Saturday, February 12, 2011

Anatomy of a Murder

Full confession right upfront: 
I am not a fan of court-room dramas, real-crime stories, or police procedurals. Have never seen The Accused, The Verdict, A Few Good Men, or any of the Law & Order / CSI franchises (I watched Night Court for awhile as a teen, but I don't think that counts). So I expected this flick to be a dull chore. It was not…

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Have to admit I was drawn to viewing it after learning the origin of the "pantie" riff as done by Professor Bobo (the ape) seen in this clip from MST3K.

Spoilers follow:

What makes this a great film? I could list at least a dozen reasons why, but now a day after watching it I am still wondering whether our "hero" did the right thing or not. The lawyer, Paul Biegler (Jimmy Stewart - performing as well as I've ever seen him, on par with his Hitchcock roles) defends his client valiantly, though at times reluctantly, eventually achieving  a "not guilty" verdict. Should be a triumphant finale, but throughout the film we are shown how the defendants Laura & Frederick Manion (Lee Remick & Ben Gazzara) are smug, self-centered, manipulative people with their own private agendas.

I was impressed with the pacing of the film, directed by Otto Preminger. At over two and a half hours long it never felt like a slog. The first hour set up the main characters in this small U.P. (Upper Peninsula, Michigan) town and outlines the basic facts of the crime. By the one hour mark the trial begins and the lawyers (including a hammy George C. Scott) present their cases and question witnesses. Details about the murder we have not yet heard are described in more detail, developing dramatic tension. Then, at the 1:30 point, the relevancy of the "rape incident" is broached, and the judge approves it's inclusion, then literally winds his pocket watch to indicate that this is going to be a long trial. Brilliant.

At the time (1959), this clinical talk of ladies undergarments, rape, and semen was new to Hollywood, and that alone makes this film "subversive." But what I was most amazed by was how we are constantly questioning the good Stewart is doing by defending these deceitful "trailer trash." Many times I was rooting for the prosecuting attorneys, even though they are always portrayed, in conventional film language, as being the villains (greased-back hair, mustache, etc.).

Tellingly for someone of my generation, I mainly knew Eve Arden as the high school principal in Grease. She is outstanding here as Stewart's dependable, though underpaid, secretary. Lee Remick is gorgeous and beguiling (I also recently enjoyed her in two Blake Edwards films from the 60's: Experiment in Terror and Days of Wine and Roses). 

But in fact, she is the true villain of the piece, as it was she who inspired all the pivotal actions: the rape, the murder, and crucially, Stewart agreeing to defend her husband. By the end I was convinced she was lying to everyone involved. Maybe Jimmy Stewart's lawyer character thought it too, but he had a case to win.

The score by Duke Ellington is also a plus, as are the opening credits from Saul Bass, giving the film an upbeat, funky feel, in sharp contrast to all the dark material it contains.

BONUS: more Lee Remick…

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