Watching Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder for the first time, I was struck by how fresh and relevant the film feels more than fifty years after its 1959 release. Significant cultural changes and the advent of DNA profiling have not dulled the edges of what is essentially a pitch-black comedy set primarily in a courtroom. The Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray treatment of the film definitely provides an ideal opportunity to discover – or rediscover – this classic.
James Stewart stars as former district attorney Paul Biegler. Bored after a lost election forces him into early retirement, Biegler decides to defend Manny Manion (Ben Gazzara). Manny has been charged with murder for the death of a man who allegedly raped his wife. Manny’s wife Laura (Lee Remick) is curiously flirtatious and carefree for a woman claiming to have been recently raped. The medical report was inconclusive. Biegler doesn’t seem too confident that the facts of the case are exactly as Manny and Laura are reporting them. Manny makes no bones about the fact that he killed the alleged rapist. The problem for Biegler is that Manny didn’t witness the sexual encounter and waited an inordinately long period of time before tracking the perpetrator down. Laura’s strong advances toward Biegler make the lawyer even more suspicious.
The bulk of the two-and-a-half hour movie takes place in court where Biegler faces off against the man who won his job, District Attorney Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West). Lodwick, however, is barely competent. It’s his assistant that keeps Biegler on his toes – a prosecutor from out of town named Claude Dancer (George C. Scott). Much of the fun of Anatomy of a Murder comes from watching Biegler and Dancer try to outwit one another. Stewart and Scott dig into their roles with obvious relish. But what makes this film so enduring is the utterly cynical way it presents these lawyers. At no point are the issues of “right” and “wrong” really considered. Manny very likely killed a man in cold blood, but he is coached by Biegler to hide behind a temporary insanity defense. Laura may or may not have actually been raped. It is regularly suggested throughout the film, by numerous characters, that Laura was unsatisfied with her husband and prone to extramarital affairs.
Preminger’s trick – which he pulls off in spades – is to get the audience to root for Biegler, a man driven solely by his need to win the case. He isn’t even particularly concerned with getting paid, agreeing to take the case pro bono with the promise of payment only after a successful defense. Stewart is as charming as ever, which goes a long way toward making Biegler likable. He does everything he can to make a man who is very likely guilty appear to be innocent. Prosecutor Dancer is more interested in discrediting Laura’s rape claim, badgering and humiliating her on the stand in an attempt to make her look like a slut. Although tame by modern standards, the language – with its talk of “panties” and seminal fluid – was quite rough for its time. Even though it isn’t shocking anymore, it still comes across as surprisingly frank.
I can see what this movie has been used as a model for law students to study. It presents a murder trial not from the standpoint of who actually did what to whom, but as a set of manipulations by the defense and prosecutorial teams. Their goal is to convince the jury of their case, which they sometimes do through tricks and unscrupulous behavior. The extent to which Biegler and Dancer are willing to go is largely left up the viewer’s interpretation. That’s another aspect of the movie that is so deftly handled – we never know when someone is outright lying. Duke Ellington’s evocative jazz score brilliantly underlines the improvisatory nature of the lawyers’ tactics.
The 1080p Blu-ray transfer of Anatomy of a Murder, framed at 1.85:1, makes this film look like it was made recently. Criterion has done a remarkable job of presenting everything flawlessly. The picture is incredibly sharp throughout, with fine detail visible in nearly every frame. While there aren’t any stunning vistas on display, keep an eye out for clarity in subtle elements like the pattern on Stewart’s tweed jackets. So good is the detail, some of the actor’s makeup stands out a little too much in fact – Stewart in particular looks funeral-ready. Grain, though not heavy, is present and completely natural throughout.
Criterion has provided two audio options. The LPCM mono mix is simple and elegant, balancing Ellington’s score perfectly with the dialogue. The dialogue is crisp at all times, free of distortion. There is also a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, which frankly seems like overkill given the simplicity of the film’s overall soundscape. Although the expanded mix is far from necessary, the score sounds pretty phenomenal I must say. I think that Ellington’s great music was the motivating factor for the new mix. It stays mainly centered, with the music spread out over the stereo spectrum. In either case, there is very little (if anything) to betray the age of this soundtrack.
A well-rounded package of supplements accompanies the film. All are presented in 1080p. Most significant are two half-hour featurettes. One is an interview with film studies author Foster Hirsch, who talks about director Otto Preminger and the importance of Anatomy of a Murder in his filmography. The other is an excerpt from a work-in-progress documentary called Anatomy of “Anatomy”. A pair of additional interviews focuses on Duke Ellington’s score and title designer Saul Bass. Vintage supplements include brief newsreel footage filmed during the production and an excerpt from the show Firing Line that features an interview with Preminger. Don’t skip the original theatrical trailer, which is quite creative. As usual, Criterion’s extensive booklet is packed with interesting essays that provide further background and analysis on the film.