Tuesday 11 December 2012

Movie Review: Anatomy Of A Murder (1959)

An absorbing courtroom drama, Anatomy Of A Murder bids a firm farewell to the 1950s and welcomes a new, much more liberal decade. With sometimes startlingly frank discussions about rape, semen, abuse, panties, and women's sexuality, and a probing of the link between psychiatric condition and criminal acts, Anatomy Of A Murder happily jumps from one taboo subject to another, ushering in a new era.

In small-town Upper Michigan, Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a former District Attorney, now struggling to run his own home-based law practice. Paul's best friend is old-timer Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell), a former lawyer but now a confirmed drunk. Desperate for work, Paul accepts a seemingly hopeless case: to defend Lieutenant Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who admits to shooting dead a pub-owner called Barney Quill, after Quill raped Manion's wife Laura (Lee Remick).

Laura is stunningly beautiful, dresses provocatively, and can't help flirting with every guy she meets, including Paul. But she insists that Quill did rape her, triggering an uncontrollable rage in Manion. Paul convinces Manion to plead not guilty due to temporary insanity, and sets off to find a medical expert to prove the point. Paul also uncovers the role played by Quill's bartender Alphonse Paquette (Murray Hamilton) on the night of the rape and murder, while McCarthy tracks down the background of the mysterious Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant). When the trial starts, Paul is up against a shark of a prosecutor in the form of Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), who will do his best to prevent Paul from turning what should be a straightforward murder trial into a rape and revenge case.

The poster art and the angular, playful credit sequence announce the forthcoming change of decades. Anatomy Of A Murder also immediately deploys an enjoyable and innovative all-jazz soundtrack by Duke Ellington (who also makes a cameo), capturing the spirit of a movie tackling serious issues with a light touch. And the Wendell Mayes script wastes no time in going where few movies had gone before, delving into the vocabulary associated with rape cases and courageously portraying the victim as a liberated woman pro-actively seeking the attention of men.

Otto Preminger keeps Anatomy Of A Murder moving along a taut wire for its entire 160 minutes of running time. Cleverly injecting humour to break the tension, and giving equal time to the exploration of murder, rape, and a marriage punctured by jealousy, the film is rich with characters worth knowing and truths worth unveiling. The entire final third is dedicated to the court proceedings, and Preminger creates a dynamic and cavernous courtroom environment with a multitude of perspectives presided over by a caustic but reasonable judge. There are enough colourful events and personalities on show that Sam Leavitt's black and white cinematography is a simplifying relief.

Paul Biegler is one of James Stewart's final great roles. Stewart received his fifth and final Best Actor Academy Award nomination for bringing to life a lawyer who is smarter than he looks, more melancholy than he shows, charming and disarming when needed, and much more dogged than his foes give him credit for. Stewart sparring with the uncompromising George C. Scott in the epic courtroom battle is a duel for the ages.

Lee Remick is the other star of Anatomy Of A Murder. In just her fourth screen role, Remick sizzles as an over-sexed wife attracting the eye of every man she meets, and revelling in the attention. Dressed in pants, high heels and tight tops as she proves too hot to handle for rural upstate Michigan, Laura is a challenge for Paul both in fending off her lustful looks and insofar as her story of rape may have sounded suspicious even to her own husband. In a performance full of refinement, Remick ensures that Laura is convincing both as a seductress and a victim.

Anatomy Of A Murder expertly dissects a case of death by jealousy, and finds within it societal norms already changing and about to be severely disrupted by a decade of tumultuous upheaval.

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