Thursday, October 22, 2009
Movie Review: ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959, Columbia)
I normally prefer movies with clear heroes and villains -- and why not? That's why folks go to movies, to escape muddy reality for a while. Every so often, though, a "gray-shaded" film deserves -- and earns -- my praise. Thus it is with Anatomy of a Murder, at once the most universally acclaimed film of director-producer Otto Preminger's roller-coaster career, one of James Stewart's last great movie roles, and one of the better courtroom dramas ever committed to celluloid. I saw it once a number of years ago, and the film, if anything, improved upon renewed acquaintance (via Netflix). With the storytelling IQ of Hollywood currently as low as it's ever been -- it's even lower than Hollywood's moral tone, if possible -- Anatomy's willingness to confront its audience with legitimately adult themes and its lack of a clear-cut ending are very refreshing.
Based on a best-selling novel, Anatomy features Stewart as an easygoing Michigan lawyer who's asked to defend an Army officer (Ben Gazzara) who shot a bartender who'd supposedly raped the officer's wife (Lee Remick). There's no "mystery" here; Gazzara did the deed. The question is, how can Stewart get him off? Ole Jimmy resorts to "dissociative reaction," a version of the tried-and-true insanity plea, but he's up against it when the local (and spectacularly inept) DA imports a hotshot barrister from the mean streets of Lansing (George C. Scott, in his first major movie role). As the trial plods forward (but don't be alarmed; even the most mundane of the courtroom scenes attract one's attention), it becomes clear that (1) Stewart has at least a fighting chance of saving Gazzara and (2) the truth of Gazzara and Remick's stories is, at the very least, debatable. Histrionics are kept to a minimum, though both Stewart and Scott get to at least worry the scenery once or twice apiece. Humor is provided by the tart comments of Stewart's long-suffering secretary (Eve Arden) and, less palatably, by the bumbling of Stewart's alcoholic partner (Arthur O'Connell) and a somewhat more casual attitude towards the aftermath of rape than would probably be tolerable today. Interestingly, Preminger doesn't show the closing arguments, instead allowing Stewart, O'Connell, and Arden a lengthy scene in which they ruminate about their glowering, somewhat unsavory client's chances. The twist ending, however, quickly makes up for any disappointment and provides just the right cap to a film in which very few characters turn out to be what they originally seem.
This is a movie that practically begs for a post-viewing debate. Was "justice" done in the end? If so, then to/by whom? The then-daring use of such words as "spermatogenesis," "sexual climax," "bitch," and, worst of all, "panties" pales in comparison to the legitimate questions about the pros and cons of jury trials that Anatomy raises. Stewart, the closest thing to a "hero," quickly wins our support with his folksiness and quick-wittedness, but even he must resort to courtroom tricks (such as the old "I'll ask an out-of-order question that the judge will gavel down but the jury will nonetheless hear and perhaps remember at verdict-cutting time" ploy) in his battle with city-slicker (or should that be "small state capitol slicker"?) Scott. Stewart's own father was so upset at the "dirty" content of the film that he refused to see it and even encouraged others to boycott it. Nevertheless, Stewart's performance is so good that he probably deserved the 1960 Best Actor Oscar over Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur). The latter film, however, was an Oscar juggernaut that would have put the evil mutant of the same name to shame.
I can't say that the movie is particularly well shot or scored, but Preminger's directorial skills were never considered to be that great, anyhow. The use of "natural sound" in the courtroom backfires, to a certain extent, due to echoes, and O'Connell's character is involved in a very clumsily staged car accident (oh, those wacky drunk drivers!). Preminger at least partially makes up for this with some inspired, even quirky casting. A young Orson Bean (as an Army doctor), Howard "Floyd the Barber" McNear, and a typically pompous and officious Joseph Kearns (no doubt warming up for his impending battles with Jay North) all make appearances. In the oddest casting decision of all, Preminger, who'd originally wanted Spencer Tracy or Burl Ives to play the part of the drolly amusing judge, finally gave the part to Joseph N. Welch, the lawyer who'd defended the Army against Joe McCarthy's red-hunting a few years earlier. Welch wasn't a complete neophyte, having hosted an episode of Kraft Television Theatre a few years before, and he handles the part very competently. The squalling jazz soundtrack by Duke Ellington (who makes a cameo appearance as, what else, a jazz man) screams "Beat Generation" and won't be to everyone's taste, but it seems to fit the film's gritty, somewhat seedy ambiance reasonably well.
This is definitely a "must-see" film. For an additional (and very good) discussion of Anatomy, click here. (And, Joe, be sure to take a look at the trailer above -- you may recognize one of the voices you hear.)