Anatomy of a Murder
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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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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.
What makes the movie a 100 best classic is the well-constructed plot, excellent dialogue and fully rounded cast of characters, all of them fully articulated and individual. The chief of these is Jimmy Stewart's character, Lloyd Biegler, a small town lawyer in Michigain's remote Upper Peninsula, licking his wounds in an impoverished private practice after losing a recent election for the District Attorney's Office. Biegler gets his big case as a private attorney when an army lieutenant, is tried for the murder of a local bartender. The rest is movie history with some of the best and most accurate courtroom drama probably ever put on the screen.
This is a can't miss picture.
I had the great good fortune this past weekend to revisit my old favorite, ANATOMY OF A MURDER, on Criterion's Blu-ray. I loved it as a kid, and I still love it now. This is a 2 hour and 40 minute film, and it does on occasion pace itself a bit slowly...but for the most part, it hums along quite crisply. Even though the movie is from 1959, and many of the legal arguments, forensic techniques and moral attitudes are utterly out-of-date...it feels remarkably modern in many ways. Perhaps that's because sharp scripts and great acting never go out of style.
ANATOMY OF A MURDER tells the story of a former prosecutor turned community lawyer (James Stewart), who would rather spend his days fishing, but is lured into taking the case of a military man (Ben Gazzara) who shot and killed the man who allegedly raped his wife (Lee Remick). The case is pretty open and shut, it would seem. Yet Stewart is clearly intrigued by the overtly sexual Remick and the possibility of trying to prove the husband had "an irresistible urge" which rendered him temporarily insane.
The film explores the case quite deeply and we get a good sense of all the witnesses and other personalities. Once the trial itself starts, nearly halfway through the film, we are primed to see how Stewart is able to plant reasonable doubt (although that term never comes up). The trial proceeds with lots of legal maneuverings and some of the most amusing courtroom antics I've seen.
I hesitate to reveal much about the plot beyond this, because half the fun of the film is watching the little bits and pieces of the story coming to light...yet the heart of the case remains ambiguous throughout. It's not the story of an "innocent" man trying to beat a rap. It's the story of how his lawyer, despite overwhelming odds, works to bend and twist things to his client's benefit. Although by today's standards, the moral ambiguities are fairly tame...this is at its core a DEEPLY cynical story. It seems like it should be more "heroic", because after all, that's JIMMY STEWART as the lawyer. He must be the "good" guy.
It's not that simple. Director Otto Preminger is greatly helped by a terrific script, but he's also assisted by the simple fact that the general public loves Stewart. We root for him immediately, and there's no doubt he is thoroughly charming and amusing. But it's far too simple to see him as merely a "good" guy. From the subtle coaching he gives his client, to the banter he engages in with the wife...this is a complex character whose scruples are not necessarily squeaky clean. It's actually quite amazing...we watch, liking Stewart immensely and realizing at the same time that what he's fighting for isn't exactly noble. It's not "un-noble" either...it's ambiguous.
Stewart is great. It's one of my favorite performances from him. At age 51, he's at the height of his acting powers (this was done around the same time as VERTIGO...Stewart was having a mid-career renaissance). His performance is funny, charismatic and nuanced. And while he's clearly the dominant force in the film, there are plenty of wonderful performances around. Really nice work from Eve Arden (Stewart's assistant), Arthur McConnell (Stewart's friend, a lush & former lawyer), George C. Scott (in a great early career role...his final cross-examination is a marvel) and even Murray Hamilton as a friend of the victim. Lee Remick, in an early role, is astoundingly sexual...it's a pretty daring performance for 1959. (Although I struggle with her being so vivacious just two days after being raped and her husband arrested for murder.) The only performance I didn't care for came from Ben Gazzara. It was a mostly one-note performance, and because his character is so unlikeable, not tempering that with some lighter or richer moments just didn't work. (And the guy smokes cigarettes in a long cigarette holder, while wearing his army uniform. It looks SO incongruous. It may be accurate for the time, but it was immensely distracting!)
ANATOMY OF A MURDER is just terrific. Funny, dramatic and well-crafted all around. And the Criterion Blu-Ray makes it look gorgeous. They've done a fantastic job of making the image looking like film being projected in a theater...the grain is very nice. They've pumped up the Duke Ellington score (Ellington appears briefly in the film himself)...I'm not a huge jazz fan, I must admit, but if you're a fan...the soundtrack alone makes the film worth experiencing, and the sound is immaculate on the blu-ray. I'll admit, I haven't spent much time with the bonus features, but they are plentiful and sound quite interesting. This is ALREADY a 5-star for me...but once I do settle down for some of the bonus material, that can only be enhanced.