Anatomy of a Murder: Criterion Collection
February 20, 2006
Anatomy of a Murder (1959) was the culmination of a taboo-smashing decade that saw director Otto Preminger challenge the Production Code Administration, which censored content in American movies that it deemed immoral, with the sex comedy The Moon is Blue (1953) and the gritty drug addiction drama The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). While Preminger tackled controversial subject matter, he employed a straight-ahead style of directing thereby ensuring that nothing would dilute the message of his films.
With Anatomy of a Murder, Preminger would use the courtroom drama genre to address sexuality in frank fashion as a lawyer who defends a man arrested for shooting and killing a man that allegedly assaulted and raped his wife. The film was based on the 1958 book of the same name by Robert Traver, which was an account of the real-life incident. The film starred James Stewart and a then cast of relative unknowns: George C. Scott, Lee Remick and Ben Gazzara, all of whom would go on to develop illustrious careers in their own right.
Paul Biegler (Stewart) comes back from a fishing trip and receives a phone call from a Mrs. Laura Manion (Remick) who wants him to defend her husband Fred (Gazzara), an army lieutenant that shot and killed a man who attacked and raped his wife. Paul interviews Fred in jail and isn’t too taken with the man who he finds to be insolent and standoff-ish but he’s intrigued by the challenge and decides to take the case. Laura doesn’t act like someone who’s just been attacked as she flirts with Biegler a little and which he wisely rebuffs. He goes on to interview her and several of Fred’s associates and gets a feel for his client and the particulars of the case. Preminger proceeds to take us through every stage of the trial in meticulous detail as Paul defends his client and crosses paths with a fiery young prosecutor played by George C. Scott in an early role.
For any cineaste, there is a real thrill watching two top notch actors like James Stewart and Scott square off in a court room battle as their characters try to outfox each other like some kind of metaphoric chess match. Claude Dancer (Scott) starts off simply as an observer, studying Biegler’s technique and paying close attention to how and what he says to the various witnesses. But as the case progresses, Dancer speaks up and begins to flex his oratory skills. He goes after Biegler like a shark. Stewart plays another upstanding citizen and upholder of all things decent but the case Biegler works on isn’t clear-cut and he has to navigate some pretty murky waters.
Ben Gazzara is excellent as the untrustworthy and jealous husband that comes across most of the time as a cool and calculated customer. A young Lee Remick is also very good as the flirtatious wife. Together, they paint a portrait of a complex relationship and as the film progresses, one wonders the true nature of their marriage.
Miraculously, Preminger was able to push Anatomy of a Murder through the censors and in doing so helped usher in a new era of films that could take on more challenging subject matter in a more frank fashion. The film has gone on to establish an impressive legacy, widely regarded as one of the best trial films ever made, ranking right up there with the likes of 12 Angry Men (1957) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Above and beyond its genre trappings, Anatomy of a Murder is simply a great film with a solid and tightly-written screenplay, no-nonsense direction and an excellent cast of actors all of whom deliver memorable performances.
The first includes an inventive theatrical trailer set in the court room where most of the film takes place.
The second disc starts off with an interview with Foster Hirsch, author of Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King. He gives a biographical sketch of the film director and how his education in law school would influence and inform his career as a filmmaker. Hirsch takes us through Preminger’s start as a studio contract director on through to his stature as an independent filmmaker working within Hollywood. Naturally, he dwells on Preminger’s work in Anatomy of a Murder.
There are excerpts from a 1967 episode of the television show Firing Line that sees Preminger discussing censorship with host William F. Buckley Jr. The film director comes across as passionate and knowledgeable as he eloquently defends his stance on censorship.
Film critic Gary Giddins talks about jazz musician Duke Ellington’s score for the film. He briefly talks about jazz music in films of the 1950s and provides background to Ellington’s career. Giddins also analyzes the film’s score.
There is an interview with Pat Kirkham, author of Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design. She talks about the groundbreaking collaboration between Preminger and graphic designer Bass. She gives a brief background to his career and how he met the director. She also examines his work on Anatomy of a Murder.
There is vintage “Newsreel Footage” of the cast arriving on location in Michigan with some fascinating on the set rehearsal footage, providing tantalizing glimpses of Preminger’s working methods.
Also included is an image gallery of stills that Life magazine photographer Gjon Mili who took them for the companion book to the film by Richard Griffith.
Finally, “Anatomy of Anatomy” is an excerpt from a work-in-progress documentary about the impact of the film had on the community where it was shot. Most interestingly is the actual incident that inspired the film with people who remember when it occurred offering their anecdotal recollections.