Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

anatomy

Starring: Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, George C. Scott, Kathryn Grant, Joseph N. Welch

Director: Otto Preminger

Summary: A small-town lawyer gets the case of a lifetime when a military man avenges an attack on his wife

Other Nominations: Actor (Stewart), Supporting Actor (O’Connell), Supporting Actor (Scott), Adapted Screenplay, B&W Cinematography, Film Editing

Positives

-It’s radically different than most any other trial film, before or since because it shows a lot of the routine investigation that lawyers have to do, and it cares about procedure in court (at least, more so than most) and accurate legal principles. What also makes it unusual is that the movie itself is totally indifferent to whether the defendant is guilty or not-it only cares about how the legal system itself determines innocence or guilt, especially when almost all of the players involved aren’t being truthful or strictly adhering to the rules of ethics. The tone of the movie also works: it’s cynical about the legal system for sure, but not obnoxiously so or bombastic about it, more that any system that relies on people who have obvious self-serving interests is going to have flaws in it.

-The performances are spot on, but I really want to applaud the casting director. Stewart is the perfect choice for a character who acts like a humble country lawyer in court and holds the movie together, but was still a pretty logical casting choice; however, Remick, Gazara, Scott and Welch all give great performances and none of them were major actors at the time: Gazara and Scott had each done one film before this, Welch wasn’t even an actor (he was a real lawyer), and Remick wasn’t all that established an actor yet either.

-Duke Ellington’s score was the first major film score done by an African-American, and while there had been jazz scores in other movies before this one is really front and center and is an inescapable part of the out-of-court scenes. It’s one of the most distinctive and memorable scores so far, and it not getting nominated is one of the most inexplicable oversights so far.

-This isn’t a strict positive, but this movie is way more frank and forward about sex than almost anything else from the time, freely talking about the subject of rape, and using terms that other movies would have danced around (sperm, panties, bitch, climax, etc.). Preminger won over the censors (although it was initially banned in Chicago), and more cracks were appearing in the Production Code.

Negatives

-At 2 hours and 40 minutes (with the last 1 hour 40 being the trial portion), it definitely feels longer than it needed to be, especially the trial portions where some of the testimony we see could have been cut out without any problems. Not that the movie ever feels slow or gets all that dull, but some of the fat could have been trimmed pretty easily.

Other Stuff

-In addition to its groundbreaking score, it also has a well-known and tone-setting title sequence done by the man who made them famous: graphic designer Saul Bass, who also designed the poster. Bass did many opening sequences for movies, including a lot of Hitchcock’s (Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho) and Martin Scorsese’s (Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Age of Innocence, Casino), as well as many of the most famous corporate logos ever (including AT&T, Quaker Oats, United Airlines, United Way and Girl Scouts). He even directed a movie, Phase IV (1974), which is one of those downer sci-fi horror movies that everybody was making in the 70s and is pretty good.

Overall

It set the template for many future legal dramas, even if they kind of missed the point of this movie and why it’s still so effective. The performances and the script carry the day and make this a memorable, if too unnecessarily long, experience.

Rating: A-

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