|Producer/director Otto Preminger was the son of an Austrian public prosecutor, and despite a desire to work in the world of theater, he dutifully followed his father’s advice first and went to law school. While this legal training turned out to be but a brief detour from his ultimate career trajectory (he never formally practiced), it deeply affected his view of the world and helped inform his subsequent work on both stage and screen. As Jonathan Rosenbaum aptly noted, in his films “Preminger placed his characters on trial without ever handing down any final verdicts, following them down the diverse garden paths of their wayward natures to see what he might discover; he was a connoisseur of human mystery whose long takes and camera movements were vehicles for pursuit.”|
This tendency in Preminger’s work is perhaps most evident (and not surprisingly) in Anatomy of a Murder, his film version of Michigan Supreme Court justice John D. Voelker’s (writing under the pen name Robert Traver) 1958 best-seller about his experience defending a man on trial for murdering his wife’s rapist. While the film plays by the rules of the courtroom thriller, a genre that was particularly popular in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Preminger is decidedly uninterested in using the legal proceedings to dig out the “truth” of what happened, to the point that he completely leaves the dueling lawyers’ final arguments off screen. Rather, Preminger turns the courtroom into a confined stage on which the various characters act out their conflicting selves, charging us with determining who is lying and who is telling the truth, both in front of and on the witness stand.
James Stewart, who had previously complicated his pre-war idealistic star persona with increasingly darker turns in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), stars as Paul Biegler, an attorney in a small town in upstate Michigan who has recently returned to private practice after being voted out of the district attorney’s office. His interest in the law seems largely academic and abstract, as he much prefers fishing to actual legal work, although he enjoys spending his evenings reading case law and drinking whiskey with Parnell Emmett McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell), an older lawyer-turned-town drunk.
Paul decides to defend Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who is being prosecuted for shooting and killing a local tavern owner who allegedly beat and raped his wife, Laura (Lee Remick). Paul ostensibly takes the case because he needs the money, although Manion’s inability to pay anything up front suggests that he has other motivations, as well. For one thing, his opponent in the courtroom will be Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West), the man who replaced him as district attorney. That challenge is enhanced by the fact that Lodwick is being assisted by Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), a big-shot state district attorney against whom Paul can define himself as the underdog. Furthermore, the case provides an intriguing legal challenge: How to defend a man who is clearly guilty of murder without simply copping a plea. The answer turns out to be temporary insanity—the idea that Manion was so enraged by his wife’s rape that he temporarily lost his faculties and therefore cannot be held legally accountable for his subsequent actions. The defense is buttressed by Paul and Parnell’s discovery of an 1886 case that provides precedent for the idea of “irresistible impulse,” a specific version of temporary insanity that Manion claims (after some carefully moderated encouragement by Paul).
The real conflict in Anatomy of a Murder is not what takes place in the courtroom, but rather in how we feel about what takes place there. The genre dictates that Paul, who appears in virtually every scene in the film, is the story’s hero: the dogged, small-town lawyer who faces steep odds in exonerating his client. The problem is that Manion is not an innocent man, and his defense, however legally acceptable, smacks of opportunism and manipulation. The behind-the-scenes machinations required for the defense are not always noble: Paul uses private information to coax a young woman named Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant) into testifying for Manion’s defense; he insists that Laura, a habitual flirt who favors tight sweaters, pants, and high heels, dress like a mousy housewife; and he flaunts decorum in the courtroom with dramatic outbursts when it suits his needs. The canny nature of Stewart’s performance resides in the fact that we are never sure how sincere Paul is being. We are never even sure if he really believes his client, only that he wants to win the case. For his part, Manion is hardly a sympathetic client, and his relationship with Laura is clearly vexed, if not downright perverse. Neither is worthy of trust, yet the genre insists that we root for him to be found “not guilty,” even as we may have the uneasy feeling that we are pushing for a guilty man to go free.
Although Preminger started his film career as a contract director for 20th Century-Fox in the 1930s and ’40s, in the 1950s he established himself as a preeminent post-studio-system independent filmmaker, challenging the strictures of the industry’s Production Code with “racy” language in The Moon is Blue (1953) and a frank depiction of heroin addiction in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955). Anatomy of a Murder was another challenging film for the Code, as it relies heavily on graphic discussion of rape and a less-than-ideal portrait of marriage. Laura’s sexuality is essentially put on trial, and one of the film’s most striking sequences is when Dancer gets her on the witness stand and all but accuses her of “asking for it.” The manner in which Laura is reduced to tears on the stand is astoundingly moving, especially since Remick plays her so effectively as a headstrong woman constantly pushing against the barriers of social decorum; her alluring sexuality, typically her weapon against men, is suddenly and terribly turned against her.
The trial itself takes up more than half of the film’s extensive 161-minute running time, and it has proved to be one of the more accurate depictions of legal proceedings to come out of Hollywood (although, to be fair, it has plenty of exaggerations and overt dramatics that no judge would allow). If there is a weakness in the trial sequences, it is the presence of Joseph N. Welch as the presiding judge. Welch, a Boston-based lawyer who had gained national fame during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings for his infamous calling out of red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy’s bully tactics—“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”—probably peaked many viewers’ interest with his casting in the film, but he is clearly not a capable actor, and his unevenness as Judge Weaver sometimes deflates the trial’s otherwise scintillating sense of realism. Realism is a crucial element of Anatomy of a Murder’s effectiveness; Preminger not only insisted on shooting entirely on actual locations in Michigan’s upper peninsula, but often in the very spots where the real-life 1952 crime on which Voelker based his novel took place. The result is a film that simultaneously plays by and punctures the expectations of the courtroom thriller, providing us with all the dramatic highs and lows, but ultimately denying us the comforting sense of closure that makes the legal system seem infallible.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (3.5)
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