Anatomy of a Murder

Film, Thrillers
5 out of 5 stars
(1user review)
Though its title may promise a clinical procedural, ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ cloaks itself in smartly tailored ambiguity and irresolution, and never altogether strips off. Coolly absorbing, nonchalantly cynical, the film incited controversy upon its 1959 release for references to rape, ejaculation, and women’s undergarments, but Preminger refuses the standard payoffs of the courtroom thriller – no impassioned closing arguments here, and the requisite cross-examination bombshell comes as no surprise to the audience. It’s definite that Second Lieutenant Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) killed barkeep Barney Quill, but why? Did Manion act out of jealous wrath, having caught his missus Laura (delectable Lee Remick) – a sweet, coltish voluptuary in pedal-pushers – in a compromising position? Or was the young officer spurred by legally defensible ‘irresistible impulse’ after Quill raped his wife? And who gave Laura that nasty shiner – Quill or her cuckolded spouse?
Shabby-genteel defence lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart, again tweaking his wholesome persona a year after ‘Vertigo’) never appears halfway assured of his client’s innocence, but he’s hardly averse to subtle witness-coaching: ‘See if you can remember how crazy you were,’ he suggests to smooth and cagey Manion. Facing off against unflappable prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C Scott, like Remick making his first major film appearance), Biegler makes it perfectly clear that he’d rather be fishing, or playing jazz piano – Duke Ellington cameos as a duet partner, and provides the sensational score. No one entirely means what they say, except the presiding judge played by Joseph Welch, whose impassioned censure of Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings hastened the senator’s downfall – though here his immortal ‘Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?’ becomes ‘Now, Mr  Dancer, get off the panties – you’ve done enough damage.’ Perched on his bench, avuncular and wearily tolerant of his charges’ calculated histrionics, he sits atop a lonely moral high ground.

Release details

Rated:
12A
Duration:
160 mins

Cast and crew

Director:
Otto Preminger
Screenwriter:
Wendell Mayes
Cast:
James Stewart
Ben Gazzara
Lee Remick
Eve Arden
Arthur O'Connell
George C Scott
Kathryn Grant
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I first watched ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ in the early 60s so it was an exploration to be relished to watch a remastered monochrome video available through Amazon over half a century later.


Just to read some of the movie’s participants whetted the appetite before even pressing “Play”.


A primary attribute for a jazz lover is, of course, Duke Ellington’s score, composed by himself and Billy Strayhorn and featuring a few top sidemen, including Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves and Cat Anderson. 


It must be noted here that Ellington disliked the term “jazz”and preferred “American music”  and I for one. can’t argue with one of the principal creators of the genre.


The Duke even has a cameo, playing roadhouse pianist Pie-Eye, who speaks in embarrassing hipster language in his small pieces of dialogue. To an Ellington lover like me to hear the dignified and articulate Duke mouthing nonsense was awful. But if that was the price to be paid to include him, let’s not quibble.


James Stewart is at his languid best as a a small town lawyer with more enthusiasm for jazz and fishing than his profession. Lee Remick and George C Scott feature in their first major major film roles and Joseph N Welch, a former lawyer himself, plays the trial judge and almost steals the show.


Otto Preminger was one of the talented group of film directors who fled Europe for Hollywood as the Nazis gained ground and he handles a tricky subject with humour and sensitivity and also used a regular participant Saul Bass to create the unforgettable animated title credits.


Well those attributes are enough for me and the film itself doesn’t disappoint, dealing with a murder trial where the accused, a US Army officer, pleads temporary insanity (an “irresistible impulse”) after learning that the homicide victim had raped his wife.


‘Anatomy’, made in 1959, was controversial at the time, going into areas like rape and ejaculation which were considered somewhat impolite. Even the word “panties” caused laughter or embarrassment in court. How times have changed!


This film enthusiast was lost in admiration at how one shot can say so much in a couple of seconds, exemplified by the contents of Stewart’s fridge - packed with nothing but fish.


It’s a long film at 160 minutes and once the courtroom drama is underway it is totally absorbing with the twists and turns of the action as Stewart’s lawyer who almost accidentally acts for the defence gradually retains his enthusiasm - plus the fact that he’s skint and desperately needs a win against George C Scott as the prosecuting counsel’s whizz kid brought in to help get a guilty verdict.


Ben Gazzara expertly plays the accused army officer and, like many other aspects of the case, he is creepily ambivalent and his wife (Lee Remick) sports a black eye which he or the murder victim might have inflicted.


Even the ending is mysterious and I wouldn’t dream of giving it away even if I had an “irresistible impulse”.