Thursday, October 30, 2014

CANON OF FILM: "ANATOMY OF A MURDER"

ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959)

Director: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: Wendell Mayes based on the novel by Robert Traver



The true appeal of Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder”, at the time particularly is that it was the first one to break some of the rules. With the advent of television, as a means for keeping up and competing with the new medium, certain elements of the Hays Code was starting to slowly get eliminated. “Anatomy of a Murder”, was one of the first films that dealt with rape and used more vulgar language. It’s tame by today’s standards, sure but some of it is still heavily edited. Yet, when finally, during the case, after a brief discussion with the attorneys, and Judge Weaver (Joseph N. Welch, who was a famous lawyer, not an actor) decides to issue an order declaring that the women undergarment in question will be called “panties,”  for the remainder of the proceedings and instructs the audience and jury to get their laughs out of the way now, he’s essentially telling us, the audience to do so as well. “There you have it, they’re panties; this is a murder trial where rape is involved, try as you can, it isn’t particularly funny,” is what he’s essentially saying. ("Rape," was a new word for cinema too, so was "semen," and "bitch," and a couple others from this film) It’s also realistic. The fact that it still holds up as a great and essential courtroom drama is frankly a bonus.

Try as we must, as much as we try and tend to loathe the police, law, and all aspects of it, the fact remains that it greatly appeals to our nature. With an average of 19 hours of television devoted to programming per week, since the earliest beginnings of television devoted to matters of the law, it’s integrated into our culture more closely than anything it seems, and they’re great natural sources of conflict. Watching “Anatomy…” again, I realize while the case itself, comes off rather formulaic
today, the two dueling attorneys, actually three dueling attorneys as D.A. Lodwick (Brooks West)
and the military A.S.A. Gen. Dancer (Oscar-nominee George C. Scott, in only his 2nd ever role) both equally try the case and question the witnesses against Paul Biegler (Oscar-nominee James Stewart for the defense. There’s a lot of back-and-forth, a lot of wisecracks and insinuations, objections, surprise witnesses and revelations even, like any other “Law & Order” episode really. It’s a case where the military's involved because the defendant is a soldier, Lt. Mannion (Ben Gazzara) who had gone and killed the owner of a local hotel/bar, Mr. Quell, after his wife Laura (Lee Remick) claimed that she had been raped by him. He admits to the murder, even turned himself in, but claims temporary insanity at the time, which was actually a relatively new term at the time as well. That said, going back over the details, a few things are let’s say questionable regarding the case. We see multiple sides of Laura, and clearly, while she definitely has her husband in the palm of her hand, she’s not exactly innocent, per se. (Although when they mentioned her playing pinball, I couldn’t help but think of “The Accused”, almost thirty years later)  She’s drinks, she flirts; she goes out; she’s had one husband before, and what was she doing out that night? That’s not to say the husband’s any good either. He’s hit her before, and has moments of jealousy and rage. We do eventually get a verdict, but not necessarily the truth when you think back upon it. Two different expert witnesses give two differing medial opinions. Special care went into the accuracy of a trial of this nature, even a former Minnesota State Supreme Court Justice was used as a consultant to do so, especially SINCE they were breaking the taboos, they wanted to portray it as reality as much as possible. The movie got seven Oscar nominations, and probably ranks as Preminger’s best film as a director; he is a good one, although he was as well-known as an actor as he was a director, and he wasn’t afraid of taboo topics in his day, like directing Frank Sinatra as a heroin junkie in “The Man with the Golden Arm”, but usually, even in that film, in his search for hyper-realism, he tampers his films with too much score and dramatic music to exemplify moments that probably would be better if they were simply quiet. Duke Ellington did the score for the film, and even has a cameo in the film, but here, he doesn't overuse it as much as he tended too; it’s a subdued tense film, naturally, without extra outside noise, and it works particularly splendidly. It probably ranks more in the important than in the great category, but “Anatomy…” still holds up as a compelling drama, courtroom or otherwise, and it’s influence it still resonated all over the film and television landscapes. I do wish the ending, was even more ambiguous though than it is. There was a great episode of “Law & Order: SVU” that famously ended with the juror about to read the verdict after a clear he said, she said case, and then not giving us an answer. One of the strengths of the trial is that both sides put up compelling arguments and the trial is fairly evenhanded, maybe it would’ve been better to leave the audience hanging even more, or perhaps that’s just another courtroom drama altogether.

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