Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Maggie 2010: Two Classic Takes on the Courtroom Drama

#99. Anatomy of a Murder

In an age of exceptional distrust for politicians, lawyers, police, journalists -- anyone, really, with any modicum of formalized social power -- it's sometimes nice to take a trip back to an era of film championing such professions with no blind eye to their faults, but also a sense of play that is certainly absent in today's criminal dramas. As a society, we're much more a fan of the dark, sobering moral puzzles -- everything from Law & Order to Law-Abiding Citizen, so long as it leaves us with a bleaker presentation of reality than we had upon entry. Can we even imagine a time when the weight of all those professions' potential failings wouldn't cast an unending pall on the whole of our lives?

Jimmy Stewart plays just such a balanced man, a lawyer called Paul Biegler, in Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder. The film as a whole, following the court case of a man accused of murder, is famous for clearly outlining all the stages in the criminal justice system, highlighting the role of human fallibility in the pursuit of justice, and also being one of the first films to address certain subjects (sex and rape) simply and directly. But in the midst of all this dark happenstance, it's Stewart's personable good-nature that drains the courtroom drama of all its potential grimness.

Near the beginning of the film we find Biegler, the former District Attorney, with a great deal of spare time on his hands, fishing so often his icebox is packed from top to bottom with seafood; and playing piano to pass the idle hours. He's joined in this endearing portraiture of lawyers as gentle scholars of simple means and wants by a dear old friend, Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell), whose alcoholism and age are meant to soften our minds to his life teetering on the edge of professional work. These are good, decent people -- free spirits amply reigned in from time to time by Biegler's underpaid secretary, Maida Rutledge (Eve Arden)-- whose love for their work will ultimately have them (literally) laughing off all the bizarre twists and turns this case takes, and inviting viewers to do no less. Just you try to find an episode of Law & Order that does the same.

The case itself finds a decorated soldier, Lt. Frederick Manion, charged with the murder of Barney Quill in plain sight. Yet he pleads "not guilty," and after a contentious bit of witness coaching, Biegler gets him to the argument of "temporary insanity" on the grounds that Manion's wife, Laura, claims Barney Quill raped her that very evening. The questions that arise in and around the courtroom find this story more complicated than first meets the eye--Was Manion abusive? Did Laura welcome Barney's advances? How much time passed between Manion's discovery of the alleged rape and his murderous rampage?--and anyone seeking easy answers won't find them here. Answers aren't really the point. The point is to get a man off for murder because that's the defense lawyer's job; and because, as strange as the concept seems to people today, there was once a time when the primacy of taking personal pride in a job well done, regardless of the job itself, was nigh on unimpeachable.

#100. The Paradine Case

Or was it? In both Anatomy of a Murder and The Paradine Case, a passionate lawyer is bewitched by the beauty of a woman involved in a court case (in the former, it's Laura, Manion's flirtatious wife), but in The Paradine Case alone the target of these affections has a dangerous bite, and that bite casts a measure of doubt back along the justness of a lawyer trying to win his case by any available legal means.

Despite the general slickness of this criminal drama set in London, England, you can easily recognize Hitchcock's involvement as director in two exquisite camera shots in the courtroom--the first, of the accused's face from all angles as the lynchpin in the case, Andre Latour, enters the courtroom; the second, Latour's unchanging view of the back of the accused's head as he exits the courtroom. These are haunting, gripping shots, and alone well worth viewing the whole film.

But Hitchcock's presence manifests in more than just some pretty camerawork, and no less than when he takes notions of desire and faithlessness to truly intricate and nuanced depths. In The Paradine Case, Anthony Keane plays the barrister defending one Mrs. Paradine, who stands accused of poisoning her blind husband. Keane's wife, Gay (Ann Todd), is a loving, attentive woman who recognizes quickly that Mrs. Paradine has caught her husband's eye--so much so that he will not for a moment entertain the notion of her guilt--and asks only that her husband win the case so that this moment's fancy will have time to peter out, and not be forever, inextricably bound to the spectre of "what if" should Mrs. Paradine be hanged for murder.

Also at stake for Keane is a sense of where his sensibilities lie: not born into rich circumstances, he is surprised to be labelled by his client as part of the upper crust, despite the fact that his work as barrister has certainly granted him all the comforts and securities of one and the same. Mrs. Paradine is herself of lower beginnings, but denies her fealty to any of them when the suggestion is made in court that she made unbecoming advances on her husband's servant. This question of an affair also brings Keane's jealousy to the fore; and as the film progresses it becomes clear that part of his reason for trying to build a court case around the servant-as-true-murderer has to do with trying to keep Mrs. Paradine as an object for his affections alone.

It's all quite monstrous when so outlined, such that the film's only moments of lightness come from Keane's perceptive wife, Gay, and the delightfully well-versed Judy Flaquer (Joan Tetzel), who helps explain various turns and implications in the courtroom to Gay and also to viewers. Where the later Anatomy of a Murder presents a case rife with ambiguities that can happily be sloughed off when the verdict's been decided and the bills are paid, Hitchcock's The Paradine Case outlines only how deeply emotionally invested a man can become in his work, risking all and losing much when relying solely on the surety of his convictions to guide the long arm of the law.

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