Sunday, June 20, 2010

Anatomy of a Murder

The courtroom drama is a hard sell for some moviegoers.  That's understandable.  The plot usually moves slowly, there is little or no action, and the movies are cerebral by their nature (unless we're talking about John Grisham adaptations, which I'm not going to get into right now).  They tend to be predictable, kind of like a sports movie, to the point where you are pretty sure which side will win; hmm...will the slick team of we-give-lawyers-a-bad-name lawyers from the big city win, or will the earnest, hard-working, and a little naive local guy pull it out?  And you just know the closing arguments from the bad guys are going to be talking about the technically legal thing to do, but the good guys will make an emotional appeal to the jury and audience.  I don't mean to imply that all courtroom dramas are predictable and terrible, but it is a genre that has gotten a bit stale in recent times.

Anatomy of a Murder, now over sixty years old, is a phenomenal example of how good courtroom dramas can be and shows how well intelligent film-making can stand the test of time.  This film tells the story of Paul Biegler (James Stewart), a former Upper Peninsula Michigan district attorney that (after losing re-election) spends his time fishing and hanging out with his alcoholic colleague Parnell (Arthur O'Connell).  Yes, he's still a lawyer, but he tends to fish during office hours and regards the law as more of a hobby than anything else.  He reluctantly agrees to consider taking a case, if only to pay his secretary's paycheck.  The case is the defense of Lt. Manion (Ben Gazzara), who is being accused of the first-degree murder of a local tavern owner, Barney Quill.  The question is not whether or not Manion killed Quill; Manion freely admits to the killing, but says that he only did it after learning that Quill had raped his wife.  Since "I was real mad" isn't the best murder defense, Biegler has some work on his hands.  Moreover, Biegler will not be defending the case against the local district attorney.  The DA will be co-heading the case with a big city lawyer, the Assistant State's Attorney General, Claude Dancer (George C. Scott).  Dancer is much smarter than the local DA, and a lot meaner in the courtroom.  So, we have the typical local, small-time lawyer against a hot shot, and we have a case that the local guy should clearly lose.  It sounds pretty typical, I know.

The subject matter is one of the distinctive features in this film.  For being 1959, including rape in a movie was a pretty big deal.  They managed it pretty well, too; it wasn't glossed over, but it wasn't presented in excruciating detail.  For the times, though, this was very explicit.  I don't think that the movie would have been helped, even a little bit, by a more explicit explanation of the rape, either, so to say that this film handled the subject matter then as well as it could be handled today is saying something.  I will admit that there are some sexual aspects of the movie that have gotten quaint over time.  For one, the word "panties" elicits outright laughter from the adult onlookers.  For another, Laura Manion (Lee Remick) is accused of dressing provocatively (because that would excuse rape, obviously), but provocative in 1959 has absolutely no resemblance to provocative in 2010.  Still, it is kind of cute seeing James Stewart being distracted by a pretty girl in clothes that scandalously cling to her body.  Gasp.

Another unusual aspect of this film is its moral ambiguity.  From the start, neither Beigler nor the audience believe that Lt. Manion did anything but murder a man because he was angry.  Beigler takes the case though, but only after all but spelling out to Manion that he should feign temporary insanity.  That's a little shady, I guess, but it is the only argument that can win the defense's case, so it's understandable.  Manion isn't a nice guy, though; Laura Manion opened the movie with a black eye that Manion gave her.  There is a very plausible argument that Manion killed Barney Quill for having consensual sex with Laura.  Beigler figures this out, but does his best to get Manion acquitted anyway.  This is pretty realistic, of course, but this honesty is almost unheard of in Hollywood movies.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about this film is the closing arguments.  Specifically, the complete lack thereof.  That's right, this courtroom drama omits the emotional closing arguments.  The movie does not need them, but it is a surprising absence nonetheless.

This movie is not star-studded, but the acting is very good.  James Stewart is charming, of course, and is always fun to watch when he plays an intelligent character.  I don't know what it is exactly, but there is something about his laid-back drawl and his crafty eyes that just makes him fun to watch in roles like this.  George C. Scott is another perennially fun actor to watch, and he does not disappoint here.  Part of his job here is to be Stewart's opposite, and he fills the role admirably; where Stewart is soft and slow, Scott is loud and quick.  The rest of the cast is less stellar, but they play their parts well enough.  Ben Gazzara does not do a great job showing layers of emotion, but he does succeed in portraying a character that has anger bubbling under the face he shows the world.  Lee Remick's role has a surprising amount of depth to it, and she does a pretty good job capturing anger, confusion, immaturity, shame, and fear in the limited time she has on screen.  She's not a great actress, but this was undoubtedly her best performance.  Arthur O'Connell, while likable as the hard-drinking legal eagle, was less convincing; part of this is due to a script that has him give up years of drinking cold turkey with little or no consequences, but he doesn't play a great drunk, either.  On the other hand, Joseph Welch did a very good job as the judge, and casting him was an inspired choice; he is more famously known as the lawyer that asked Joseph McCarthy if he had "no sense of decency."

This movie did not win any Oscars, but was nominated for seven.  The more prominent categories included Best Picture, Best Actor (Stewart), Best Supporting Actor (Scott), Best Supporting Actor (O'Connell), Best Cinematography (Black-and-White category), and Best Adapted Screenplay.  You might notice that Otto Preminger was not nominated for his direction in this film, which is odd, considering that the cinematography was.  I don't find anything particularly interesting with Preminger's direction, but he was a major force in making the picture (he produced the movie), so I think he made a deliberate decision to approach the direction as straightforward as he could.  Obviously, it worked out quite well.  He also made the decision to give this film a jazz soundtrack, performed by Duke Ellington's orchestra, which was possibly the first major motion picture to devote the soundtrack solely to jazz.  It's not a huge part of the movie, but I think it gives Stewart's character an added dimension that helps explain how he is able to think outside the box so well.

Anatomy of a Murder, when it begins, does not reach out and grab you.  It is a well-constructed film that builds itself up over time.  Rarely do I enjoy courtroom dramas so much, and this is a movie that follows the case for the entire film.  There are no threats against Beigler's family, or any love interests.  This is a movie about a trial, and that's all.  For my money though, it is the best trial movie ever.

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