Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
July 7, 2018 12:16 PM - Subscribe

In a murder trial, the defendant says he suffered temporary insanity after his wife was assaulted. What is the truth, and will he win his case? [content warning].

Senses of Cinema: More than just a courtroom drama or police procedural (and one of Preminger’s most successful and recognisable films) Anatomy of a Murder peels back the layers of the American legal system and its complex processes as it examines murder, rape, marriage, dead-end careers and lives and a peculiar outcrop of American geography, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

AV Club: Beginning with a Duke Ellington score, Anatomy Of A Murder has a libertine quality that carries over into other aspects of the film, especially Lee Remick’s turn as the sexually brazen head-turner at the heart of the case. Running a modest and struggling law practice in between fishing sessions in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Stewart catches a break when Remick asks him to represent her husband Ben Gazzara, an army lieutenant in jail for murdering the man Remick accuses of raping her. Stewart seeks to argue that Gazzara was under the grips of temporary insanity and cannot be held responsible for his actions; the prosecution, aided by big-city lawyer George C. Scott, asserts that he was in complete control of his faculties. After a careful setup, the bulk of the drama is given over to the trial itself, and the revelations that come out from the expert and contentious lawyering on both sides.

Courtroom dramas are generally not the best candidates for location shooting—that’s what Hollywood set-builders are for, after all—but Preminger insisted on shooting Anatomy Of A Murder in the Upper Peninsula, and his devotion to verisimilitude only starts there. Legal professionals have long admired the film’s authenticity, and Preminger allows the facts to come out, brick by brick, witness by witness, without tipping his hand in one direction or another. As much as Stewart earns our sympathy, he’s arguing up an awfully steep hill and his volatile clients unsettle the case inside and outside the courtroom. Anatomy Of A Murder respects the audience enough to turn us into the jury, and trusts that we, too, can consider the facts like adults.

Slant: Preminger’s shrewdly attenuated sense of balance, on the other hand, was achieved by the way his camerawork and cutting would invariably seek to deemphasize, rather than punch up, the emotional dominance of any one voice. Raised in the theater, and no slouch in the thespian department himself, Preminger had a style that also happened to suit his stars in two ways—even if he was reputed to be a bit shouty, at one point dressed down by no less than Sir Laurence Olivier on the set of Bunny Lake Is Missing. First, he indulged in long, often highly mobile takes that were tailored to the rhythm of an actor’s reading and movements, and second, he gave them dynamite close-ups when appropriate. Preminger had the confidence in his performers and faith in his intelligent viewers: a happy combination.

That’s a coarse overview of what makes the film great. Its pleasures are another matter, well deserving of another thousand or so words. Anatomy of a Murder is the work of a man who could extract the far less time-stamped psychological underpinning from a very 1959-ish movie, but much of what makes the film a joy to watch, on a repeat basis, is inseparable from the era, even the very moment, of its production. The right honorable Joseph “Have you no decency, sir” Welch makes his first and only dramatic appearance in a motion picture as the plainspoken but wise Judge Weaver. While Welch is, in the words of Jake La Motta, “no Olivier,” his appearance helps Preminger achieve his “objective” stance, as the director is often content simply to listen and look upon the venerated jurist. One of the less used metrics for screen performances, due to its vague nature, is “the quality of existence,” and the time Welch spends on the bench adds up to a pretty amazing existence, indeed.

From that high-water mark, the cast only gets better, not just because of Stewart (giving one of his most beloved performances, not least because it’s a performance that’s so acutely aware of “the Jimmy Stewart performance”), Gazzara, Remick, George C. Scott, or even the great Arthur O’Connell. The cast’s third and fourth and so on tiers are filled out to a degree that would parallel a Preston Sturges classic; not coincidentally, Sturges regular Jimmy Conlin stands before Weaver on a breaking and entering charge.


Streaming on YouTube

Art of the Title

Original 1958 Variety review

Cinephila & Beyond: ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ is Preminger at his finest
posted by MoonOrb (2 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I am a big fan of courtroom procedural movies, but I only found out about this when Randy Barnett mentioned it. This and Witness for the Prosecution go neck and neck in this non-lawyer's esteem, but that just makes them a great double-header.

Lee Remick was so awesome.
posted by rhizome at 1:34 PM on July 7, 2018

Lieutenant Manion shouldn't have been found not guilty.
posted by orange swan at 7:19 PM on July 22, 2018

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