The estimable Criterion Collection has issued a new high-def edition of Anatomy of a Murder, a classic courtroom drama that I first saw as a kid when it came out in 1959. Remembering this as a fabulous movie, I wanted to see how it held up over time. After a recent viewing of the DVD, I’m happy to say that the virtues of old Hollywood storytelling remain intact and that the leisurely paced (160 minutes), black-and-white film remains as enjoyable as any movie I’ve seen in the last year.
But first I should mention that my initial viewing was under less than ideal circumstances. The plot focuses on the murder trial of an army lieutenant, chillingly and quite believably played by Ben Gazzara, who has shot and killed a tavern owner who raped his wife. By today’s standards, the movie is pretty tame, but in 1959 the testimony about the rape, which uses words like “bitch,” “contraceptive,” “penetration,” “slut,” and “sperm,” was rather shocking. The father of Jimmy Stewart, the film’s star who plays the small-town defense lawyer/hero, was so angry about this “dirty picture” that he took out an ad urging people not to attend. It was banned in Chicago.
I saw the movie from the back seat of our family car, a turquoise-and-white 1956 Pontiac, at Ranalli’s Drive-In, with my little sister asleep beside me and my parents in the front seat, an excruciating position for a 12-year-old boy. My mother kept turning around to ask if I understood what was being said on the big screen. I did, of course, but did not want to let on that I did, so I played dumb as best I could, a stance that only led to more explanations than I wanted to hear.
There was no such ambivalence this time around for me. When I think of Hollywood at its best in the 1950s, wonderful performances by veteran actors in every part, even the minor parts, come to mind. Here director Otto Preminger gives his actors ample room to play elaborate, entertaining subtexts in every scene. And they’re up to it. Watch Arthur O’Connell playing Stewart’s buddy, an over-the-hill lawyer who drinks too much, as he responds to Stewart’s request to pass the salt shaker in small scene. Their joshing, understated relationship is what character actors in old Hollywood did so well.
Another small tour de force is the courtroom scene where Stewart cross-examines Murray Hamilton in the part of the murder victim’s good friend and fellow bartender. The prosecuting attorney, played by George C. Scott at his insinuatingly nasty best, has gotten Hamilton to characterize the actions of Gazzara’s wife (Lee Remick) as provocative on the night of the rape. Stewart works over the angry Hamilton in a way that could serve as a textbook on handling a hostile witness.
Remick, in only her second film role, is a great flirt, utterly credible as the sort of woman who seems to live for attracting the male gaze. (Word is that Preminger wanted Lana Turner for the role originally, but switched to the unknown Remick when Turner insisted that her own costume designer do the clothes, which Preminger thought would be far too high-fashion for the character.)
Eve Arden, of “Our Miss Brooks” fame, shows up as Stewart’s loyal, wise-cracking secretary, a wise woman indeed.
Another bonus: the jazz sound track by Duke Ellington. In the film’s terms Stewart may be a small-town lawyer but he’s a cool guy, a trait certified by the piano jazz he plays several times in the film. One scene is set in a roadhouse with a jazz band playing some lovely music. Lo and behold, as the camera pans the room, you notice it’s Ellington’s orchestra and, then all of a sudden, there’s the Duke himself as the bandleader Pie-Eye playing a duet alongside Stewart.
What I’ll remember best about the movie, though, is the brio of the courtroom scenes. Stewart and Scott continually engage in elaborate point-counterpoint duels over what testimony should be allowed. At one point Stewart, who seems born to play this consummate aw-shucks part, gets to say:
I’m just a humble country lawyer trying to do the best I can against this brilliant prosecutor from the big city of Lansing.
Another delight: the very sensible judge in the movie is played by Joseph N. Welch, the U.S. Army lawyer known for nailing Senator Joseph McCarthy with the immortal line, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” during the McCarthy hearings on TV earlier in the decade. Welch does very well for a non-actor, playing the judge with great good humor. Stewart, Scott, and Welch all play their characters as true legal pros, grown-ups who understand the fencing of the courtroom and relish the competitive game of a trial.
Much of the plot turns on a missing pair of “panties” that belong to Remick. Here’s the discussion, brilliantly deadpanned by the actors, in a bench conference called by the judge:
Judge Weaver (Welch): Mr. Biegler, you finally got your rape into the case, and I think all the details should now be made clear to the jury. What exactly was the undergarment just referred to?
Paul Biegler (Stewart): Panties, Your Honor.
Judge Weaver: Do you expect this subject to come up again?
Paul Biegler: Yes, Sir.
Judge Weaver: There’s a certain light connotation attached to the word “panties.” Can we find another name for them?
Mitch Lodwick (local DA): I never heard my wife call ‘em anything else.
Judge Weaver: Mr. Biegler?
Paul Biegler: I’m a bachelor, Your Honor.
Judge Weaver: That’s a great help. Mr. Dancer?
Claude Dancer (Scott as out-of-town prosecutor): When I was overseas during the war, Your Honor, I learned a French word. I’m afraid that might be slightly suggestive.
Judge Weaver: Most French words are.
The dialogue here demonstrates another virtue of old Hollywood: a very well crafted script. This one is based on a novel by an actual Michigan judge and lawyer. The film is so accurate in its depiction of the trial process – research, witness prep, cross-examination – that it has been taught in law schools.
The best thing about the movie for me is that unlike most courtroom dramas, the ending does not make you feel as if justice has been done, order has been restored to the community, and all is right with the world. No, a real-world murder and trial is a far messier and morally disconcerting show, and so is this anatomy of a murder.