by MP Bartley
Time mellows all insults and all taboos eventually. From the first films that dared to show a bit of bare flesh, to the first liberal use of the 'c' word, everything eventually will lose its impact, to the point where Ricky Gervais can use the term for one of the most heinous crimes in society as a punchline for one of the best jokes in The Office. Anatomy of a Murder, however, was made in a time when just the mention of it was enough to cause a scandal.Set in a sleepy, sweaty Southern town, Paul ‘Polly’ Biegler (James Stewart) is a small-time lawyer, unexpectedly presented with a big case. A local bar owner has been shot dead by Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), a Lieutenant from the local army base. Manion’s defence is insanity, after it is revealed that he shot the bar owner because he raped Manion’s wife, Laura (Lee Remick). What stops this being an easy case for Polly to defend however, is the fact that not only is Manion a pretty unlikeable character, with a history of violence, but Laura is an overtly sexual woman, who makes no secret of the fact that she likes the attention of men – even whilst trying to defend her husband in court. This, combined with the fact that the prosecution have hired the young and ambitious city lawyer Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), makes the case a troubling one for Polly.
"I think there's been a rape up there!"
It’s unfair to overly criticise films from the past through contemporary eyes, and it should be remembered that Anatomy of a Murder is still the quintessential courtroom drama, establishing the twists and turns that are now commonplace not just in Hollywood, but in practically any television show that happens to have any episodes set in court. So let’s applaud Otto Preminger firstly, for establishing such well-known clichés in the first place, but for also presenting them in a way that’s still fresh and intriguing today. It’s interesting that this is a courtroom drama that never presents us with flashbacks to the incidents in question, merely presenting us with the hard evidence of the case and the testimonies of those involved, letting us draw our own conclusions and verdict, whilst battling our own sensibilities and moral values. Anatomy of a Murder, dips its toes into murky moral values indeed, and refuses to separate the issues into black and white for us. As noted above, Manion is a hard man to like – cold, arrogant, unrepentant – yet is it justifiable that when a man’s wife is raped, it would drive him mad enough to murder? And for a woman who claims she has been raped, Laura seems surprisingly blasé about it – strolling around town in revealing clothes and flashing her legs at any man who cares to look, including Polly – but then, should a woman have to play the victim in a case such as this? Shouldn’t she have the right to be as sexual as she wants, without worrying about whether she’ll be judged as ‘deserving’ her fate? These questions still trouble us today and ensure that the film has not completely outdated itself, and that what seems to be a fairly simple trial takes on much bigger consequences.
Unfortunately, there are aspects that do not hold up as easily as the moral questions. When the Judge on the case solemnly informs the public gallery that the word ‘panties’ should not be giggled at, they giggle nonetheless, and so do we – not because of the word panties, but because of the concept that there was once a time when the word was something not heard regularly in society. And for a film where the dramatic core lies in the trial, Preminger doesn’t get us there fast enough. It doesn’t justify it’s 2 ½ hour running time, particularly when distracting asides of Polly’s assistant searching for testimonies are stuck in the middle of the trial, when they could easily have been lost.
The film also marks an interesting career change for Stewart here. Polly is part of the Stewart that Capra used – the wholesome, decent, clever Jimmy – and part of the Stewart that Hitchcock used – the morally ambiguous (look at him checking Laura out in his office), borderline sleazy James – and it results in one of the most interesting and layered performances that Stewart ever gave. Remick is also excellent, never letting us totally decide whether we feel truly sorry for Laura, or question her morality instead, whilst Gazzara makes Manion a fascinating defendant. For a soldier he has mannerisms (such as the way he holds his cigarette) that makes you question his sexuality, but never in an overt, distracting way, and together he and Remick make an intriguing pairing whose relationship is suspect at best.
Special mention must go to Scott however, in one of his earliest and best performances. Confident, supremely intelligent and with a razor sharp cunning, Scott takes over the film just as Dancer takes over the case. Speedily demolishing the case for the defence, Scott sets the standard for the kind of lawyer that we all hope we never come up against, and pummels Polly throughout. There’s a wonderful give-and-take between Scott and Stewart, two acting equals, absolutely nailing the dramatic core of the film, and it is in these scenes where the film really hooks you.From it's iconic credits, to its wonderful Duke Ellington score and to its ambiguous verdict, that is still likely to split audiences down the middle today, Anatomy of a Murder is still rightly revered as the courtroom drama that all others bow down to. The passing of age has made it slightly crusty around the ages, yet that shouldn't diminish the fact that with Paul Newman to Tom Hanks and to Samuel L. Jackson all taking the stand in some form of contentious trial, they are merely standing in the footprints of giants who went before them.
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originally posted: 02/06/08 22:41:19