Anatomy of a Murder (USA, 1959)

Directed by: Otto Preminger. Once in a while, amid all my interest in a particular filmmaker’s work, or a particular genre, there comes a time when I realize that I’ve never seen a film by Otto Preminger. And once I read about this film, at the time a sensationalistic courtroom drama unlike any other, an a big splash with critics and audiences, but mostly forgotten now, I was intrigued. I like the idea of seeing an average movie, not just the John Fords and Hitchcocks and Orson Welles pictures, in short, to see films from the Golden Age not made by Peter Bogdanovitch’s friends. And this film is pretty striking for a few reasons. First, it’s a thoroughly modern courtroom drama, in the sense that it wouldn’t seem foreign to any modern fan of John Grisham or an episode of Law & Order. And really, this movie was strikingly modern for its moral ambivalence. The lawyers are all pretty sideways, none of them have the reassuring moral centre of, say, Matlock. George C. Scott as the classic slimy big-city lawyer is awesome, but even good old Jimmy Stewart here comes across as less than totally trustworthy. He’s not hiding anything, but the way he’s characterized is as a fully flawed human—he definitely has a salacious eye towards the defendant’s wife, and besides that, he’s a blustering showman of a lawyer, a pandering, argument-twisting, sensationalistic lawyer who seems more suited for the early 21st century than the mid-20th. He even brings a dog in the courtroom. And there’s that one scene where he’s badgering a witness, putting words in their mouth, and Stewart lets off this maniacal grin as the judge’s gavel rings out. I haven’t seen Stewart come across as so uncomfortably villainous in anything before, not in the Anthony Mann Westerns, not even in Vertigo where he’s fully obsessive. So as a viewer, you have no safe haven in the moral rectitude of the lawyers. By the same token, you’re not exactly worried about the defendant really, because he’s portrayed as a smarmy, shady, probably guilty thug (played wonderfully by a young Ben Gazzarra). The film’s treatment of the defendant’s wife, an amazing performance by Lee Remick, is perhaps the most blatant giveaway about the film’s time period. In the modern day, we’re having a slow, prolonged, painful and begrudging conversation about the legal status of rape, how we treat it, how we treat the victims of it, how our justice system handles it, etc, and in my opinion we have a lot more work to do in that regard. But if the modern situation makes us uncomfortable, this film, and the justice system in this film, is about as delicate with the subject as an elephant doing heart surgery. Without ever spelling it out, the film all but spells out that Mrs. Banion is a liar, that she is, in the parlance of the time, a “loose woman”, that she’s sleeping around behind her husband’s back, and then when he murders the guy in a fit of rage, she lies, claiming rape where there was none. In a basic sense, you could certainly make the argument that this film is a clear example of the perpetuation of rape culture in our society. Added to all of it, the fact that this woman is slobbered over, lusted over, and ridiculed for her sexuality in equal measure, and it amounts to a pretty awful and backwards sense of gender politics in this film. Now, for some, the fact that the film was made in 1959 has no bearing on how we should receive this in the modern day. For me, I tend to go easier on a film based on the year it came out, rightly or wrongly. In this case, I also have to look at the fact that, despite all of that negative sex-shaming stuff, the film ultimately gives us, and gives Lee Remick the actor, a strong female lead, who uses the sex-blindness of these patronizing male lawyers to have her way, manipulating everyone to get away scot free. I’ll leave it up to the viewer to decide if this fits your view of a feminist narrative, but in a field where, to this day, incredibly talented women actors are stuck playing the role of “supportive wife” and “unsupportive wife”, this is a pretty damn good role, fun to watch, and I assume it was fun for Lee Remick to play. Ultimately, this is a striking film for showing such a morally ambiguous narrative. Jimmy Stewart and his lawyer friend kind of get a new lease on life and everything, but the resolution of the film is that two unsavoury characters have gamed the system, exposing some terminal weaknesses in the justice system, and basically leaving us with a strikingly early example of the Fred Durst syndrome—everything is fucked and everybody sucks. But unlike many other such movies, this is actually a pretty light, fun movie, it’s a world I’m happy to enter. That judge, the real-life judge, Joseph N. Welch, really brings some heart and soul to this thing. And a cameo by Duke Ellington! Why not?

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