Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Otto Preminger)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
There’s something inordinately haunting about Otto Preminger’s courtroom epic Anatomy of a Murder, the unusually stark and realistic Hollywood film that helped signal the beginning of the end of the Production Code. Taken from a novel by a Michigan justice that was in turn inspired by a case he won as a defense attorney in 1952, the film takes pains to unwaveringly examine an average first-degree murder trial from beginning to end. That the distributor (Columbia) permitted Preminger to tackle this distinctly unflashy project without requiring censorship of graphically described events and then-taboo words (“rape,” “panties,” “bitch,” “slut”) led the resulting movie to feel very much like a product out of time. At nearly three hours, it allows the unsparing, sometimes seemingly minute and superfluous details to unspool gradually and reward close attention; this makes it one of the most absorbing movies of its kind.
When author John Voelker and by extension Preminger and screenwriter Wendell Mayes say “anatomy” in the title, they mean it — the picture begins at the first phone call to a lawyer about the crime-of-passion revenge wrought by a young Korean War veteran against a man accused of raping the lieutenant’s wife; it ends in the aftermath of the verdict, and takes virtually no shortcuts in the arduous process along the way. There’s a certain grittiness to the picture, emphasized by Duke Ellington’s stunning, still disarming jazz score and Saul Bass’ skeletal title sequence, suggestive of film noir. Anatomy has never been popularly considered noir, and with good reason: without exception it dryly approaches the skeezy excesses of crime pictures from the era — from a femme fatale to a shitty dive bar to the general mundane luridness of the crimes at hand — and pointedly refuses to run with any of them.
The shreds of noir are significant, however, for what information they give us about the characters driving the narrative; the discarded details that might become the subjects of gawking obsession in a lesser film are only covertly addressed, as in the finest work of John Ford. Take, for instance, the defense lawyer’s attraction to his client’s wife, battered and clearly frightened but also openly restless and unashamedly promiscuous — we meet her in a fashion familiar from a thousand viewings of The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity and their ilk: the ice-cold dame and dynamite flirt waiting in the office. But with several key differences, not least being that there’s nothing ice-cold about this burdened woman.
The first is that Anatomy of a Murder takes place in the real world, not the expressionistic and destructive chamber of horrors in which all film noir was set. The attorney Paul Biegler, a retired D.A., is a tireless professional and catches himself before responding in kind to the lonely Laura’s temptations. It also helps that Mayes has constructed a series of such complex characters who earn our empathy in equal turns even when they’re at odds, and that Preminger stages all this with such nonchalant, unfussy grace — there is too much ground to cover, it seems, to linger on anything beyond a cloudy implication. Most of all, however, moments like this soar because of the actors.
It makes a world of difference that the actor cast as Laura is Lee Remick, frequently employed as a sort of earthy ingenune, occasionally as a victim of violence or disease, and most memorably of alcohol in Blake Edwards’ devastating Days of Wine and Roses. It doesn’t necessarily register when you first see Anatomy of a Murder and are inescapably caught up in the mechanics of the plot, with a new piece of information commanding your attention every minute or less, but on revisits you can trip yourself up concentrating on the obvious pain and resignation in Remick’s characterization of the military bride. Without any extensive statement laying out these elements of her life, we can discern the disappointment she feels in her prison of upheaval, bars and trailers; the shame she feels for what few things bring her joy; and the fear she has of a clearly violent husband (Ben Gazzara, convincingly acidic and charming). Her fun-loving, often intoxicated demeanor betrays the misery behind her eyes and bruises; it’s no wonder she sits flirting with Biegler and tries several times to make him warm up to her. He’s the kindest man she’s likely ever had enter her life, and when she sits cross-legged in her office blasting his Brubeck records, she is not a seductress in the fashion of a Lauren Bacall or Lana Turner. She is completely powerless and vulnerable, and there’s no mistaking what’s succeeded in breaking her spirit to this point. (The uncertain, shaky-voiced testimony she later gives is actively upsetting to witness.)
Of course, most importantly to this and to nearly every other scene in the film, Biegler is portrayed by James Stewart, and in a career full of powerhouse performances this is one of his most riveting. One can’t name many actors with such a distinctive appearance and voice as Stewart who nevertheless could disappear so completely into his roles; as this film plays we never think of him as anyone except a hotheaded, economically fragile but comfortingly assured defense lawyer. Sinking completely into both his actual, endlessly cool character — a bachelor who plays jazz piano and shares calm rapports with his hard-drinking legal buddy (Arthur O’Connell) and eye-rolling but warm assistant (Eve Arden) — and the shock-feigning, high-strung performative cloak of the trial itself, he is utterly believable regardless of how far this frigid, broken upper Michigan is from the Boy Scout universe of Stewart’s films with Frank Capra. He’s brilliant in those pictures too, not to mention the four he made (all with equally ambiguous roles) for Alfred Hitchcock, but this is the most convincing he ever was as a mere working mortal. He makes us love the man he’s playing — shuffling around with his little fly-fishing traps while listening to testimony, bounding all about the court in battle with a merciless prosecutor played by a monstrously chilly-eyed George C. Scott, he’s a hero. Yet is he really?
Considering that Anatomy of a Murder in its first incarnation was the story of a triumph of courtroom defense and that a big part of its continued appeal is how meticulously it captures the reality — largely mundane, if never boring — of legal work, it’s no accident that it allows for a streamlined, unambiguous interpretation. Preminger’s expert staging of the trial — which dominates the running time, though the preparation occupies the better part of the first hour — is in this regard a fascinating contrast to the way courtrooms were shot by Billy Wilder in Witness for the Prosecution, all tactless and comic, or by Robert Mulligan in To Kill a Mockingbird, blown up by broad emotional grandstanding, or innumerable others from Stanley Kramer to George Stevens to even Hitchcock in The Paradine Case.
Preminger instead presents the courtroom almost as a sort of sports arena, not in the sense that sheer competitive force is what wins the day (though this does seem to play a role in the verdict) but because the director tends to hang back and depict scenes in something resembling real time. Key moments like the closing arguments are omitted, so we’re still giving a selection of the “essence” of the trial as in most films of this sort, but the major feature of Preminger’s court is its feeling of absolute neutrality and the strong sensation that we’re watching people at work. Outbursts (except from the lawyers) are few. The judge (the great Joseph Welch, former counsel for the U.S. Army who shot that breathtaking extemporaneous rant at Joseph McCarthy on the Senate floor just a few years before this) is friendly enough and receptive yet skeptical toward both sides. It seems a level playing field.
Justice, however, is seldom all clear-cut and fair, and this case is no different. Preminger inherits Voelker’s implication that the American justice system is imperfect but works as well as any, at least when it operates with a commitment to the rights of a defendant and with all criminal verdicts reliant upon the burden of proof. It sounds obvious, but as Netflix’s instantly legendary Making a Murderer miniseries has recently reminded millions of people, the power of law enforcement and the state frequently overwhelms its opposition — even when such force is hardly necessary. The verdict in Anatomy of a Murder seems just and true at first glance, and if we’re mired in what we can’t possibly know except on emotional appeal, it’s better that it errs on the side of the defendant. Deeper down, however, the portrait it paints of the system is surprisingly pessimistic and unsettling. Preminger tells a lot of stories that play to completion only in our heads, after the film — those sideways glances between husband and wife in the courtroom, the shifty way Dancer glares at his own legal partner — and what they quietly point up, no matter how many lofty speeches about the magic of juries he brings us, is the amoral pragmatism, even cynicism, of the law in practice.
The earliest clues that a parallel narrative is being carefully concealed by Preminger are in Remick’s eyes in those early scenes. As with the film’s elegantly minimal but quietly searing emotional content — all of these lonely people who never dare talk of their loneliness — much of what we learn comes from what is not directly stated. There is the sideline drama of a hidden parentage at the dive bar that figured prominently in the case and the whereabouts of a pair of panties, which seem to close the case when they show up. Yet is the generally wrongheaded prosecutor Dancer really so far out on a limb when he wonders aloud how this evidence could so suddenly and conveniently appear? What of Biegler’s coolly dispassionate acceptance of his role as a hired hand who doesn’t and can’t care about his client’s guilt? What about the way Mr. and Mrs. Manion always hesitate when they talk about that night? What about Frederick Manion’s obvious jealousy and unhinged nature in regard to everything dealing with his wife? The case is won on technicalities, more or less, and probably on the resonant suggestion that murder is all but justified when the victim has just raped a loved one (though the actual defense is temporary insanity). There’s an extremely telling scene in which the defense team is able to point up an obscure case clarifying that an insanity defense can be valid even if a “right-wrong” distinction could be made in the accused’s mind at the time of the event. In short, as far as both prosecution and defense are concerned, the truth seems all but incidental to winning or losing the case… which is probably quite accurate, and that’s terrifying.
Not as terrifying, however, as the film’s finale. Remember first of all that Laura at one point blurted out that she wouldn’t mind so much if her husband was found guilty, as it would be one way to escape him. Later, in the final scene, the Manions — always on the move — have already skipped town, with Laura said to have been in tears. She went with him anyway, set to endure probably years more of misery and apprehension at the hands of a man who probably killed someone in cold blood, if we are reading the signs correctly that this was really a consensual extramarital sexual encounter followed by the revenge of a violent, jealous man. That may not be the case at all. The reality is unknowable, even as the unpaid defense attorneys smile, tell a bad joke and continue their lives with cheerful jazz playing us out; Preminger’s buried a bombshell in here, and its sickening inevitability is the real tragedy of the film. The malleable nature of truth will always mar justice meted out by the courts; the sad eyes of a woman completely alone and now whisked away once again on someone else’s whims will always be the sole evidence we get of the terrors taking place behind closed doors. These are problems with no solution. This story won’t end, it can only repeat.