Monday, January 18, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #10: Anatomy of a Murder

US, 1959. Directed by Otto Preminger. Starring James Stewart, Ben Gazzara, Lee Remick, George C. Scott. Music by Duke Ellington.

I saw this many years ago and, while I recognized that it was a good movie, I was vaguely disinterested. What can I say, I Was a Teenage Pinhead.

Actually, I kind of understand my reaction. At that point, TV had already been doing the courtroom drama ad nauseam so the film's procedural frankness had been made standard entertainment procedure for many years. The film follows laconic small-town Michigan lawyer James Stewart from the moment he first hears of a big case to when he goes to seek payment. Career army private Ben Gazzara has admitted to murdering a local barman following the barman's alleged rape of Gazzara's goodtime girl wife Lee Remick.

Stewart doesn't take the case because he believes Gazzara deserves to be set free, but because he relishes the challenge it provides, a stark contrast from the way the legal system had be portrayed in most Hollywood films prior, when the defense attorney was a knight in white armour protecting a saintly innocent man or woman being railroaded by corrupt forces or circumstance. It's clear Stewart doesn't even particularly like Gazzara.

From beginning to end the film chronicles the various performances the participants in the case have to give in order to make the big show - the trial - come off according to their desires. The casting of Stewart is inspired, not only to make some of the then-controversial racy dialogue carry even more punch as delivered in his folksy drawl (and it still does), but by making the entire "Jimmy Stewart" persona an act the attorney adopts to enhance his success in the courtroom. Likewise, Gazzara's war hero bonafides are pumped up, Remick has to dress down to make her appear a meek victim, guest prosecutor George C. Scott lurks as a menacing, silent figure for the first three-quarters of the trial in order to maximize his riveting attack in the final stages.

Preminger shot the film largely on real Michigan locations, mostly with live sound and the end result feels anything but old Hollywood, to the benefit of the drama.

When I first saw the film I knew next to nothing of Duke Ellington, thinking him maybe a less interesting Cab Calloway. Now, being a full-fleged Ellington nut, and knowing his marvellous soundtrack album well, I decided for this reason to revisit the film. Happily, the film provided a lot more rich reward than just soundtrack context. The music is still fantastic, and used well - the courtroom scenes are devoid of it, to powerful effect - but this is by any standard a major, exciting mainstream film of its age.

1 comment:

madkevin said...

It's weird how precise and controlled this movie is when you compare it to Preminger's later bloated, lurid epics like The Cardinal. Anatomy Of A Murder is long, but it feels like every element of it is needed.