Some films are a product of their time; others, timeless. And still others are changed by the passage of time. Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959) is of this latter ilk, a jazzy riff of a court room drama that, like all great art, tells far more than it actually shows. At the time of its release the film was a horrendous flub for all concerned, garnering critical praise by only a select few critics while being virtually overlooked by the general public. But time does strange things to art - or perhaps, even stranger things to the emotional psyche of a film’s potential audience. Perhaps, we've finally grown up - at least enough to justly appreciate Anatomy of a Murder as the true powerhouse that it genuinely is. From its unexpected (though, most welcome) Duke Ellington’s bee-bop score and Saul Bass's impressionist main title sequence, to its hard-hitting, frank and engrossing screenplay by Wendell Mayes (based on a novel written by Supreme Court Justice John B. Voelker) that never lets up for a moment on being up to the minute ultra-cool, slick and stylish - but with substance, Anatomy of a Murder takes one of the most tried and true genres in American movies (the crime/detective thriller) and makes even its most obvious conventions seem brand new all over again.
Indeed Preminger and his company were to descend on Ishpeming and Marquette Michigan, using the actual locations to get to the heart of what had been one of the most talked about trials in that region; the murder of a probable rapist by a hot-headed soldier. In fact, many who had partaken in the actual trial were cast as extras in the film, lending an air of authenticity that went well beyond mere verisimilitude. Preminger, who could be thorny, has been described as a ‘pussycat’ by many of these extras. Indeed, Preminger seemed to have immensely enjoyed the experience of making the film, getting along with his cast and crew and overall exhibiting the hallmarks of a true statesman as well as the master of his craft.
Anatomy of a Murder stars James Stewart as Paul Biegler, a laid back small-town lawyer whose imminent talents in the court room are not all that apparent at a glance. Paul used to be the D.A. in Upper Michigan But since losing his re-election he spends most of his time fishing, playing piano and catering to the alcoholic whims of friend and colleague, Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell). Paul's secretary, Maida Rutledge ( Eve Arden) also does double duty as 'his girl Friday' and devoted mother hen to both men, even if her pay voucher has a fifty-fifty chance of bouncing. They're quite a team in and out of the courtroom.
Paul is contacted by Laura Manion (Lee Remick), whose husband, Army Lieutenant Fred (Ben Gazzara) is currently in jail for plugging innkeeper Barney Quill, under the pretext that Quill raped Laura while he was away on duty. Unfortunately for Fred, he cannot claim justifiable homicide. But he may be able to use 'irresistible impulse' as his defense strategy. There are chinks in this armour, however. For starters, Laura is hardly the meek, stay at home little woman. In fact, Paul has to practically order her to swear off of men, honky-tonks and outright flirting to tame her party girl image. Worse, Fred seems to have a temper. Laura's black eye certainly attests to as much. The Manions' marriage is hardly a loving one. In fact, Fred's rather aloof when it comes to his wife's advances.
Paul attacks the case against Fred by putting the current D.A. (Brooks West) and prosecutor, Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) at ease with his homespun charm. But inside his head a keen deductive reasoning is playing out every possible high stakes shenanigan he can use to achieve an acquittal for his client. Against Dancer's strenuous objections, Paul gets Laura's rape admitted into court as evidence with Judge Weaver (Joseph Welch). Dancer's next strategy is to demolish Laura's pretext of a squeaky clean reputation. A minor bombshell explodes when Dr. Matthew Smith (Orson Bean) testifies that he doubts Laura Manion was raped. Dancer next points the finger at the Manions loveless marriage and brings out Fred's mistrust of his wife.
In the meantime, Quill's daughter, Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant) stands to inherit the inn. Mary refuses to believe that her father would rape anyone. But she's also fighting to keep her identity a secret because she was born out of wedlock. Worse for Paul, the inn's bartender Al Paquette (Murray Hamilton) - and who supposedly witnessed the murder - absolutely refuses to testify on the stand. In the climactic courtroom showdown, Mary testifies that she found Laura Manion's panties in the laundry room after the alleged rape, proof that Quill did, in fact, try to conceal the evidence as Laura had earlier suggested. Dancer retaliates, first by calling Mary a liar, then by accusing her of being Quill's lover. Instead, Mary submarines his theory by declaring that Quill was her father.
Fred is acquitted of the crime of murder by reason of insanity. But Paul's victory comes with a rather unsettling postscript. The day after the trial Paul and Parnell go to the Manions' trailer park to collect his legal fee, only to discover that the trailer has disappeared. A note left at the scene by Fred suggests that he was 'seized by an irresistible impulse' - the same theory Paul used in his defense. The curiosity herein is not so much that the Manions have fled the jurisdiction and their responsibilities to Paul, but that Fred might have actually beaten or even killed Laura before leaving for parts unknown. The trailer park pad is strewn with litter and empty bottles. However, it might also suggest that Fred knows he is guilty of the crime of Quill's cold blooded murder. Whatever the reason for the Manions hasty departure, the film concludes on the open-ended premise that Paul and Parnell are on their way to having another fine weekend together. We're at the same place we started before the trial began. '
Viewed today, Anatomy of a Murder is a classic that, unlike most others, doesn't feel its age. Part of the reason for this is Wendell Mayes' snappy dialogue. It's edgy without being dated, and gives each character something utterly fascinating to say. The other half of the equation lies with the actors doing the talking. There’s nothing even remotely creaky about these performances. James Stewart is brilliant, as are Lee Remick, Arthur O'Connell and Ben Gazzara: not a false note among them. George C. Scott's flashy mouthpiece is a tad over the top, but a nice contrast to Stewart's understated approach to his courtroom antics. All the pistons are firing and the results are pure entertainment dynamite!
Sony Pictures had previously released a DVD under the old Columbia Classics banner. The DVD was solid and gave a good representation of the film. But Criterion's new Blu-ray is absolutely stunning. By direct comparison this 1080p hi-def transfer delivers the goods on all levels: a reference quality disc. The B&W elements are in superb shape and what we get as a result is a starker, more refined, and most impressive image that extols all the subtle nuances of Sam Leavitt's cinematography. There's minute detail to skin, fabric, wood grain, etc. that ratchets up the visuals to a level unseen since the film's debut.
Criterion antes up with a brand spanking new 5.1 Dolby mix (uncharacteristic for a company that usually remains exclusively faithful to the film maker's original intent). Of course, Criterion also includes the original remastered mono. In truth, I could detect very little difference in either of these mixes, except to say that the Duke Ellington score is definitely the benefactor in the 5.1 stereo. Otherwise, this is primarily a dialogue driven film. Whether you choose the 5.1 or mono the results are likely to sound pretty much the same - clean with no discernible hiss and pop. Good stuff!
Running true to form, Criterion pads out this disc with a litany of suitable extra features. We get interviews with Foster Hirsch and Otto Preminger, a critique of Ellington's score by Gary Giddins, Pat Kirkham talks about Sal Bass' impressive main title sequence. There are also excerpts from a few vintage documentaries on the film and other interviews with Preminger, a trailer and an extensive booklet featuring an essay by Nick Pinkerton. Bottom line: this is a real NO BRAINER! Anatomy of a Murder is a stellar film, presented for the very first time on home video in stellar condition. Run out and buy it today!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)