Film Review: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Updated: Jan 1, 2021
A rare courtroom drama that puts the audience into the position of a jury.
What do you think when you think of courtroom dramas?
Blazing arguments in the courtroom aside, by the time the proceedings begin the audience is comfortably aligned with the story's viewpoint, its the perception of right and wrong. Or, they are in dark about what took place only to discover "what happened" along with the main players.
Otto Preminger's film subverted these tropes and placing the audience in an uncomfortable position where they do not know whom to side with. But the film is challenging on multiple levels.
A washed-up attorney Paul Biegler (James Stewart) in a small town has settled for a relaxed life with fishing, jazz, his sharp-witted loyal secretary Maida (Eve Arden) and his alchoholic friend Parnell (Arthur O' Connell). when he gets a high-profile case of defending a young lieutenant Manion (Ben Gazzara) who has shot dead his wife Laura's (Lee Merrick) rapist.
It was the era when Hollywood had to strictly adhere to the Motion Picture Production Code, a self-censorship law, and the language in the film was deemed objectionable. It was the first time the American audiences were hearing casual discussions of rape with the dialogues repeatedly referring to "ripped panties", "climax" etc. It was banned in Chicago upon its release and James Stewart's father famously called it a "dirty picture".
Like in La Verite (reviewed here), it is the woman's character that comes under scrutiny. The prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) attacks her tendency to be "friendly" and not wearing girdle or stockings as an invitation to getting raped.
But unlike Clouzot's film, there are no flashbacks here which detail what happened and there is a good reason for that. Preminger does not use flashbacks to recreate the crime and its circumstances because he wants the audience in the place of an actual jury. He wants them to base their judgment on the arguments (read stories) that they are arbitrarily presented with, rather than what they have seen. It is this agenda that makes the murdered person Bernard Quill conspicuous by his absence. While everyone who knew him vouches for his good character, the defense attorney shreds his reputation as a wild womanizer. Preminger is questioning the whole legal system and how each judgment relies on storytelling rather than the "truth".
It takes Preminger an hour to reach the court and he is content to makes his key players interact, question and investigate. This might sound frustrating and could even be in another one, but Anatomy of Murder is so gripping that one happily goes along with this flow. The performances are top-notch here and further help keeping the audience involved.
The screenplay by Wendell Mayes is based on the novel by Robert Traver, which in turn was based on a real-life shooting of a bar owner. Traver is actually the pen name of John D. Voelker, the defense attorney in the shooting case (!)
The film was also a thinly-veiled criticism of the Eisenhower-era. The judge is played by Joseph Welch, a lawyer who had stood against Joe McCarthy and his witchhunt of Communists within America. Preminger further complicates the case by presenting a decorated Army officer as a volatile, probably even psychopathic man with a tendency towards domestic violence.
Anatomy of a Murder is sharp, powerful and greatly cinematic. The noirish deep focus cinematography by Sam Leavitt is great. Not to mention the jazzy background score by the legendary Duke Ellington. All actors, even in small roles, leave their mark. Out of its seven Oscar nominations, three were for acting.
The original trailer:
Those who are more aware of court proceedings have hailed Anatomy of a Murder as most realistic. This ties in with the conclusion that almost all students of the director, arrive at: that he was a brilliant "observer" and chronicler. This is something that he does superbly here.
In fact, the film was sued by the family of the real murder victim as they found that it follows the real murder trial "too closely".
I'm sure Preminger took it as a compliment.
Criterion's release of Anatomy of a Murder is a definitive package.