This was quite a film when it was released. The mature subject matter seems tame today, even a bit silly, but the word “rape” sounded alarm bells, and the underlying issues of sex within the story raised eyebrows. The stark black and white photography gives it a serious tone, as well as the provocative jazz score by Duke Ellington and the distinctive film titles by legendary graphic designer Saul Bass.
Everything about this film seemed to be edgy with a different vibe.
Anatomy of a Murder is a film about an Army officer accused of killing the man who sexually assaulted his wife. The wife had a reputation of desiring a man’s attention. The Army officer employs a veteran lawyer, whose practice has gone mostly dormant, to defend him. The story is the trial and uphill battle involved, with a few surprises and legal challenges.
The film was produced and directed by Otto Preminger. As an independent producer, he worked with a studio on distribution, but it was his film. Based on a novel, Anatomy of a Murder, it written by John Voelker, a Michigan Supreme Court Justice. A man attracted to controversial material, Preminger moved quickly to secure the rights.
Preminger was born in Austria. Trained in the law, to please his father, the country’s attorney general. Preminger was more interested in the theater where he had success, was discovered and signed to a contract with 20th Century-Fox and brought to Hollywood.
Anatomy of a Murder was the zenith of Preminger’s career. His previous films pushed the limits of the censors and the Hollywood production code. An earlier Preminger film, The Moon is Blue, was released without the production code certificate, which was a landmark, and provided good business to a film even Preminger didn’t think was particularly special. He chose material that challenged the bounds; it generated publicity and he was good as a promoter. He strongly believed in the freedom of expression, as a foundation of our freedoms in general. On the Criterion Collection DVD set, there is a Firing Line program with William F. Buckley and Otto Preminger discussing censorship and artistic freedom.
The film deals with rape, and the presentation of the evidence is frank and is pivotal in the court sequences. The terminology and the frankness of the language pushed the production code again, but with minor change, the film would be blessed by the MPAA. This was 1959 and such things as rape, sperm and even panties were difficult to talk about, especially in a mainstream film.
Preminger shot the film in the actual places the film took place, in Northern Michigan. He scouted the area and developed a warm relationship with author Voelker, and wanted the authenticity found in the architecture and the region’s landscape. It was even filmed in the house that the author had lived.
The book was a fictionalized account of an Army officer who was found not guilty by reason of insanity after his wife was raped.
Watching a Preminger film, particularly highly dramatic scenes, they are long and unedited scenes, very old school filmmaking. He focuses on the actor’s and the organic rhythm that is true to the tension in the performances. It is like watching scenes from a play. This works amazingly well in the courtroom scenes where the viewer can pick up the nuisances in the both the dialogue and the actor’s performance.
Starring James Stewart, it is arguably his last great role. There would be a few other solid roles, but this was his last great film role. Interestingly, this film was released the same year as Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, a film Stewart really wanted to star in. That part went to Cary Grant, even though Stewart was attached to the film for several years while the script was in development. Ultimately, Grant, who Hitchcock believed had a younger appearance, took the role after Stewart gracefully bowed out for scheduling conflicts. North By Northwest became a classic, but Anatomy of a Murder, is a deeper and more substantive film. Both Grant and Stewart scored.
Anatomy of a Murder ironically takes advantage of Stewart’s maturity, using his weariness and sense of orneriness to the fullest. The contrast in age between Stewart and Lee Remick is played for its significant as she flirts with him. Stewart’s character, was the local prosecutor, until beaten out in a recent election. Now he only practices law part-time, picking up scraps of cases, and has trouble earning enough to pay his secretary. Stewart embraces his character’s record of uneven success in life, his law practice is more like a hobby, and he has retreated to fishing to fill his life.
Stewart’s character only partially believes his client’s defense. He knows that the case is a difficult one and he pulls out all the cheesy stops as a courtroom showboat. The courtroom is a theater. The film was made during Stewart’s decade of films where he took to characters with obvious flaws, maximizing their problems and showing that he was more than the idealistic good-guy senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
George C. Scott was on the mark as the state’s attorney. His talent is very much on display and every moment of his screen time is a gem. He read for a different character but sought the role as the state’s attorney, which was a perfect fit. His cross examination of the defendant’s wife borders on being sexual, his tone, eyeing of her, and almost sitting on her lap, during his rather personal questions.
The judge was played by Joseph Welch, a real lawyer, and a famous one. He was the lead attorney in the Army-McCarthy hearings who made the famous statement to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” He has an earthiness that rings true. A great performance by a non-actor.
The cast includes Lee Remick as the rape victim and Ben Gazzara as her jealous and tempered husband, the accused. Remick plays a wife with questionable morals that Stewart attempts to class-up for the sake of the trial. Gazzara’s character has a questionable defense and is very unsympathetic, but Stewart pleads the case as if he believes his client. Stewart has an uphill fight, both in the courtroom and with his own client and wife.
While the wife’s trashy character is easily introduced in open court, Stewart battles to be able to convince the judge to talk about her rape. Stewart is masterful in his courtroom antics, resorting to whatever questionable tricks to gain ground in his defense. The prosecutor brings in a state attorney to assist, which gives Stewart a mighty legal battle.
Stewart’s client pleads temporary insanity, and Stewart is challenged to lay the groundwork in court to convince the jury. Gazzara seems conniving and untrustworthy, even uncooperative at times in his own defense. His character is quick-tempered and doesn’t seem to even trust his wife. We’re not convinced that he should.
Remick’s character is fast and cheap, manipulative and even seems to be flirtatious even with her husband’s lawyer. All of this adds up to problems for Stewart, as she is on trial as much as her husband. There aren’t any perfect witnesses, defendants or lawyers on either side. This isn’t Perry Mason.
The resolution of the case leaves you scratching your head. While the case is unprofitable for Stewart’s character, it does jump-start his legal career, with a renewed enthusiasm.
Others in the cast include Eve Arden as Stewart’s long suffering and underpaid secretary; Arthur O’Connell as Stewart’s friend and legal mentor; Murray Hamilton as the bartender; and Katharine Grant as the daughter of the murder victim. A very stalwart group of professionals.
The film picked up three Academy Award nominations for acting (Stewart, Scott and O’Connell), and nominations for Best Picture, Screenplay, Cinematography and editing.
Duke Ellington performs the soundtrack, composed by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Ellington also plays a minor role in the film. The soundtrack won three Grammy Awards. Not only was a jazz based score still somewhat unusual, but this was the first soundtrack composed by African-Americans. For decades, this film was not shown in South Africa because Preminger refused to cut a scene of Stewart and Ellington seated together at a piano.
Preminger had a vision and he stuck to it. He wasn’t a compromise kind of guy. For years he had battled the Hollywood production code and won. Preminger’s legacy is not as shining as Hitchcock or Ford, but his impact and popularity during his prime is equal to his peers. His legacy is tarnished by his later films, but that aside, his films were frank and uncompromising.