Anatomy of a Classic
Published on July 26th, 2012 | by Paul Anthony Johnson0
I hate courtroom thrillers. Functioning variously and always banally as an arena for shameless histrionics (think Lionel Barrymore in “A Free Soul” or Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men”) , self-righteous liberal grandstanding (think “Inherit the Wind” or “12 Angry Men”), or square super heroics (think Perry Mason’s incredible winning streak or the ever resourceful rubes who always seem to eke out victory at the end of John Grisham adaptations ), the cinematic courtroom almost inevitably circumscribes physical space and emotional possibilities, thus strangling possibilities for spontaneity and surprise. But Otto Preminger’s wonderful “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959) is a different kind of beast—it’s a courtroom thriller for people who have no use for courtroom thrillers.
Preminger’s film distinguishes itself from most legal dramas by its underlying attitude toward the legal system. Where movie convention holds that the courtroom offers the spectacle of unveiled truths and moral reckonings, in “Anatomy of a Murder,” the courtroom is the empire of ambiguity, where motivation and human behavior become hopelessly and deliriously obscured. And for Preminger, the law’s occlusive magic doesn’t occasion finger-wagging or glum pouting a la “Law & Order,” but rather fosters a sardonic admiration and even a chuckling kind of awe. As everyone who has ever discussed “Anatomy of a Murder” at length has noted, Preminger’s own law education helps account for the unsentimental, clear-eyed treatment of American legal practice, and his own special brand of diabolical humanism (the tolerant ambivalence of Preminger’s worldview and the open-ended quality of his visual style qualify him as Jean Renoir’s mildly sociopathic cousin) prevents the film’s wry skepticism from ever curdling into excessively morbid cynicism.
The film begins with a portrait of the legal titan as hick-savant, a Pudd’n head Wilson for Eisenhower and Walt Disney and Ed Gein’s America of the 1950s, as Paul Beigler (James Stewart), having recently been voted out of his district attorney position, returns from a fishing expedition and finds company and solace from his jazz records as well as from his old friend Parnell McCartney (Arthur O’Connell), a washed-up attorney who’s in love with the law and the bottle. The evening’s conversation eventually ambles into a discussion of the recent local murder of a bartender by a hot tempered army lieutenant, and before the film’s first half hour is over, Beigler assumes the position of defense attorney to Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), accused of murdering the victim in retaliation for the rape of his wife (Lee Remick). Using an insanity defense, Beigler squares off against Mitch Lodwick (the eternally flustered Brooks West), the doofus who replaced him as district attorney, and the felicitously named Claude Dancer (played by George C. Scott, in his second screen role, with predatory intensity), a shrewd and dangerous state attorney sent in to assist with the prosecution. The rest of the film chronicles the trial as questions of memory, intention, and sexuality come to the fore for rest of the film’s brisk running time.
The central case in the film pivots less on questions of guilt or innocence (we know the accused is guilty of murder at the outset) than on competing philosophies of human character, a divergence illustrated viscerally through the different performance styles of James Stewart and George C. Scott. The two actors embodied two acting traditions, and in their violent waltz you can see a kind of allegory about the end of the classical Hollywood tradition (embodied by Stewart) and the emergence of a new Hollywood aesthetic (personified by the granite menace of Scott).
Stewart was coming off a remarkable string of performances that dismantled what people usually thought a James Stewart performance meant, i.e., gawky, stammering evocations of the all-American neurotic boy next door. In movies like “The Naked Spur” (1953) and “The Far Country” (1954), Stewart portrayed bitter bastards out to hit back at a vicious world that screwed them over at some point in the past, while in his work for Hitchcock (particularly “Rear Window” and “Vertigo”) Stewart created portraits of middle-aged male erotic longing and sadistic obsession that would seem to erase cloudy memories of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” follies (though if you watch carefully, you might notice that even back then his quivering pleas for social justice had a manic menace to them that suggested dark undercurrents to the typical populist Capra-corn). But his performance in “Anatomy of a Murder” offers reconciliation between the warm, folksy Stewart of national myth and the psychological train wreck of cinephilic reverie. If you want to get Marxist about this kind of thing (and knowing you, dear reader, you probably do), you could say if Stewart’s Jefferson Smith (“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”) is the thesis and Howard Kemp (“The Naked Spur”) the antithesis, then Paul Beigler is none other than the synthesis—decked out in all the golly-gee mannerisms and glad-handing exuberance of a country bumpkin, but secretly a sharp, experienced, moderately and healthfully cynical con man who knows exactly what buttons he needs to push to advance his agenda through a corrupt world. The performance, like so much of Stewart’s best work, epitomizes the classical filmmaking ethos in its ability to offer a seemingly affable surface behind which a wealth of sophisticated agendas play out.
Scott’s performance, in contrast, growls its grim malice and brutal intelligence at first steely glare, never so obviously or grandly as when the actor seems to be perfectly still. (Scott was the kind of tightly wound, volcanic actor whose stillness always played less like the real thing than like a studied approximation of what the absence of motion might look like—this was both his grace and his curse as an actor.) Throughout the film, Scott watches Stewart from the sidelines, as Preminger consistently composes shots inside the courtroom so that Scott’s face remains visible somewhere in the frame, giving a tense, volatile quality to the scenes that showcase Stewart’s legal theatrics. Every shot that includes his observant glare automatically assumes an air of latent violence, as Scott’s demeanor practically screams his character’s superior contempt for every other creature within sight. Scott’s blunt refusal to ingratiate himself to anyone who might be concerned portends the swaggeringly shallow stuck-up punk poutiness of the new Hollywood actors, from Jack Nicholson to Dennis Hopper, who sneered their way into dominance in the 1970s, and to watch Scott’s domineering evocation of that emerging aesthetic brush up against Stewart’s knowing personification of classic Hollywood’s devious poise is like watching parallel universes apocalyptically collide.
The film itself augured new Hollywood frankness, as it continued Otto Preminger’s decade-long war against the production code and all the inhibitions it consecrated. Brazenly sexual and proudly amoral, the movie doesn’t play coy with the matters of rape and violence at the heart of the story, and its amused curiosity about lust and malice feels a lot more adult that the smirking tut-tutting that characterizes most cinematic representations of sexuality these days. The film’s appreciation for adult sexuality and all its contradictions and divine craziness finds its ideal muse in Lee Remick, who portrays Mrs. Manion, the woman at the center of the case, as a kind of exuberantly and brilliantly corrupted tart who understands the power of her own sexuality and is both terrified and profoundly delighted by that knowledge. American cinema of the 1950s is a bit overstuffed with guileless child-women, so Remick’s ability to constantly show the adult woman desiring and calculating beneath that persona constitutes one of the film’s most pleasurable triumphs.
The whole thing whizzes through its 160-minute running time with a cackling urbanity that belies the film’s Michigan backwater setting. Sonically and visually, the movie achieves a crazy rhythm that allows it to feel relaxed while never feeling slow. Eschewing the amusing (and sometimes inspired) ersatz-bop of most ’50s jazz-esque scores by the likes of Alex North or Elmer Bernstein in favor of the real thing, Preminger obtained the talents of Duke Ellington to create the music for the film, and Ellington’s urgent, witty score complements the movie’s hip energy, and fortuitously ties “Anatomy” to movies like Louis Malle’s fatalistic 1958 thriller “Elevator to the Gallows” (with its lyrical Miles Davis score) and Godard’s 1960 nouvelle vague supernova, “Breathless” (with its feverish soundtrack by French jazz pianist Martial Solal), allowing one to view the film as part of a number of jazzy quasi-New Wave American films released in ’59, along with John Cassavettes’s epochal “Shadows” and Roger Corman’s grungy beat satire “A Bucket of Blood.” Yet Preminger’s crisp, classical direction and Stewart’s presence simultaneously link the film to other 1959 releases like Howard Hawks’s “Rio Bravo” and Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest”—autumnal masterpieces from old masters starring Hollywood icons delivering supernal performances. Like Ellington himself, whose late-period resurgence derived from his efforts to synthesize jazz tradition and prophecy into a coherent whole, Preminger was a master of fusing the old and the new into vibrantly vulgar concoctions like “Bonjour Tristesse” (1958) and “Anatomy of a Murder” (though it was the same tendency that eventually yielded his extraordinary 1968 anti-movie, “Skidoo”).
Criterion’s more-or-less recent DVD release improves on the old Columbia disc in every way possible, offering a very fine looking copy of the movie itself along with an entire disc of extras that include jazz critic Garry Giddens’s observations on the Ellington soundtrack, an examination of Saul Bass’s typically imaginative title design, and an old episode of “Firing Line” featuring a fanatically legalistic and obviously bemused Preminger squaring off against the once-famously twitchy raconteur-as-pretentious-imbecile William F. Buckley on the issue of movie censorship. Accompanied by a booklet containing a fine essay by Nick Pinkerton, the whole package is the usual Criterion knock-out that anybody who cares about this movie should own. And if that’s not enough, if you happen to have a Blu-ray player, you can get the Blu-ray disc and then marvel at Lee Remick in hi-def, which should be enough to restore a Luddite’s faith in technology.