Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Twenty-One


#21 — Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959)
It’s entirely possible — likely, even — that Anatomy of a Murder is far better known for the design work of Saul Bass that shapes the opening titles and the poster than for anything more directly connected to the actual narrative. That’s not an entirely lamentable circumstance as it is some of the most striking work ever delivered by a true master of his craft. Still, clicking the film off after Bass’s portion is complete deprives the viewer of one of the shrewdest depictions of American jurisprudence ever devoted to film, not to mention one of the most accurate (or so I suspect, lacking the true expertise to state that definitively). It also has a fascinating frankness about the lascivious crimes contained within its narrative, serving as more of a precursor to and predictor of the cinema to come than a summation of the acceptable film content of the decade drawing to a close as it was released. As directed by Otto Preminger, the film is grandly sturdy in the style of classic Hollywood and yet its darker fringes stealthily suggested just how much deeper cinema targeted at adults could dig.

Set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the film centers on the court case for an Army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) accused of committing the homicide referenced in the title. He owns up to the killing, but argues he only did it because the victim had sexually assaulted his wife. The lawyer who steps up to defend him is Paul Biegler (James Stewart), a slightly boozy, lackadaisical fellow who almost seems to pick it up as a whim, as if it were just another way to while away his small town, sleepy evenings. In a manner familiar from any number of other courtroom dramas, the case reinvigorates him, though, stirring a deep-set belief in the importance of seeking justice. As is often the case in Preminger’s films, the pleasure is less in the surprises of the plot than in the meticulous panache the director brings to the storytelling. This is especially true when Preminger gets to focus in on the procedures of things. His firmly planted attention always worked best when he was examining the mechanics of how things got done. The simple mechanics of a court case bring out the best in him, and Anatomy of a Murder manages to be riveting by sticking to the rigors of the law.

The film also benefits from some marvelous work by its actors. This is during the stretch when Stewart was trying to figure out his career path as he shifted every so slightly from beloved movie star to aging character actor. He’s utterly fantastic, depicting a man who is steadying himself like a foal learning to stand. Besides that, there are splendid supporting turns by Lee Remick (as the wife of the lieutenant), Eve Arden (operating with her trademark and unequalled withering wit as the lawyer’s secretary), and the consistently marvelous George C. Scott. I suspect playing scenes against Scott, as the prosecuting attorney, contributed mightily to the strength of Stewart’s performance. Though his best known and most loved performances often feel like grand solo turns (It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and the previous lauded Harvey among them), Stewart was often strongest when he got to operate in tandem against a formidable companion. Scott, as gruff and imposing of a figure as ever drew a studio paycheck, toughens up Stewart, giving him something to swing against. It suits the film perfectly, since Anatomy of a Murder takes a surprisingly tough-minded approach that provides indications of where movies would soon go.

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