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With: James Stewart, Ben Gazzara, Lee Remick, Eve Arden, Arthur O'Connell, George C. Scott
Written by: Wendell Mayes, from the novel by Roebrt Traver
Directed by: Otto Preminger
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 160
Date: 01/07/1959

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Holding Court

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I had the misfortune to be chosen for jury duty a year ago. I was stuck in the courtroom for over a month on a sloppy, meaningless civil case; a man suing some big companies because of something he did himself. But I got to know the court lingo pretty well--not enough to become a lawyer, mind you, but enough so that I can tell when courtroom movies are fudging it a bit. I happen to love courtroom movies anyway, but since then I've been noticing that some of my favorite films don't quite ring true. How surprising it was then, when I got to see Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder (1959) again recently on a new DVD, to see that all the courtroom details were frighteningly accurate. Normally, I don't care a whit if something is real or not in movies. As long as it seems real, it's fine with me. But I have to give Anatomy of a Murder an extra mark for its effort.

Whether or not the courtroom details are accurate, Anatomy of a Murder has got a hell of a story. It was based on a popular book of a true case, by Robert Traver (a.k.a. Judge John D. Voelker), and Preminger had the iron guts enough to not make it sensationalist or sentimental. He just made a cold, hard movie. It goes on for two hours and forty minutes because it needs to, and that time feels just right. James Stewart, in unquestionably one of his greatest performances, stars as the fisherman lawyer who unexpectedly gets called for the big murder case. A soldier's wife (Lee Remick) is raped, and her husband (Ben Gazzara) is charged with murdering the rapist. George C. Scott, in one of his first roles, plays the prosecutor. Joseph Welch, a real-life judge, gives a marvelous performance as (what else?) the judge.

Preminger takes a while to set up the story, but his pacing and style are perfection. Stewart goes around interviewing witnesses in his laid-back style. We get to see the little town they live in, where people fish a lot and there is only one bar for nighttime entertainment. Then it's into the courtroom for the last two-thirds of the movie. Preminger uses a crystal-clear deep-focus approach that allows us to see all faces clearly at all times, both foreground and background. One striking scene has Scott questioning Remick on the stand, with Stewart in the background complaining about Scott blocking his eyeline.

Strangely, the movie is not a murder mystery. There's no question in our minds that Gazzara has killed the soldier and that Remick has been raped. (We see her with a black eye before the trial starts.) The suspense comes from the trial itself. Do we believe that Gazzara is essentially innocent? Does he deserve to be let off? What will the jury do? And, more importantly, what would we do if it were us? It's a question of morals rather than whodunit, something that rarely occurs in these kinds of movies. Better still, Preminger doesn't milk that for easy sentiment. He treats it as if it were a murder mystery. And to top it off, he leaves the ending ambiguous. But since the actual main character is Stewart, and we know that the ending is a good one for him, we don't mind.

Preminger was also a knockout director of actors. Both Stewart and Remick deliver outstanding performances, among their very best. Remick is sexy, sultry, devious, and terrified. She has a great scene where she takes off her hat and shakes down her luscious hair in the courtroom, much to the delight of everyone, jury, judge, lawyers, and audience. Stewart brings a little of that shrewd darkness he cultivated in films like Winchester '73 (1950) and Vertigo (1958) and combines it with some of his small-town hominess from It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

And how could I forget the score by none other than Duke Ellington, who also appears in a nightclub scene? It's one of the greatest in the history of movies, and it alone is enough to make this movie worth sitting through. But every aspect of Anatomy of a Murder works. It's a rare example of crackerjack Hollywood filmmaking, where every cog in the machine is well-oiled and working perfectly.

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