Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five): **** 1/2
From its opening onward, Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of Murder simmers like a slow-cooked stew. After Saul Bass’s sultry opening credits, the film opens as Paul Biegler (Jimmy Stewart) returns home from a fishing trip. Biegler methodically, wordlessly cleans his fish, places them in the icebox, and tidies up his office/living space. It’s a wonderfully inauspicious beginning; no flashy opening hook or clumsy exposition. While the film is by no means slow, this nice moment of domestic activity establishes Preminger’s pace – as its title implies, the film is a dissection of little, seemingly insignificant, moments and tossed-off words that add up to momentous events.
Biegler is a washed-up lawyer, a former district attorney who lost his post for undisclosed reasons. He takes enough small time cases to support his fishing habit and barely pay his secretary, Maida (Eve Arden). His evenings are spent drinking whiskey while poring over old law books with Parnell (Arthur O’Connell), a similarly disgraced ex-lawyer. Biegler and Parnell are more philosophers than lawyers, people of the book who savor every word of legislative precedents they read to each other while getting deeper into their cups.
Biegler is stirred out of semi-retirement after being summoned by Laura Manion (Lee Remick), the wife of an Army officer accused of murder. It’s the first high-profile case Biegler’s seen in a long time and, with Parnell and Maida at his side, he reluctantly takes it.
It turns out that Laura’s husband, Lieutenant Fred Manion (Ben Gazzara) has, indeed, committed murder, shooting a bartender who he believes has raped Laura. Biegler’s idea is to get Manion off on a “dissociative reaction” (aka temporary insanity) plea. Manion, however, is uncooperative (“insolent and hostile,” according to Biegler), defying Biegler’s efforts. The case becomes very complicated very quickly. Manion believes he needs no defense, that he’s upheld the “unwritten law” of murdering those who’ve wronged you. Biegler pursues his witnesses, including a taciturn bartender (a very cagey Murray Hamilton) and a beautiful, mysterious woman (Kathryn Grant) affiliated with the scene of the crime, but at least half of the film is devoted to the courtroom showdown between Biegler’s team and the prosecution, led by the relentless Claude Dancer (George C. Scott). Presiding over the trial is the sagacious Judge Weaver (Joseph N. Welch).
Preminger infuses the plot with a jazzy realism (nicely complimented by Duke Ellington’s wonderful score); the free-flowing nature of the investigation and eventual trial unfold deliberately without ever wasting a moment. Anatomy set the template for most trial thrillers that would follow. Eventual tropes such as surprise witnesses, dueling psychiatrists, attorneys frantically poring through tomes in the law library, and the all-important last-minute, jury-flipping testimony are all here and as fresh as they would ever be.
Preminger’s easy direction takes a backseat to Wendell Mayes’s astonishing script and the impeccable performances. Scott, Arden, O’Connell, Grant, Hamilton… everyone fully lives inside their roles. Stewart was in the middle of a winning streak, coming off of his greatest work with Hitchcock (Vertigo) and Anthony Mann (The Naked Spur). He brings a bemused world-weariness to Biegler, wonderfully calculating his courtroom performance, adding outbursts of righteous anger and bouts “aw-shucks” faux naivety at just the right times to manipulate the jury (and the viewer). Gazzara is the perfect heavy, managing to strike a balance between unlikeable and sympathetic. As the flirty floozy, Remick plays a grown-up version of her turn as a strumpet in Kazan’s Face in the Crowd. For all of her gamine wiles, though, Remick’s Laura is a well-drawn tragic figure; a womanchild married too soon to a jealous brute.
Lastly, the stand-out performance belongs to Welch. A former real-life attorney, Welch brings his judicial acumen and a helluva lot of whimsy to Judge Weaver. Welch is able to deliver lines like “Mr. Dancer, get off the panties; you've done enough damage,” with the perfect combination of humor and authority.
The Criterion edition contains a fascinating article about Welch’s transition from lawmaker to actor and comes well-appointed with hours of supplements, including explorations of the work of Saul Bass, Duke Ellington, and Preminger. As he did with The Man with the Golden Arm, Preminger takes potentially tawdry material and treats it with a cool maturity that must have helped in getting the film cleared by the censors. Beyond being a sexy, taboo-breaking progenitor of all other courtroom dramas that followed it, Anatomy of a Murder is a jazzy riff on the sticky semantics of justice.
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