Criterion // 1959 // 161 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // February 27th, 2012
There's no such thing as the unwritten law.
Director Otto Preminger thrived on controversy. Films like The Moon Is Blue, The Man with the Golden Arm, and Advise and Consent pushed the envelope on what was acceptable to be shown in films. A long-time free-speech advocate, Preminger was influential in the end of the Production Code in the late 1960s.
Anatomy of a Murder might have been the most controversial of Preminger's films, with its frank court room discussions of rape and use of words such as "semen," "panties," and "bitch." It is also one of Preminger's finest achievements, a fantastically acted and directed drama that offers no easy moralizing or resolutions. The film was released on DVD in 2000 in a bare bones edition with a full-frame transfer. Now, Criterion offers up Anatomy of a Murder (Blu-ray) in what might be the film's definitive edition.
Paul Biegler (James Stewart, Harvey) is a lawyer who's recently returned to private practice after being voted out as District Attorney. Business isn't exactly booming; he can barely afford to pay Maida, his secretary (Eve Arden, Mildred Pierce), so Biegler's spending a lot of time fishing and hanging with his old friend, one-time lawyer and now affable drunk, Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell, Picnic).
A potential case comes with a call from a woman, Laura Manion (Lee Remick, Experiment in Terror), whose husband is in jail for murder. The husband, an army officer (Ben Gazzara, Happiness), shot a saloon keeper to death because he believed the man tried to rape Laura.
Encouraged by Parnell, Paul decides to take the case. Soon, the lawyer finds himself pulling out all the stops in his effort to acquit a man who might or might not be deserving of a jail sentence.
Anatomy of a Murder is a long film that feels like a short one. The characters are so vivid and the story so compelling, 161 minutes barely seems sufficient to get it all in.
Unlike many court room dramas, this is not a story filled with shocking late-game revelations or blurted-out confessions. We know who did it from the beginning, and we're there when the defense strategy -- temporary insanity -- is dreamed up. While there are surprises, discoveries, and mysteries uncovered, there's a notable lack of sensationalism.
Of course, the story itself is sensationalistic. Films about rape had been made before -- Johnny Belinda, for instance -- but the subject was almost always handled with delicacy and restraint. Preminger does not exploit the premise, but rather lets it play straight. By refusing to treat the rape as taboo, titillating, or shameful, Preminger crafts a powerful adult film. More than 50 years after its release, Anatomy of a Murder still seems remarkably frank and mature; the word "rape" is used, and often; there are no euphemisms or smoothings over. It was shocking in its time, and a bit unsettling even today.
More unsettling -- and fascinating -- are the film's deliberate ambiguities. Although the lawyers -- particularly the prosecutors -- keep emphasizing that the trial is about murder, not rape, Laura's story is the lynchpin to the case. Throughout, we're never completely certain about Laura's story. Was she raped and beaten by the man her husband killed? Was she having an affair? Did she stay out late, get beaten by her husband, and concoct the rape story to save herself? That Remick's sultry Laura -- a knowing, knockout performance -- seems less victim than victimizer, and Gazzara's Manion is a short-tempered, self-centered brute, tantalize the viewer, while Preminger keeps his cards close to the vest.
Preminger hired Duke Ellington to score the film, and the result is superb. It was rare for a film to have a jazz score, particularly a film that isn't about jazz, New Orleans, or the '20s; the connection is that Biegler is a jazz aficionado. The score fits perfectly -- smooth, seductive, and more dangerous than you'd think at first glance.
Preminger's cast is flawless, with Stewart offering what is arguably his finest performance. While Biegler is nominally the film's hero, he's hardly a one-dimensional good guy; rather, he's something of a shark -- a low-key, Jimmy-Stewart shark, but a shark nonetheless. Biegler makes no moral decisions about the Manions; his goal is to win a case, and he's not above a few underhanded ploys to do so. Stewart plays the character's duplicities well, his open-faced, "nice guy" persona this time masking an ambitious, occasionally desperate character.
The supporting cast matches Stewart every step of the way, particularly O'Connell and Arden as his allies, and George C. Scott, scoring his first Oscar nomination in his second screen appearance as a smart, ruthless DA.
Remick and Gazzara are standouts as the Manions. In a role originally intended for Lana Turner, Remick is exceptional as the seductive young woman whose story of rape might or might not be true. Gazzara makes for a frightening protagonist, a man whose rage is evident, but who is entitled to competent representation -- and knows it. Although they share few scenes together, Remick and Gazzara create a disturbing portrait of a volatile, doomed marriage.
Preminger also cast a number of familiar character actors in small roles, so look for Orson Bean, Murray Hamilton (The Graduate), and Howard McNear (Floyd the Barber from The Andy Griffith Show) as witnesses at the trial.
Criterion's release of Anatomy of a Murder (Blu-ray) offers an awesome technical presentation and a great selection of supplements.
The film is offered in its original 1.85 aspect ratio, and it looks fantastic. There's a fine grain over the image that retains a film-like appearance. Detail and contrast are exceptional; I really can't imagine this looking any better. The audio is also outstanding, with a pair of excellent tracks: the original Mono, remastered in PCM, and a DTS-HD 5.1 surround track. The surround track seems a bit fuller, but both tracks are clear and offer a solid representation of the dialogue and score.
The supplemental package kicks off with an interview with Foster Hirsch, author of Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King. Hirsch offers background on Preminger and some insights on Anatomy of a Murder.
"Otto Preminger on Firing Line" is an excerpt from 1967 of the director appearing on the classic William F. Buckley, Jr., program to discuss censorship.
"Gary Giddins on Duke Ellington" is an interview with the influential jazz critic talking about Ellington's score.
"Pat Kirkham on Saul Bass" explores the professional relationship between Preminger and titles wizard Bass.
"Anatomy of Anatomy" is an excerpt from a work-in-progress documentary about the film. The film was shot in Michigan, and the residents who became involved with the film look back at the experience and recall the real murder that inspired the story.
In addition, there's newsreel footage from the production, a stills gallery of photos taken on the set, and the original trailer. The Criterion booklet includes two essays: "Atomization of a Murder," an analysis by Nick Pinkerton; and "Joe Welch in Juicy New Role" by Ernest Havemann, a reprint of a Life magazine article from 1959 about the famous former lawyer -- he'd been part of the Army-McCarthy trials -- who was playing the judge. Also, props to Criterion for using the iconic original poster art for the Blu-ray case
It's a shame that Otto Preminger's legacy has taken so many hits. His reputation for being difficult, his love of controversy, his sometimes heavy-handed direction, and his inferior final works, including Skiddoo, Hurry Sundown, and Rosebud, tend to color his many accomplishments.
Anatomy of a Murder received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and acting nods for Stewart, O'Connell, and Scott. In the year of Ben-Hur, it won nothing. Surprisingly, Preminger's direction and Ellington's score were not nominated, Preminger losing his spot to either Billy Wilder (whose film Some Like It Hot didn't get a Best Picture mention) or George Stevens (who directed the respectable but uninspired The Diary of Anne Frank). Perhaps the omission of Preminger and Ellington were the Academy's way of expressing their discomfort with some of the more controversial aspects of the film.
Anatomy of a Murder is one of the best courtroom dramas ever put to film, and the Criterion Blu-ray is the way to see it.
Not guilty! (I love saying that!)
Review content copyright © 2012 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 161 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Archival Footage
* Image Gallery