Friday, 19 August 2016

Otto Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder" – Lawyer-ing The Tone

I’ve seen a lot of James Stewart over the course of watching the IMDB 250 list.  For me, he’s at his best when he has a sinister touch about him, most notably under the direction of Hitchcock.  Left to himself he has a tendency to drift into aw-shucks American apple pie territory.  The combination of Stewart and Frank “Capra-corn” Capra is a particularly sickly mix.  Anatomy of a Murder is on the edgier side of his performances under the direction of Otto Preminger, but there are some cheesy moments, particularly at the beginning while the Stewart’s character Paul Biegler is established (a district attorney who’s lost his post at re-election).


Jazz-loving Biegler is shown at a loose end at the beginning, drinking on his own and spending his days fishing and playing the piano.  His fridge full of newspaper-wrapped fish is a decent visual metaphor for his unfocused ingenuity but hardly a realistic one.  It would get pretty stinky in there after a few days.  Biegler’s alcoholic Irish lawyer friend, Parnell McCarthy (played by Arthur O’Connell) is able to stop his heavy spirit drinking like turning off a light switch in order to assist with a new case.

These gripes might seem minor but the strength of this film is in the main courtroom story which was based on a novel written by a lawyer in a real-life case that closely mirrored the characters and ploy of the film.  The power of a narrative based closely on real-life events makes the usual Hollywood blather and bullshit of the fictionalized character-establishing scenes at the start even more unsatisfying than usual.

This is a long film but it never drags thanks to Preminger's skillful direction, the power of the underlying real-life narrative and the strength of the supporting actors.  A husband is on trial for murder after shooting a local barman who his wife says raped her.  We never know for sure whether the wife was raped, what really went on between the husband and wife at the time of the events, or what the true mental state of the husband was.  (The defence is based on short-term insanity.)  There are twists and turns but not in the expected way of revealing more of what happened on the night of the shooting.  Instead the focus is on Biegler’s legal case.  The twists and turns relate to his ability to persuade the judge that by law his client should be found not guilty.  They have nothing to do with his client’s innocence or guilt of the crime.

The result is a deliberately cynical view of the trial process and of the ability of lawyers to influence the outcome by manipulating the jury, the judge and the legal framework with only a glancing engagement with the crime.  This is one area where the film is forced to skirt around conventional Hollywood plot devices.  Stewart’s character is attracted to the young manager at the murdered man’s bar, who turns out to be the daughter of the murdered man, born out of wedlock (re-enforcing the barman’s reputation as a ladies’ man).  But he can’t get romantically involved with her – it would be too messy since he has coached the killer of her father into a dodgy insanity defence.  At the end of the film when the accused husband and his wife abscond without paying his fee, Stewart’s character cheerfully shrugs it off, despite retrospective evidence that the husband is a wrong’un – a heavy drinker, some further slight evidence of being a wife-beater, skipping his fee, and a litter-lout to boot.

Review continues below...

Inspire your baby with the Visual Baby series of picture ebooks.  Original patterns and art designed for young eyes. Try them today by clicking the covers below.


"It's the only thing that stops her crying" Katie Alison
"All three of my children love this book"  Janice Peterson
"Moons, trees, leaves... fabulous!" Linda Matson 

There is surprisingly frank discussion about the alleged rape and the sexual habits of the wife for a 1959 film.  She is slut-shamed in court by the big-town lawyer for the prosecution (played with impressive presence by George C. Scott) and the word ‘slut’ is used in the dialogue.  The film goes further, however, and effectively slut-shames the wife itself.  She is shown flirting with Stewart’s character as well as with army officers at a bar while the trial is in progress.  She even casts a meaningful look at the battered old alcoholic, McCarthy.

A real strength of the film is its refusal to indulge in flashbacks.  We don’t see a single reconstruction of the night of the murder, let alone – heaven forbid – a series of evolving flashbacks as more knowledge of the night is fed in.  It is only too easy to imagine a weaker director doing this but the result would be to deflate the ambiguity about the events of that night and detract from the real unfolding drama, which is the journey of the legal arguments in the courtroom.  Similarly, we never see the murdered barman to judge what sort a womanizer he might have been, although we see photographs of him.

I wanted to give this film a 9 or 10 score but wondered whether some of the cheesier sections at the start would force it down to an 8.  (There are also a couple of rather heavy-handed asides in the courtroom to tell the audience what we already know.)  But in the end I stuck to my guns because there are so many moments of original genius here that I’ve never seen done so effectively in any other courtroom film.

Personal Score: 9/10

This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.

For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.

No comments:

Post a Comment