ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959)
Preminger filmed in a real Michigan locale, with clever long takes. Clever too is the casting, as the judge, of Boston lawyer Joseph N. Welch, the avuncular hero of the McCarthy-Army hearings ("Have you no shame, Senator?") that had brought about the downfall of the dangerous and paranoid Senator from Wisconsin.
The "Anatomy" in question is less that of the trial--which remains ambiguous to the end -- than of the American judicial system, so that there are in-references, often humorous. Among them, a drunken lawyer (Stewart's assistant) is named Parnell, which sounds much like a reference to J. Parnell Thomas who was, in a sense, McCarthy's predecessor as chairman of the House Un-American Committee of The Hollywood Ten notoriety -- and who later landed in prison for financial malfeasance.
The film was a sensation in its day, for its unprecedented discussion of sexual matters, rape and a pair of panties. Its performances are excellent as well as precise, down to minor figures. Note, for example, that of a hostile barman.
Preminger treats his movie with almost glacial objectivity. The visuals are realistic, the photography by Sam Leavitt is in creamy black and white with a full scale of shadings.
The movie made a star of Lee Remick after Lana Turner had declined the role. "Anatomy of A Murder" received eight Academy Award nominations: for Picture, Actor (Stewart), Supporting Actor (Arthur O'Connell and George C. Scott), Writing, Cinematography, Editing (Louis R. Loeffler).
Though it won no Oscars, it was a major hit and high up on many Best Movie of the Year lists. The New York Film Critics gave it their Best Screenplay prize; the Venice Film Festival named James Stewart Best Actor.
Aside from it other virtues, including a fine Duke Ellington score (Ellington has a walk-on role too),the film is something of a landmark in the undoing of Hollywood self-censorship. Otto Preminger had already breached its prudishness in 1952 with the comedy "The Moon Is Blue," in which the female lead Maggie McNamara used then-taboo language (as when she asked William Holden :" Are you trying to seduce me?") or other no-no words like "virgin." It may seem ludicrous, in our current over-the-top times, that such matters created a furore then, but such are the facts.
Then, in 1955, Preminger's "The Man With the Golden Arm," about a drug-addict (Frank Sinatra), heightened the controversy. As this was followed in 1959 by "Anatomy of a Murder," one might say that those three Preminger movies, albeit entirely different,were a kind of Code-breaking trilogy.
"Anatomy" runs 161 minutes, Seeing it on tape or on a cable premium channel without commercials is by far the best way. (Edwin Jahiel)