Sunday, March 28, 2010

Anatomy of a Murder (1959) - Honorable Classic

On the Menu: ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959)
Ingredients: James Stewart, Ben Gazzara, Lee Remick, George C. Scott, Eve Arden, Arthur O'Connell and Kathryn Grant. Directed by Otto Preminger. Run time: 160 minutes. Rated: Unrated.

At First Bite: I had always thought this was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and I still thought it was as I was watching the opening credits. Then, of course, I saw Preminger's name instead. Within the last year, I have seen two of his other films: CARMEN JONES (1954) and BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING (1965). I enjoyed the latter far more than the former, but figured this one would be good just because of Stewart and Scott.

Paul Biegler (Stewart) is a small town lawyer, who spends most of his time fishing. His alcoholic, elder lawyer buddy, Parnell McCarthy (O'Connell), tells him about a case that has come to town. Lieutenant Frederick Manion (Gazzara) is in jail for murdering a bartender who allegedly raped his wife the same night.

Biegler decides to go with "irresistible impulse" as the defense. Unfortunately, he's stuck with a judge he doesn't know and the assistant district attorney is helping the prosecution. It also doesn't help that Mrs. Manion (Remick) is a seductress, and her husband is prone to fits of jealous rage.

The case really seems cut and dry, but the prosecution has seriously underestimated the country lawyer.

Tough to Swallow: When Parnell comes over to Paul's house in the beginning of the film, there are two shots where it's as though the cameraman bumps into the wall or doorframe while walking backwards. They're both pretty noticeable. I know Preminger uses long shots, but I would think you would cut and shoot it again.

Maybe it's just 1959, but the prospect of witness coaching doesn't seem to be that big of a deal, and I didn't understand how the prosecution could possibly keep the motive (rape) from being part of the murder case initially.

Something to Chew On: Michigan Supreme Court Justice John Voelker wrote the novel, which is based on a 1952 slaying just north of Marquette, Michigan. Voelker used the pseudonym Robert Traver.

The film was shot in two months, and just a month later it was already cut, scored and in previews.

During its original release it was banned from Chicago. It stirred controversy by including the words "bitch," "contraceptive," "panties," "penetration," "rape," "slut" and "sperm." James Stewart's father took an ad out in his local paper telling people not to see it. The film was one of the first Hollywood movies to challenge the Hays Code (censorship guidelines); the others were SOME LIKE IT HOT and PSYCHO.

Spencer Tracy and Burl Ives were offered the role of the judge, but it went to former U.S. Army lawyer Joseph Welch. Lana Turner was offered the part of Mrs. Manion, but Preminger turned her down because she wanted to only wear gowns by Jean Louis. With Turner in talks to play Mrs. Manion, Preminger had asked Remick to play Mary Pilant. Remick refused, but was later given the bigger role once Turner was out of the picture.

The entire soundtrack was composed by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn and performed by Ellington's orchestra. Ellington took home a Grammy for his efforts. He also has a cameo in the film as Pie-Eye.

The film was nominated for 7 Academy Awards: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor (Scott and O'Connell), Best Cinematography (B&W), Best Film Editing, Best Picture and Best Writing (Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium). However, the film did not win any Oscars.

The American Film Institute voted Preminger's film to be the 7th best courtroom drama of all-time (June 2008).

The film currently has an 8.2 user rating on (15,502 votes).

Sides: The DVD only includes a photo montage, some talent files and vintage advertising.

Aftertaste: I love courtroom dramas about as much as I enjoy prison movies. And, to have Stewart and Scott playing off of each other made this one brilliant. It's kind of the same situation you see in A TIME TO KILL; the country lawyer, with help from his colleagues (at least one drunk in each movie), goes up against a big-time prosecutor.

I still question why and how the issue of rape could have been ignored in the case. It was the motive. The defense actually had to put up a fight to get anything involving Mrs. Manion included. To me, it was a little strange. Neither side had a problem with witness coaching, which goes to show Biegler and Dancer (Scott) have their own problems with what is right or wrong.

The movie is 2 hours and 40 minutes long, but it doesn't feel that long. And, I think that has a lot to do with the verbal sparring between the lawyers. They're intense. They make it fun, and you're interested to see how they're going to one-up each other with every witness.

As much as I've talked about Stewart and Scott, the supporting cast is just as great. O'Connell and Arden, who plays Biegler's secretary, are wonderful complements to Stewart. Remick is a cutie, and plays the flirtatious wife to perfection. I spent most of the movie trying to figure out where I had seen Ben Gazzara before. I finally realized he was the crime boss in ROAD HOUSE. I do think though Remick and Gazzara, whether through acting or looks, make it harder to believe in the innocence of their characters.

The verdict is in: ANATOMY OF A MURDER is guilty of greatness.


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