#193) Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
OR “Serial – ‘50s Style”
Directed by Otto Preminger
Written by Wendell Mayes. Based on the novel by Robert Traver (aka John D. Voelker).
Class of 2012
The Plot: In a story ripped from the headlines, Michigan lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart) takes on a controversial case pertaining to Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) murdering a local innkeeper who allegedly beat and raped Manion’s wife Laura (Lee Remick). Biegler opts for the temporary insanity defense, but D.A. Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West) knows all of Biegler’s tricks, and hires the Attorney General’s prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) to aid with the case. Presided over by visiting Judge Weaver (Joseph N. Welch), this trial not only shocked the Upper Peninsula, but also moviegoers with its candid language regarding rape and assault.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it a “gripping” film with “daring dialogue and edgy pacing”. The write-up goes on to praise Preminger, the cast, composer Duke Ellington, and title designer Saul Bass. You know a movie is good when even the opening credits earn high marks.
But Does It Really?: I did not anticipate just how much I enjoyed this film. “Anatomy of a Murder” has earned its reputation as one of the greatest courtroom dramas ever. The case itself has so many shades of gray that you never know who to trust, and Preminger showcases all of it in an immensely entertaining and compelling way. It’s 160 minutes, but I was enthralled the whole time. The entire cast is top-notch: Jimmy Stewart is giving arguably a career-best performance (yeah, I said it), old pros like Arthur O’Connell and Eve Arden help ground the film, and newcomers George C. Scott, Ben Gazzara, and Lee Remick more than hold their own against the veterans. “Anatomy of a Murder” tends to get lost in the shuffle of great films (It took almost 25 years of eligibility to make the NFR), but it still feels fresh and exciting almost 60 years later, and will keep you guessing right up to the verdict.
Wow, That’s Dated: This kind of frank discussion about rape and assault is nowhere near as shocking as it was in 1959. Though I will argue that this film can still surprise viewers because you don’t expect Jimmy Stewart to ever say the word “sperm”.
Seriously, Oscars?: “Anatomy of a Murder” received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. But the Academy was going through their “epic” phase, and the historic “Ben-Hur” sweep completely shut out “Anatomy”. Not even nominated were director Otto Preminger and composer Duke Ellington (although he did win the very first Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack). Noteworthy among the film’s losses is George C. Scott in the Best Supporting Actor category. A first time nominee (for only his second film), this defeat may have led to Scott’s future refusal of nominations and wins from the Academy.
- John D. Voelker was an actual attorney in Michigan. His novel (and this film) closely follows an actual case he worked on in 1952. To add to the realism, this film shot entirely on location in Big Bay, Michigan. In some instances, scenes were shot at or near the actual scene of the crime.
- A 1958 Hollywood Reporter article noted that Gregory Peck was considered for the lead role. Hmmm, Gregory Peck playing a small-town lawyer who becomes the defense attorney of a major case involving rape. I don’t know…
- I will join the masses that love Saul Bass’ opening title sequence. It’s simple, effective, tells you everything you need to know, and the Duke Ellington jazz score takes it up a notch.
- The camera movements tend to be a bit shaky during an early scene in Biegler’s office. I know they were filming in John Voelker’s actual office, but were there speed bumps on the carpet or something?
- In addition to composing the score, Duke Ellington has a cameo as “Pie-Eye” (Any relation to “Hog-Eye”?).
- Joseph Welch was a real life lawyer who is best known for asking Senator McCarthy “Have you no sense of decency?” I don’t know how or why he caught the acting bug, but I’m glad he did.
- Among this film’s daring taboos: Arthur O’Connell may be the first person to belch on screen.
- The role of the prosecuting attorney turned out to be the most difficult to cast. The first choice was injured and the second choice left to do a play. Ultimately cast in the part was Brooks West, Eve Arden’s husband.
- That’s Howard McNear (aka Floyd the Barber) as one of the doctors brought in as a witness. I just heard Floyd the Barber say “sperm” too!
- George C. Scott has a brilliant low-key theatricality to his role. Claude is an attorney who knows exactly when and how to strike. It’s a fascinating performance, and I’d be pissed too if I didn’t win an Oscar for it.
- Among the (then) controversial words this film uses are: “rape” “contraception”, “orgasms”, “bitch”, and the phrase “army slut”. That last one is now the name of a show on ABC.
- The film’s final and greatest masterstroke is that we’re never quite sure if Manion is innocent or guilty. Like the jury, we’re given all the facts and can come to our own conclusions. Kudos to Ben Gazzara and Lee Remick for playing it so cryptically (and so real) that my loyalties kept shifting.
- The film’s largest legacy is its victory in the fight against film censorship. The National Catholic Legion of Decency had some reservations about a movie with such obscene verbiage in the dialogue. The Production Code Association, however, approved the film for distribution because the language was used in proper legal context and did not promote such vulgarities. This was the first of many cracks that would lead to the dissolve of the Hays Code in the mid-1960s.
- John D. Voelker was able to retire on the royalties received from the novel and the film. He continued writing, including a book about his favorite hobby, “Anatomy of a Fisherman”.
- The band Great Lakes Myth Society composed this bizarre little ditty about the making of the film called “Marquette County 1959”.
- “Panties, panties, panties, panties…”
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