein who was managing the Newport Jazz Festival booked Ellington's band for one night at the 1956 festival. The evening went well -- they were graciously received but nothing special. Then during a break Ellington decided to play two pieces he had written in the 1930s: "Diminuendo in Blue" followed by "Crescendo in Blue," connected by a saxophone solo by tenor saxophonist Paul Gonsalves. The first part was played and Gonssalves started his rocking, blues-based solo. After six or seven choruses, Ellington sensed a reaction coming from the audience so he signalled Gonsalves to continue playing. The crowd became more and more excited. By the time Gonsalves had blown 27 choruses, the audience was on the verge of a riot. People were standing on the chairs and dancing in the aisles. When the piece ended, Elllington began to fear an actual riot and wanted to end the set. George Wein told Ellington to play a couple of slow numbers to calm the audience down. George Avakian of Columbia records was there and immediately put Ellington under contract and released an (edited) album of the concert. It became a best-selling LP, unheard of for jazz. Ellington's picture appeared on the cover of Time and he changed his mind about terminating his orchestra. Most of his musicians had been with him through the 30s and 40s and when he composed a new piece he did so with a specific musician in mind, something no other band leader had ever done.
How can you reconcile the music of a black jazz band with a story of a murder trial in upper Michigan? You really can't except that Otto Preminger, an immigrant from Vienna, thought of jazz as THE American music, something most Americans did not, being largely unhip.
There are moments in the film when Ellington's music seems to be at odds with the subject, but in the scene in which Stewart and Remick are talking outside of her trailer and he, as her attorney, is warning her that her public behavior could well cause a negative outcome in her husband's trial, a soft bluesy theme with dense harmonies is heard and it is absolutely perfect. We sense in his admonishment of Remick's behavior that he, himself, is drawn to her and it is all said with that musical interlude.
The rendering of this great film on Blu-ray is ideal both in video and sound. The spoken track is vividly recorded and very clear and Preminger used both very close and very distant microphoning to get different effects. The music track, unlike the way jazz is usually recorded -- rather up-front and brilliant -- here is slightly soft in the treble, but not muffled, giving it an intimate quality ideal for this occasion. Unfortunately there is no commentary track, but the extras are very fine and informative.
on May 27, 2014
This movie, based on a true Michigan murder case, is one of Otto's best. The cast is stellar, right down to Eve Arden's husband as the inept prosecutor. Some of the exchanges between Stewart, for the defense, and George C. Scott, for the prosecution, are among the best in any courtroom drama ever filmed. Remick is wonderful as the innocent sex kitten wife of the defendant, Ben Gazzara, who plays the scheming defendant perfectly. Do not miss this one!
on March 2, 2012
As usual I want to start with a complain against Amazon for lumping all product reviews of a film regardless of which edition under one heading (and allowing those idiots with customer service issues to post 'product reviews' bemoaning their mis-treatment at the hands of faceless capitalism).
This review is of the Criterion Blu Ray Edition ONLY.
Some aspects of the film are a bit dated; but all in all is is a classic resorted to beautiful condition! The picture is sharp and clear, the great Duke Ellington sound track (and live performance!) is terrific. What a treat to see this much like I remember it.
This is probably one of Preminger's best films. There are no big action scenes at all, but the sparing of a mature James Stewart and (a very young) George C. Scott are amazing to watch. I had forgotten how good this film was and I'm very happy with it.
Since Amazon has seen fit to lump all home-viewing formats of ANATOMY OF A MURDER together into these listings -- the cheap but poorly formatted, fullscreen-looking DVD version of the widescreen release from Columbia, the more recent and expensive widescreen-restoring DVD from Criterion, and the new Blu-Ray, I can only make a few remarks about the film itself and try not to give undue weight to format quality per se.
ANATOMY OF A MURDER is justifiably praised; it's a wonderful courtroom-based drama. True, the movie may be a little lengthy for its genre, but consider the character relationships going on in this adaptation of Robert Traver's 1959 bestselling novel: the redemption of the lead character (Jimmy Stewart's) alcoholic partner, played by the incomparable Arthur O'Connell, the slow-burn combination of insolence and apathy portrayed by prisoner Ben Gazarra, the amazingly sexy yet calculating young wife portrayed by relative newcomer Lee Remick, without whom the film could not have succeeded. Sometimes Eve Arden gets left out of the appraisals, though I think she is perfectly wonderful playing the humorous yet sympathetic secretary/facilitator Maida Rutledge, Stewart's Gal Friday (to use a Fifties expression), who adds so much to the scenes in the office as well as in the courtroom. Director Otto Preminger's style is not flashy (he even disdained flashbacks) but cumulative; every emotional payout is well-earned. Even the crisp Upper Peninsula (of Michigan) scenes add to the overall tone of the movie. ANATOMY OF A MURDER is a long film, but it never failed to hold my interest. I've seen it twice in my life, most recently last week, and surely hope to see it again in the future.
on August 20, 2012
In addition to an incredibly great transfer of my favorite picture, Criterion Collection shows what a class act they are. No unskippable ads; but a disc filled with truly interesting, relevant extras. This is what the medium is supposed to be like.