Otto Preminger’s outstanding Anatomy of a Murder is a shockingly, jarringly modern film for 1959. I wonder how he got part of it past the censors. It feels like something closer to 1970 than 1959. It’s a relatively simple story we’ve seen before–a murder, a lawyer, the court, and the jury. While I’m sure there are earlier examples, I guess this is probably a pretty early example of the lawyer-centric entertainment that will so define the history of television (from Perry Mason to Law and Order) and to a lesser extent film.
There’s a murder at a northern Michigan bar. A woman (Lee Remick) comes up and tells her violent and abusive husband (Ben Gazzara) that’s she been raped by the bar owner when he gave her a ride home. Gazzara kills him (this all happens before the movie begins). Jimmy Stewart, semi-retired after losing an election for DA, decides to take the case to give him something to do. But despite his early hesitations, he bites in hard, especially after the state brings big hot shot George C. Scott up from Lansing to the upper peninsula to assist on the case.
While this all sounds like it could be pretty standard, the script and direction are outstanding. Stewart and his friends are sympathetic, but Preminger makes neither Remick nor Gazzara particularly lovable. Remick is bored, drifting, drunk a lot. The subtext is that she is probably sleeping around quite a bit. Gazzara is violent and pretty awful. He’s no saint, even if he might be not guilty. He probably is hitting Remick pretty hard, something that makes up a core part of the case against Gazzara (how could a man this routinely violent claim insanity in this particular case of violence?). These two people exist in the moral ambiguity of real life. That wasn’t unknown in Hollywood in that era–film noir, just passing out of fashion at this point, certainly did this. But noir was hidden in shadows, both in cinematography and character–these people were not quite like us. Remick and Gazzara are us or people we know. In the bright light of day, there they are being drunk and violent. Not so common for 1959.
That Stewart is the lead helps explain just how transitional this film feels Stewart was somewhat more willing than most of the other actors of his generation to really engage in a mid-career shift to take roles that stretched his earlier persona. Vertigo is the most well-known example of this, but Anatomy of a Murder is part of this too. Stewart utters the words “sexual climax.” He talks about “panties.” This is a movie where sex is out and open in a way one simply did not commonly see in 1959. And if that is changing with Marilyn Monroe and others, those movies don’t feature such an iconic player of Old Hollywood.
In case you needed this to be more directly modern, Duke Ellington not only wrote the soundtrack but even performed in the film. While Ellington was hardly a young whipper snapper at this point, given how marginalized jazz was to most of mainstream culture still in 195 and its close association with modern values, making it so central to the film reinforces the modernity. Why there is a crack jazz band in a small northern Michigan town of course remains unknown. But the jazz also serves to reinforce Stewart as a modern renaissance man, as does his Italian cigars. Here’s a man that could be anywhere and practicing anywhere and he’s not going to be bothered by whether the defendant actually is guilty or not.
On top of all of this is the excellent script, great performances all around, and an ending that redeems no one. Not to mention that it’s fantastic entertainment.