Anatomy of a Murder
The Criterion Collection
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A virtuoso James Stewart (Vertigo) plays a small-town Michigan lawyer who takes on a difficult case: that of a young Army lieutenant (The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’s Ben Gazzara) accused of murdering the local tavern owner who he believes raped his wife (Days of Wine and Roses’ Lee Remick). This gripping, envelope-pushing courtroom potboiler, the most popular film from Hollywood provocateur Otto Preminger (Laura), was groundbreaking for the frankness of its discussion of sex—more than anything else, it is a striking depiction of the power of words. With its outstanding supporting cast—including a young George C. Scott (Patton) as a fiery prosecuting attorney and legendary real-life attorney Joseph N. Welch as the judge—and influential jazz score by Duke Ellington, Anatomy of a Murder is a Hollywood landmark; it was nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture.
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In the Lincoln Lawyer, for example, we are shown a defense attorney who comes to the realization that his client is a murderer of willful intent. He is given ample reason to want to make the right decision, including the threats made by his client, and the apparent murder of his colleague. He is given a chance to make things right, both with his past client (who was wrongly-accused) and by putting his current client in prison for murder. And he takes that chance through a series of clever actions.
In Anatomy of a Murder, the defense attorney knows immediately that the defendant is guilty of murder with willful intent. Knowing fully that the defendant is guilty, and *before* even accepting the defendant as his client, the defense attorney gives the defendant a variety of resources and defenses to win his case. Why? And when told that he might not even get paid for his work, he still decides to take on the case. In his own words, "I think I'll just stay with you, to make damned sure you get off." Why? What is in it for him?
People often make the argument that, "he is just doing his job", but it was not his job to take on the case, or to help the defendant *before* accepting him as a client, or to do the job even on risk of not being paid, just to "make damned sure" the murderer is set free.
Why was Jimmy Stewart chosen for this film? He is shown acting deplorably, with no recognition whatsoever that his choices are wrong. What was the purpose of using his lovable character? To persuade through emotional appeal that his actions are good? To show the audience how easily they can be won over by emotion alone?
Some additional points:
* No chance for him to vindicate his past actions is provided by the plot. The conflict between his character and his actions is never resolved, and appears to have been purposely left unresolved, or even unacknowledged, as if to assume that there are no negative emotional consequences to bad actions - i.e., asserting a mind-body dichotomy.
* No examination is given for why he went from being a prosecutor to defense attorney, and how that has impacted him. Any such examination would have presented a contradiction between the lovable character and his choices - a conflict which would have demanded resolution through character development or final vindication.
* We are never clear on why exactly he proceeded with the case. He accepts the case just to "make damned sure" the murderer was set free, and he makes occasional reference to the legal fees, as if he is only in it for the money. Is this to demonstrate that he is greedy or selfish? If so, then how is it in his self-interest to set loose an extremely jealous, violent murderer, whose wife has made multiple passes at him. At the end of the film he is shown happily choosing to meet up with the murderer and his wife, knowing that the husband had witnessed his wife make passes at him. How is that a wise choice, if he is just being greedy and selfish?
* At the end, the lawyer is presented with clear evidence that the murderer never believed he was acting based on "irresistible impulse", by using the term jokingly. How does the lawyer react? By laughing it off.
* Even the title makes no sense, as nobody in the film is interested in examining the murder itself. The reason there is apparent ambiguity is simply because nobody in the film is interested in the truth except as it relates to helping or hurting their case. What actually happened doesn't matter to them - all that matters is that people believe what they claim happened.
I see praise for the film's representation of trial law. Now, if the film had only depicted a trial (a la 12 Angry Men), maybe I could agree. But we are given a preface and afterword, and my analysis has focused primarily on those, as they are the only means by which to judge the lawyer's decisions during the trial.
As I said, before even accepting to represent Manion, Biegler gave him vital legal advice and coaching, while knowing and explicitly stating that Manion was a deliberate murderer and there was no justification for his action. And after the trial is over, Biegler made clear his disinterest in the consequences of his actions, laughing at the bogus insanity plea.
Any law professor, judge, or lawyer who praises this film must necessarily damn himself.
I'll ask my original questions again: what is the purpose of making this film? What is the lesson? Do characters grow from their experiences? Is there a moral message behind the film?
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.
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.