Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tuesday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Film: ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959) starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O'Connell, Eve Arden, George C. Scott

Hadn't seen this in many years and the truth is I remembered it as being better than it is. But still, it's what we used to call, 'a pretty good flick'.

ANATOMY OF A MURDER is a film directed by Otto Preminger, from a script by Wendell Mayes based on the novel by Robert Traver and starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazarra, Arthur O'Connell, Eve Arden and George C. Scott.

Watched it last night on Netflix streaming and thought I'd jot down a few of my impressions:

Here, in my view, is one instance where the Saul Bass credits don't work as well as they might. Bass, as everyone knows was a brilliant graphic artist and designer, creator of many iconic film opening credits. Among my favorites: THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, WALK ON THE WILD SIDE, WEST SIDE STORY, THE BIG COUNTRY and so on and so on - fabulous stuff. Actually, in some cases, the credits themselves were better than the movie, as in the remarkable credits for WALK ON THE WILD SIDE which was an abysmal flopperoo.

Well, my reasoning for not liking the fit of Bass's modernistic credits for ANATOMY OF A MURDER is that the movie is not especially 'modernistic' in tone or subject or even in point of view - though of course there is all that talk about a woman's panties and even, dare I say it, the mention of sperm.Shocking, I suppose, in its time.

The credits are done in a very graphic style which is jarring in the sense that they mislead. But in this view I am probably in the minority and really, the credits are intriguing enough to capture the attention. Mustn't nitpick.

The low-key soundtrack is by Duke Ellington who rarely fails (he even has a small part as - what else? - a jazz musician), the music is alluring if maybe slightly too modern in feel. But it captures the 'sleaze' quotient of the crime.

The bare-bones plot:

Lt. Frederick Manion (the very intense Ben Gazarra) has been arrested for the murder of a local bar-tender named Barney Quill. Manion claims he shot Quill (five times) because the man raped and beat his wife, Laura (the beautiful and always vulnerable Lee Remick). From behind bars, Manion hires lawyer Paul Biegler (the laconic James Stewart) to defend him. Biegler has, as his 'crew' a hard-drinking, older 'law-clerk' Parnell McCarthy (the irascible Arthur O'Connell) and a wise-cracking secretary, Maida Rutledge (the always wonderful Eve Arden who made a career of wise-cracking).

Lt. Manion will plead guilty due to temporary insanity, a defense which the wily Biegler nudges him into.

Though most of the film takes place inside a courtroom, the setting is a bland, run-of-the-mill Michigan town near the Canadian border - try as I might, I never did catch the name. The film is shot in a slightly clunky way in black and white by Sam Leavitt. There are unaccountable moments in the beginning of the film when the camera-work seems almost amateurish, but it may just be that the version Netlix is streaming is not the best available. There are also some very claustrophobic scenes in Paul Biegler's small ugly house in which James Steward just seems too tall and too big for the rooms. (Actually, even Eve Arden looks odd inside that house.) But maybe that's intentional, at any rate, I couldn't wait to leave and head for the courthouse.

The lurid courtroom dramatics are powerful. The details of the sordid crime are gone into with a stoic 1959 relish which is at times appalling and at other times grimly laughable.

James Stewart shines as a lawyer outraged by the violence done to the wife of his client and eager to keep the prosecutors from glossing over the motive for hubby's extreme retribution. There is no 'crime passionel' aspect to the murder, since the Lt. waited an hour before heading out to kill the man who'd attacked his wife.

Inside that courtroom are two scene-stealers who manage to steal the show right out from under Stewart's nose: George C. Scott as a state attorney brought in to bolster the prosecution and best of all, Joseph N. Welch as the Judge.

Joseph N. Welch, James Stewart, Brooks West, George C. Scott

Joseph N. Welch was a curious bit of casting. He was a hero, a real lawyer, the head counsel for the U.S. Army while it was being investigated (in 1954) by the nefarious Senator Joseph McCarthy's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations which was on the hunt for communist activity therein. The investigation came to be known as the Army-McCarthy hearings.

Welch uttered the famous words: "Senator you've done enough. Have you no decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

As Judge Weaver, Welch gently wrestles the picture from the rest of the more seasoned cast and is a delight to behold. I would watch this film again purely for his performance.

George C. Scott as Assistant State Attorney General Claude Dancer is so intense in his role that he out-inteses Ben Gazzara which is no small feat let me tell you. In his powerful scenes with Lee Remick he seems to abuse her physically while never coming in contact with her. I thought for a moment he was going to jump out of his skin. He is as repellent as a cobra. That battered profile of his works a treat in close-ups.

But the rest of the cast is almost as good:

Lee Remick as Laura Manion is heart-breaking in her courtroom scenes, most of all because she seems so puzzled by it all. She plays a woman used to being oggled by men and not averse to drawing attention to herself by her 'jiggly' style of dress (she doesn't even wear a girdle for God's sake!). She sends out lures consciously or unconsciously that most men would have to be dead not to notice - even that old sweetheart, James Stewart, looks as if he'd like nothing more than to spend the night up at the trailer-park. Oh yes, Laura and her hubby live in a trailer - within walking distance of the local bar and grill and pinball machine emporium. (Well, one pinball machine does not an emporium make, but you know what I mean.)

James Stewart can't help looking like a sheepdog in his scenes with Lee Remick.

Despite her womanly wiles, Laura has a kind of naive quality which makes her seem less like a femme fatale and more like a lost innocent. In a way, she is the enigma at the heart of the film. She never seems outraged by the attack on her person or the fact that she has been raped. Rather she seems almost accepting of it. As she is accepting of the fact that no one thought to call the police and report the attack until after her hubby had killed the perp.

So strange to see a U.S. Army soldier sporting a cigarette holder. Kind of takes away from Ben Gazzara's intenseness. But I'm sure there was a very definite reason.

Ben Gazzara as Lt. Manion is another enigma. He is unlikable, not averse to slapping his wife around and basically unrepentant. Gazzara plays the part not in any way meant to make us feel sorry for his predicament which, in a way, is a weakness in the story.

There seems to be a heartbreaking futility in the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Manion.

James Stewart is wonderful as a guy with an obviously huge ego and a brilliant canny mind - a guy who, for whatever reason, is a lifelong bachelor seemingly devoid of ambition and apparently satisfied to wile away the days barely making a living and fishing for trout. We learn little of his background - except that he likes to fish and play or listen to jazz - but maybe that's okay. Still, I did wonder at his oddly uncomfortable way of living. Wondered too, why he'd need a secretary if his client list was so paltry. Still, I wouldn't have missed Eve Arden for the world.

Though ANATOMY OF A MURDER is a terrific courtroom drama not to be missed, it is not a great film. And here the blame goes to Otto Preminger who's directing wizardry isn't enough to quite hold the thing together.

Since it's Tuesday, don't forget to check in at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other Forgotten (or Overlooked) Films, Television and/or Other Audio/Visuals other bloggers are talking about today.


  1. Just caught a chunk of it again on the Movies! network in the wee hours. It was never absolutely rivieting, but remains well-made and entertaining, and a credit to all involved. The Ellington music certainly doesn't hurt. (Movies!, as is this new small broadcast network's wont, packed it full of five-minute-plus commercial breaks...so this long film ran for nearly five hours in their slot).

    1. You have more patience than I do, Todd. I wouldn't sit still for five hours to watch anything. I hate commercials. That's why I don't watch television show episodes as they appear online - I wait for Netlfix.

      Yeah, I loved the music and I also loved Jimmy Stewart's car - meant to mention that. :)

  2. If I ever saw this movie, I have forgotten it. It is my plan to read the book and watch the movie in 2015. Looking forward to it.

  3. (OK, it was nearly four hours on Movies!, 4:15-8a. But each of the commercial breaks made it Feel like an extra hour...) The film runs 161 minutes, or not quite 2.5 hours. Gives you some idea why a Netflix viewing, or DVRing and zipping through the ads, might be preferable...

  4. Scott had a good decade in the '60s.

    1. Yes, he was amazing. I could never figure out why he was so attractive. He shouldn't have been and yet he was. Go figure. And we know he wrote the book on intensity. :)

  5. This is a good movie, not great, as you say, but the cast is superb.
    Eve Arden is worth watching in any movie. Lee Remick is excellent. Jimmy Stewart is always fun to watch.

    Ben Gazarra's character is very unsympathetic, and I agree that his explanation for the murder doesn't hold up legally. Real people are often convicted for harming a perpetrator after the fact, i.e., when it's not self-defense, but is seen as revenge. Even acting out of anger is seen as some type of manslaughter. So there are complications here with this.

    Nevertheless, it's a good movie. And I like to see Jimmy Stewart, who resembled my father somewhat -- and he is likable.

    1. Oh yes, Eve Arden. She was SO wonderful. Do you remember OUR MISS BROOKS? I don't think we ever missed an episode.

      The movie has a terrific cast, it's the story that's a little weak and in some spots, the execution. But I blame Otto Preminger for that. I wonder what Alfred Hitchcock would have made of this.

  6. Nicely reviewed, Yvette. I have been meaning to read the book though now I'll also make it a point to watch the movie. The prospect of a courtroom drama through much of the film is definitely appealing.

    1. Thanks, Prashant. Oh yes, the court room drama makes up a good portion of the film Very riveting. George C. Scott is a wonder. I haven't read the book and I'm wondering if I ought to. Maybe I will.

  7. Yes! We watched Our Miss Brooks and I loved Eve Arden! I was very young at the time and it was one of the first TV series I watched, but I'll never forget her.

    She's good in everything. Maybe I should do a library search for her movies, so I can watch them. Nobody delivers sarcasm or irony the way she does.

    1. I loved her in ONE TOUCH OF VENUS with Ava Gardner and Robert Walker. In this one, Eve Arden gets her man at the end: Tom Conway. I LOVED THAT.

      Mr. Boynton. I remember that name from OUR MISS BROOKS and Richard Crenna as the screechy voiced teen with the felt beanie. HA. Oh and the principal - forgot his name.

      Kathy I read THE EARTH HUMS IN B FLAT. Didn't love it, I found it a bit too precious and hard to get into. Plus it's written in the present tense which as you know, I'm not overly fond of. Still, I did, eventually get engaged. I loved Gwenni's patient and ultimately, sad, father. Such a good man so not deserving of his lot in life. Still he seems to accept it. Does he fly too? I think he does, I hope he does.

  8. Oh, too bad. I loved Gwenni's character, her pondering of the world around her, just starting to see beyond herself and learning about other people and their problems. I missed her after I turned the last page, and wished for a sequel.

    The author wrote a book afterwards about Gwenni's grandmother Riannon, and her husband. Set in 1921 Wales, it's about her spouse's form of PTSD, and conditions of life post-war, with lots of plot elements. It's also about her finding herself as an individual.

    I liked it, and I can't figure out to whom I loaned it as it has not reappeared.

    I like how Mari Strachan thinks and writes. I hope she writes more fiction.

  9. I think Mari Strachan is a good writer, no doubt. But you know how it is, Kathy, some books speak to us and some don't. Perhaps I'm not sensitive enough, I don't know. Her mother was a very difficult character for me. I just wanted to get away from these people and their problems. Sometimes that happens to me with certain books. But I can still appreciate your affection for the book and its characters and your thoughtfulness in sending it along for me to read.

  10. I didn't like Gwenni's mother either, but I liked how Gwenni persevered and grew despite her mother's severe problems. It was interesting to me to see her that.

    Also, Gwenni's observations about class differences, between the wealthy and people like her family, and about the tragedy that befell a woman friend who was protecting her child.


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