15 July 2001 | telegonus
Anatomy Of a Murder is probably Otto Preminger's best film. It's certainly my favorite. Adapted from a novel by Robert Traver, it tells the story of a lawyer in northern Michigan and his defense of a particularly surly and violent murderer. As is always the case with Preminger, scenes are filmed mostly with all the characters present in the frame. There is no cross-cutting to speak of, which is to say the drama plays out with the assorted characters confronting one another, or at any rate with one another, and the effect is one of surprising warmth and good feeling in the movie's cosier scenes, which for once enhance rather than detract from the drama. I would have been quite happy to have spent much more time in lawyer Biegler's house and study, with its books, old furniture and broken typewriter, but alas this is a murder case so one has to get down to businss.
The question of whether the defendant, an army officer, was temporarily insane, is in fact insane, or is merely putting on a good show, is never fully resolved. The lawyer is by no means perfect. He's a little lazy, though he gets over it. One senses he's cheap. He enjoys his shabby genteel bachelor's life and isn't always responsive to the needs of his secretary, who would like to get paid more regularly. In the end he proves far more dedicated and brilliant than we might have first imagined him to be, but the fly in the buttermilk is that the better he gets the more complicated the case becomes, and the more ambiguous everything gets the more he finds out about his client and the man he killed. In this respect the movie is a masterpiece of ambiguity. Beautifully shot on location in black and white, it is more gray than anything else. Morally gray. No one is quite what he appears to be at first. And people change; or rather we learn more about them. The bartender at the resort where his boss was killed at first comes off as a jerk; in time he comes to seem more of a jerk. Then he seems maybe not so bad after all; and then he's a jerk once more, but a jerk we understand. The lawyer's assistant, an on-again, off-again recovering alcoholic, is also a mixed bag. He is dogged but sloppy, and always (or so it appears) on the verge of breakdown. Or at least this is how Arthur O'Connell plays him. The prosecuting attorney is a dolt, but he is aided by a legal bigwig the state has brought in, but this hotshot is no match for the cunning country lawyer. The defendant's wife, who 'started the whole thing' is gorgeous, sexy and provocative. She makes a play for her husband's lawyer, but he doesn't bite. One wonders about her. And one wonders about the marriage she and her hot-tempered spouse really have, and whether it will last.
This is a very sophisticated and adult movie for 1959, or for that matter today. The location filming greatly enhances the mood, chilly and very upper midwestern. Yet indoors one feels different, and the tone is often playful. The actors are superb. James Stewart is gritty, lovable, homespun, physically slow and mentally quick; and for all the familiarity there is about his screen persona, out of character, that is, in character he manages continually to surprise and delight. He was a true actor. Ben Gazzara is very Method actorish, which suits him well in his role as the volatile military man. Lee Remick is stunning as his wife, and one can well imagine a man killing for her, many times over. She is also a good actress. George C. Scott plays the state's bulldog prosecutor well, though he's an acquired taste at best. His hamminess contrasts with Stewart's folksy naturalism in interesting ways not ungermane to the plot, but he is out-acted and outclassed by the old pro he is presumably upstaging in this film.