I have been known to say that the courtroom is the place that good movies go to die, but even if you find the theatrics of the American jurisprudence system as appealing as a Nancy Grace marathon, Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959) loads its docket full of enough goodies to thrill even the most finicky viewer. What more can you ask than an uber sex-kittenish Lee Remick, a young Ben Gazzara in just his second film role, a neatly-dissected title sequence by Saul Vass, an already supremely confident George C. Scott in his second feature, a funked-out jazz score for the ages by Duke Ellington (who even appears in the film!), a judge played by the real life guy (Joseph N. Welch) who told Joseph McCarthy to cram it up his tailgunner pipe, a sordid and then-controversial story in which the words “rape,” “panties” and “violation” are repeatedly used, and America’s most beloved actor, the great Jimmy Stewart, playing a shady shyster?
I exaggerate a bit on the latter point. As Michigan-based Paul Biegler, Stewart plays that great cinematic staple, the simple country lawyer with the earnestness and charm that made him one of the most trusted figures in America. But this simple country lawyer deploys his Stewart-esque aw-shucks trustworthiness to ambiguous means. Biegler, in desperate need of a check to keep his shingle hanging, takes on the case of Army Lt. Frederick Manion (Gazzara) who shot and killed local tavern owner Barney Quill after Quill allegedly raped Manion’s wife, the coquettish Laura (Remick).
Nobody argues that Manion pulled the trigger, but it’s Biegler who subtly (or not so subtly) coaxes his client into concocting a temporary insanity plea. Playing the tried-and-true legal game of “find the right expert,” Biegler gets an Army psychiatrist to testify that Manion acted under an “irresistible impulse,” a direct conflict with the expert for the prosecution (a two-headed beast led by a smug “big city” lawyer played by Scott, poorly complemented by a whiny colleague portrayed by Brooks West) who says Lt. Manion knew exactly what he was doing.
As for what Biegler thinks about the matter, he’s not saying. His job is simply to prove his client wasn’t responsible, so that’s what he does, employing every cheap, pandering trick he can muster – and when you’re filled with the spirit of Jimmy Stewart, son, you’ve got plenty to muster. Biegler plays the courtroom gallery like a fiddle and situates himself, and by extension his client, as a victim of state persecution rather than prosecution. It’s hard to believe too many lawyers would get away with that kind of grandstanding, but, aw shucks, it’s Jimmy Stewart.
We’re genetically engineered to root for Stewart and therefore to assume his side is the right one, but in “Anatomy of a Murder,” scripted by Wendell Mayes from a book by judge-turned-author John Voelker (writing as Robert Traver), the scorecard gets cluttered pretty quickly. Everyone is playing the game to suit their own ends. The not-so-happy-couple can present a united front when needed, but Manion and his fun-loving wife each have their own agendas. And if they’re playing Biegler for a fool, he’s OK with it because he’s just playing the game too. The play’s the thing that gets his juices flowing. Ditto for the audience who gives up on determining what’s “right” and “wrong” and just enjoys the ride.
Preminger, at the height of his far-reaching fame (though several years before his chilling turn as Batman’s Mr. Freeze), knew how to make sure the ride was fully tricked out. Pairing the veteran Stewart with young up-and-comers like Scott and Gazzara might have been enough to secure the film’s place in history, but he went the extra mile by commissioning the now-legendary score by Duke Ellington, then riding the crest of a wave of surprising late career success. Preminger actually invited Ellington to spend months on location during shooting so he could get a proper feel for the material, and Ellington responded with a moody modern masterpiece.
For an added touch of fetishism, Preminger insisted the film be shot on the real-life Michigan upper peninsula locations of the Voelker novel, even setting up Biegler’s shop in Voelker’s real house. Whether the location shooting adds any verité-style authenticity to the film (which is mostly shot in a few indoor locations anyway) is up for debate, but it is one of many ways in which “Anatomy of a Murder” is marked as a unique product of the Hollywood system.
The most notable of these unique markers, though, was the stunt casting of Joseph N. Welch as the trial judge. Welch was already well-known to American audiences as the Army lawyer who scolded a sweaty, crumbling Senator Joseph McCarthy with the line: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last?” Though not officially an actor, his televised performance was one of the most memorable of the decade and he was the perfect man to cast in a film that celebrated the theatrical grandeur of the courtroom. It was his first and only film appearance (many roles were surely waiting for him, but he died the following year) and his wry sense of humor wins the day, making him the standout even in a star-studded cast. He gets the best line of the film when he admonishes a hammy witness: “Just answer the questions. The attorneys will provide the wisecracks.”
There are so many little flourishes that even at 161 minutes, “Anatomy of a Murder” never flags. As courtroom thrillers (larded with plenty of humor) go, it has few peers.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the 1080p transfer was “created on a Spirit 4K in 4K resolution from a new 35mm fine-grain master positive struck from the original camera negative at Cinetech laboratory in Valencia, CA.” Incredibly, this film was only released in Region 1 a decade ago by Columbia with a 1.33:1 open matte transfer. I don’t have the original for comparison, but I doubt I need it. This high-def image features sharp B&W contrast and strong detail throughout, and a beautiful fine-grain texture.
Criterion has included a PCM Mono track, and a new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The mono is the default and is, I suppose, the choice for purists, but it’s great to have both options. Obviously, the 5.1 is more dynamic and perhaps shows off Ellington’s score a little better. All dialogue is clearly audible and no distortion or hiss is audible. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
Criterion has packed this one full.
First up is an interview (2011, 30 min.) with Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch who reminds us of just how famous Preminger was at the time (he and Hitchcock were the two biggest celebrity directors of the era) and discusses the film’s production in detail.
Next, we get excerpts (10 min. total) from a 1967 episode of “Firing Line” in which Preminger talks about his fabled battles with censorship over the years. Hosted by William F. Buckley Jr.
Critic Gary Giddins (2011, 22 min.) speaks at length about Ellington’s contribution to the film. Saul Bass biographer Pat Kirkham (2011, 15 min.) sheds light on the years-long collaboration between Preminger and Bass, then and now the one name most synonymous with movie title sequences.
“Anatomy of ‘Anatomy’” (30 min.) provides excerpts from an in-progress documentary by filmmakers David C. Jones, Claire Wiley and John O’Grady. The documentary, which I haven’t had a chance to watch, is based on the experience of Marquette County, MI resident Joan G. Hansen who published a book about her experiences and the community’s experience during the filming of “Anatomy of a Murder.”
The extras collection concludes with Newsreel Footage of the on-location shooting (5 min.), 56 still photos by “Life” magazine photographer Gjon Mili, and one of those super-sized (5 min.) Trailers so popular at the time in which Preminger acts as a master of ceremonies introducing his cast and his story.
The 28-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Nick Pinkerton and an article from the May 11, 1959 issue of “Life” magazine about Joseph N. Welch’s film debut (article by Ernest Havemann).
I’m not the greatest fan of courtroom dramas, but “Anatomy” is a winner on so many levels, there’s no denying its appeal. This Criterion set is loaded with extras and features a strong transfer. Often, double dipping is a judgment call. However, for anyone who owns this on the incorrectly formatted, relatively bare-bones, decade-old Columbia DVD, you shouldn’t have to think twice before adding this one to your library.