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.