Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

"Anatomy of a Murder" is one of the many forgotten, Oscar-snubbed films. It's one of Otto Preminger's most well-known pieces for the performances of its star: James Stewart. Though this is what the film is noted for, it should be lauded for how edgy, satirical, and playfully adult it can see how the ratings system would spawn into existence within the next decade.
The movie, though almost three hours longs and feels much shorter, begins with Paul Biegler (James Stewart) driving back into town. This attorney, who doesn't have an area of expertise, is content with fishing all day, not paying his secretary, and buddying-up with an old lush.
After he returns home, he finds a message waiting for him from a certain women whose acquaintance he hasn't made. While he's trying to track this woman down, he gets informed on the local scoop: this is the same woman who has been in the newspaper headlines recently. She was raped and her husband killed her rapist...what a charming story.
Moment one of Preminger's film has us whole-heartedly accepting a female lead character who has been sexually violated. Later on in the movie, the questions arise for what constitutes as rape and the terms "completion" and "sperm" are used...this in the same movie where a judge balks at the premise of calling woman's undergarments "panties". There are two worlds to "Anatomy of a Murder", the one that's trying desperately hard to be a convincing crime movie and the one that is trying to dance around the issues.
The script, which supplies the actors with a superb array of characters, isn't quite sure if its audience is ready for something that gritty. So they shy away from the uncomfortable issues. They make the woman who was raped a woman possibly stepping out on her husband. If she is not cheating, she certainly enjoys flirting. Some viewers and characters in the film may think that she deserved it, after all dressing the way she did and acting in that fashion was sort of begging to be raped, right? This may be a put-off to the modern day viewer, but it isn't as overt as all that.
Much more overt is the man concerned in the case, Lt. Manion (Ben Gazzara).
He is a smug man who doesn't see the need of having a lawyer. Well, he fancies that he can talk himself out of the murder charge. Biegler disagrees.
As the stories start to fit together and alibis start to fall apart, "Anatomy of a Murder" seems to playfully nudge the viewer into corners. When there is no where else to turn, they introduce a new character.
It's Doyle not Christie. The fun is not trying to figure out who did it and why, the fun is watching Biegler in the courtroom and outside of it.
While not the most emotional or the most compelling courtroom drama, "Anatomy of a Murder" is the most gutsy of its generation.
While the rape was one thing, the way the characters handle themselves is another. You have cheating spouses, abusive families, bachelors content with not marrying, drunkards who put the whisky away for the "greater good". There is a certain romanticism to the film, but that's half the fun.
Duke Ellington (who makes a cameo in the film) has a tremendous and jazzy score that punctuates almost the entire film. It doesn't feel noir like "The Maltese Falcon" does. Instead, it's the kind of movie that would influence "In the Heat of the Night" and "A Few Good Men" later.
As the trial begins, there is a cheerfulness to the proceedings that shouldn't be there. Stewart shows brief glimpses of his turn of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"; yet more vaudevillian than that. There's a break in his characters from outsides the courtroom to inside it.
The prosecution brings in another lawyer, played to slimy perfection by George C. Scott, which makes Biegler flustered and shouty.
But it does come down to a jury's decision, which reminds us of "12 Angry Men"...oh, well.
"Anatomy of a Murder" is hugely entertaining, but nothing astonishing.

Score: ★★★½

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