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Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

December 31st, 2006 · No Comments

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Paul Biegler (James Stewart) returns to the town of “Iron City” from a fishing trip. Beaten out of office as public prosecutor, Biegler ekes out a living as a run-of-the-mill attorney, and “in the evenings, I sit around, drink bourbon whiskey and read law with Parnell Emmett McCarthy, one of the world’s great men.” Parnell is played by Arthur O’Connell, a washed up lawyer fortunate to live in a town where he can keep an open bar tab.

Biegler is hired by Laura Manion (a young Lee Remick) to defend her husband, an army lieutenant played Ben Gazzara, who shot dead a bar owner she maintains raped her. Biegler finds the lieutenant to be hostile and insolent, while Laura is sized up as “soft, easy, the kind men like to take advantage of and do” by Biegler’s loyal secretary (Eve Arden).

Opting to plead insanity for the lieutenant, Biegler takes the case. With help from Parnell, he finds a 19th century statute that appears to give their client legal justification for his actions. The most difficult task for Biegler initially is to keep Mrs. Manion from spending all night at juke joints in tight fitting outfits while her husband is on trial for first degree murder.

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To help Iron City’s stooge prosecutor with the “peculiar nature” of the case, assistant state Attorney General Claude Dancer comes to town. Dancer is played by George C. Scott with snake oil coursing through his veins. Biegler employs a variety of theatrics against his adversary and frames his fight as “a humble county prosecutor versus a brilliant prosecutor from the big city” as he seeks to exonerate his client.

Directed by Otto Preminger and adapted by Wendell Mayes from the novel by “Robert Traver,” the pen name for John Voelker, a Michigan State Supreme Court judge from 1956 to 1960 who wrote novels and short stories with legal themes, all set in the Upper Peninsula region of rural Michigan. This was his best known work.

Anatomy of a Murder opens with a fantastic title sequence designed by credits maestro Saul Bass. As jigsaw pieces resembling the human body wiggle around the screen, a swinging jazz score by Duke Ellington confirms that we’re in the hands of master craftsmen. Even with a running time of 160 minutes, this movie hits the right notes from its opening bar and never goes flat.

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The world of Voelker’s novel is rich and highly addictive, and Preminger takes the time to explore it. It’s a world where a small town attorney spends his recreation time trout fishing and playing “rooty tooty jazz” on a piano while his secretary toils without pay until her boss can win the big case. It sounds idealized, and is, but the story avoids being phony by introducing a rape and murder case that you’d never hear in Mayberry.

This marked the first time audiences heard words like “rape,” “sperm” or “slut” uttered in a movie. That was so outrageous that James Stewart’s father deemed it “a dirty picture” and took out an ad in his local newspaper urging people not to see it. The film serves as a gateway of sorts to the 1960s, where audiences would grow accustomed to far more shocking material than a character saying “panties” on screen.

Preminger brings undeniable style to the film. Without the brilliant mod score by Duke Ellington (who appears as Pie-Eye, the frontman of a roadhouse combo), it’d be a completely different movie. The characters are terrific, the dialogue sharp and witty, and the cast first-rate. When General George C. Scott makes his entrance an hour into the film, it goes from excellent to masterful. Watching him spar with Jimmy Stewart is an immense joy. This is one of the great ones.

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