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Studio: The Criterion Collection
Year: 1959
Cast: James Stewart, Ben Gazzara, Lee Remick, George C. Scott
Director: Otto Preminger
Release Date: February 28, 2012, 1:20 pm
Rating: Not Rated for (adult themes)
Run Time: 2h:41m:00s

"Just answer the questions, Mr. Paquette. The attorneys will provide the wisecracks." - Judge Weaver (Joseph N. Welch)

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Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder is as entertaining as it is thoughtful about the limits of the law in grasping human nature. It feels fresh and mature even fifty years later, and stands as one of the best courtroom dramas in film history.

Movie Grade: A

DVD Grade: A+

In Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder, a late-career James Stewart plays Paul Biegler, former district attorney and jazz piano player in rural Michigan who now spends pretty much all of his spare time fishing and boozing with an old pal (Arthur O’Connell). Army lieutenant ‘Manny’ Manion (Ben Gazzara) is arrested for the murder of the local barkeeper. Manion doesn’t deny the murder, but claims that his wife (Lee Remick) was attacked and raped shortly before by the same man. James Stewart hesitates, but is eventually convinced to take the case out of boredom and with encouragement from his drinking buddy (Arthur O’Connell) and long-suffering secretary (Eve Arden, playing a variation of her perpetually broke ‘Our Miss Brooks’ character). Complicating Biegler’s initial investigation into the facts of the case is the difficult husband and wife at the center of it. Manion is all bluster, and seems likely to have been a man of some violence prior to the murder. Remick’s character is an incorrigible flirt, making her unproven assertion of rape a tough sell to a rural jury in 1959. Biegler sees exactly one path to exoneration for his client, but it involves coaching Manion into a posture of temporary insanity. It’s just the first of several manipulations of law that the likable but ambiguous Stewart character will use.

The plot has some traditional courtroom twists and turns, including a dramatic (and slightly naughty, given the era) reveal in the final act. The structure is such, however, that there are relatively few surprises in terms of the case. Preminger lays things out fairly extensively from the outset: while the characters reveal themselves to greater and lesser degrees, there’s not much that we know about the case at the end that we didn’t know at the beginning. Rather than set things up like a Perry Mason episode, with revelations scattered throughout, the structure here is that of a classic heist caper in the vein of Basil Dearden’s The League of Gentlemen or one of the Ocean’s Eleven movies. We’re given all the information we need right up front...the remainder of the running time taken up with watching it all play out. Meanwhile, we’re left to decide, jury-like, whom to trust. It’s hard not to conclude, by the end, that each character has something to hide and that each is willing to bend the law to his or her own purpose.

Preminger’s style here, as in many of his films, is a kind of benign ambiguity. George C. Scott’s Claude Dancer is a snide and antagonistic presence, with all of the requisite qualities of a film villain. He’s also a prosecutor who is working to convict an admitted murderer. James Stewart plays, in many ways, the same charming and homespun character that he became famous for portraying in any number of films. Here, though, he’s willing to resort to any legal trickery (including witness coaching) necessary to acquit his client--the aforementioned admitted murderer. Likewise, Ben Gazarra and Lee Remick play a couple about which we never really know much at all for certain--it’s clear that each has a dubious relationship with the truth. Each seems to be lying at least half of the time, but Preminger never tips his hand. The action isn’t confined entirely to the courtroom, but we’re presented with testimony in the Rashomon-like manner of an actual trial. Each witness has his or her own clear-eyed view of the events in question, and each character has a set of ethics that lead them in entirely different directions. Which facts are relevant is up to the us and the jury to decide. It’s this structure that makes the film so popular among legal types as an unusually (if not strictly) accurate representation of the legal process. In that way, it’s rather like life.

The jazz score here by Duke Ellington (who has a cameo in the film) is a highlight, as is the performance of real-life attorney Joseph N. Welch, but the film feels strikingly modern in other ways. Preminger’s appropriately stand-offish style of filming means that we’re spared the dramatic underlining that had been so prevalent, for better or for worse, in many of classic Hollywood’s biggest films. Anatomy of a Murder is one of the lesser-appreciated, but nonetheless groundbreaking, films that appeared on the cusp of the more naturalistic style of filmmaking that would evolve throughout the 1960s and flourish in the 70s. The moral ambiguity here is surprising for a film of the period, and feels fresh even today, when we still expect to have our heroes and villains clearly laid out for us. To say nothing of the language: if there’s a major film prior to this that includes discussions of rape, sperm, and/or panties, I’ve certainly never seen it. Not to say that the film is exploitative, certainly not compared to modern forensic dramas, but much of the dialogue is strikingly frank and mature for a film of 1959. Preminger spent much of his career tweaking the censors, no more so than here.

The Disc:

The film may be ambiguous, but the presentation here is not: it’s a knock-out. Criterion’s high-def print is absolutely stunning. The image is clear and crisp, while looking every bit like film. The black and white contrast is brilliant--this is a disc that you could show to anyone who wonders how black and white benefits from the high-definition treatment. Likewise, the new 5.1 HD DTS soundtrack on the Blu-ray is bright and well-balanced.

The package also includes a solid array of extras: Foster Hirsch on Otto Preminger, running at around 30 minutes, is an interview with Preminger’s biographer. It’s a fine introduction to the director’s life and body of work. Otto Preminger on Firing Line consists of 10 minutes worth of excerpts from a 1967 episode of William F. Buckley’s series in which the two debate the merits of film censorship--Preminger coming down, not surprisingly, against. Gary Giddings on Duke Ellington, running for 22 minutes, is a discussion from the critic about Duke Ellington’s contribution to the film. Saul Bass discusses the work of the legendary Saul Bass in creating the film’s iconic opening title sequence and promotional art. There’s some fun vintage Newsreel Footage involving the film crew showing up in Michigan and making quite a stir. Several dozen of photographer Gjon Mili’s Production Photos are presented as a slideshow. Running at about 30 minutes, Anatomy of “Anatomy” consists of excerpts of a documentary work in progress about the real life case that inspired the film. Finally, there’s a fun Theatrical Trailer that includes some behind-the-scenes footage.

Ross Johnson February 28, 2012, 1:20 pm