Tuesday, June 5, 2012

1959 - Anatomy of a Murder

On Sunday night, my short film, Clicked, had its screening in competition at the Hoboken International Film Festival, although technically, the cinema at which it screened was actually located in Hoboken-adjacent Jersey City. As could be expected late on a Sunday evening in Jersey City, the turnout was not spectacular, a circumstance accentuated by the large auditorium. Nevertheless, the few movie-goers in attendance seemed to enjoy themselves and, post screening, I was even able to speak to one such attendee, who was modestly complimentary of the film, so I'll take it.

A light rail and four trains later, Kat and I made it back to Astoria, stopping in for an early breakfast at our favorite local haunt, Sanford's. Nothing quite like an egg, bacon and cheese sandwich at two in the morning.

Now we turn to the final nominee from the race to the 1959 Best Picture Oscar...

Anatomy of a Murder
Otto Preminger
Wendell Mayes
(based on the play by John D. Voelker)
James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O'Connell, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant, George C. Scott, Orson Bean, Russ Brown, Murray Hamilton, Brooks West, Joseph N. Welch
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
0 wins

In a small town in Michigan, ex-district attorney Paul Biegler (Stewart) has been laying low for a while when Army wife Laura (Remick) requests his services as a defense lawyer for her husband Frederick Manion (Gazzara), who has been charged with the murder of local barkeeper Barney Quill. Manion admits the killing, thinking it might be able to be justified by the fact that Quill raped his wife, but after subtle direction from Biegler, the two settle on an insanity plea. In the courtroom, Biegler contends with the local D.A. (West) who has brought in the big guns in the form of respected prosecutor Claude Dancer (Scott).

With smart dialogue and an even smarter story, Anatomy of a Murder falls cleanly into the gripping legal drama category. Its central case is intriguingly complicated with many ups and downs, full of those clever and manipulative cross examinations that swing the pendulum back and forth between the defense and the prosecution. As one would expect, there's a lot of talking and very little action in the courtroom, yet the mood is never far from sultry thanks to Duke Ellington's inspired jazz score.

Despite the film's captivating charms, there is one relatively large sticking point that leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth. While it's easy to get behind the affable defense attorney (and, as played by James Stewart, could he be anything but affable?), the same does not apply to the defendant himself. Ben Gazzara's Manion is a little creepy, but the performance is not the problem. The main issue is that it's clear from the outset that Manion is guilty and that he's essentially inventing the insanity plea just to get off. It's never particularly convincing and, even with all the potent emotion surrounding his motive, the vengeful murder of his wife's rapist remains immoral.

Ultimately, the ending (yes, spoilers are imminent, so if you haven't yet seen the movie, skip this paragraph) confirms our initial suspicions. The jury finds in favour of the defendant, who doesn't even bother to pay his legal fees, leaving Biegler a sarcastic note instead. The implication, of course, is that Manion literally got away with murder. What makes it worse, however, is that Biegler's reaction is somehow inappropriately flippant. He just achieved an acquittal for a guilty man and merely shrugs it off. All that said, I suppose it's a testament to Preminger that the film remains so gripping despite such an unsatisfying conclusion.

Complementing Gazzara's effective portrayal of the devious Manion is Lee Remick as his alluring and enigmatic wife. Her sultry confidence in such unsettling circumstances is fascinating, making it consistently difficult to figure out how she's really feeling. George C. Scott shows his effortless power once again as the lawyer from the big city, earning his first Oscar nomination. Joining him as a Supporting Actor nominee is Arthur O'Connell, natural and amiable as the drunken comic relief. And then there's James Stewart (pictured), with his aforementioned affability, playing the determined and respectable lead, earning himself a Best Actor nod to boot.

1 comment:

  1. "Now that's what I call poetic justice for everybody." Anatomy of a Murder's last line uttered by Arthur O'Connell, after he finds out their next client is the murder victim's daughter. Your review was spot on, Matt. This isn't a movie about justice or truth. It is a clever, envelop pushing look at the justice system, filled with flawed, morally ambiguous characters, manueverings and loopholes where we are treated like the jury members.

    Preminger uses no footage of the alleged rape or the killing either as prologue or flashback. We have to decide James Stewart's crafty lawyer knows that only through an insanity defense, can the issue of the alleged rape be discussed. And its through this strategy that the "unwritten law" is no longer a myth. This concept has a parallel in Stewart's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" made a few years afterwards - "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend"

    Anatomy of a Murder may leave a sour taste in your mouth, but you know you've seen perhaps the best work of underrated director Otto Preminger. While he is best remembered for his tackling of movie taboos at a time when the Hollywood code was still going strong, his fluid camerawork, editing and bold musical scores are really quite impressive.

    This film should be near the top of any list of courtroom dramas. It is talky, and at 160 minutes pretty long, but none the less riveting.