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Anatomy of a Murder (Blu-ray Review)

5 Mar, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars James Stewart, Ben Gazzara, Lee Remick, George C. Scott, Joseph N. Welch.

Never again would director Otto Preminger get his act together the way he did with his almost universally praised adaptation of a monster late-1950s bestseller by Robert Traver — a pseudonym for Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker, who previously had been defense attorney in a case that served as the novel’s inspiration. It’s true that one can name subsequent Preminger films have better reps today than originally — think Bunny Lake Is Missing and certainly Advise & Consent — but here was a case where the critical and commercial lines intersected like someone’s wildest dream. And also one where the producer/director’s casting instincts were smack on the button.

If I’m not mistaken, I think this is the first Sony title that Criterion has ever issued, which gets the mouth watering for any future collaborations, given that you can almost sense (even if you don’t know the movie) that this is the way it must have looked in the summer of ’59. One doesn’t automatically think of Murder as a cinematographer’s picture, but Sam Leavitt’s (A Star Is Born) intriguing angles earned him one of Murder’s seven Oscar nominations and definitely have something to do with the fact that a 160-minute courtroom drama grips throughout (and never more so than in the trial scenes). In fact, it’s not a stretch to claim that this is probably the best courtroom drama of all time, an assertion with which many agree.

Preminger, of course, had busted Hollywood’s Production Code with the drug use in 1955’s The Man with the Golden Arm — and before that, his employment of the   taboo words “pregnant,” “virgin” and “seduce” in the now supremely tame The Moon Is Blue (though I can still recall the local 1953 TV ads out of Cleveland with the lines all the way behind the block). By the time Preminger got to Murder, he had no such blue-nosed resistance with “sperm” and “panties” — which are used fairly clinically because this is, after all, a movie about a rape trial. What’s more, it’s the reassuringly folksy James Stewart — as an Upper Peninsula defense attorney who shrewdly half- feigns folksiness throughout — who’s in the middle of these conversations.

If Lana Turner is mentioned in the typically comprehensive Criterion extras on this release, I missed it, but Turner was originally cast in the rape-victim role that ended up doing replacement Lee Remick’s career so much good. Turner bolted the picture over, depending on which story you accept, her costumes, Otto’s famed on-the-set bellowing or a combination of the two. It would have been exciting to see Stewart and Turner working together on such a high-profile film at this stage of their respective careers, particularly given that Turner was riding high in the throes of her Peyton Place/Imitation of Life comeback after a slew of duds at the end of her MGM contract. Yet with Ben Gazzara (nine years younger than Turner) playing the army officer husband on trial for shooting his wife’s alleged rapist, the casting dynamics would have been off. Remick is perfect as a naturally frisky young woman who may or may not like to exploit the effect she has on men — “the may or may not” aspect dovetailing perfectly with Preminger’s much written-about storytelling “objectivity” toward his characters. Turner likely would have come off as a little knowing.

Other supporting roles are cast to type — and others not. As Stewart’s alcoholic assistant, Arthur O’Connell is about as on the nose as the sensible decision to hire Eve Arden to play Stewart’s ill-paid, wisecracking secretary. On the more daring side, there’s Arden’s real-life husband Brooks West — who never acted much — as a district attorney in way over his head (he gets more out of the character than is written). And in a stroke of pure genius, there was the of casting non-professional (though I wouldn’t say non-actor) Joseph N. Welch as the judge — who’s almost as droll here as he was giving Sen. Joseph McCarthy a one-way ticket to Cirrhosisville during 1954’s nationally televised Army-McCarthy Hearings. Preminger was above all a promoter, even down to the shot here of a desk clerk reading a copy of Exodus, which was the filmmaker’s next film after this one.

The other beautiful coup was giving a major career break to George C. Scott, in only his second big-screen appearance, as the much smoother legal specialist West’s D.A. imports from Lansing for some bigger-league help. Like Stewart and fellow supporting colleague O’Connell, Scott ended up getting an Oscar nomination, and he comes up with one of the greatest reaction shots I’ve ever seen in a movie when his hitherto flawless professional disobeys that famous legal axiom about never asking anyone in the witness seat a question to which you do not already know the answer. The movie also delivers what is always among my own most satisfying personal rewards as a moviegoer: watching a kingpin actor from one generation (here, it’s Stewart) mixing it up with an instantly imposing up-and-comer all but destined to become a dominant screen force (and how do you get more dominant than George Patton?).

Other than an excerpt from William F. Buckley’s "Firing Line" that never gets off the ground beyond at least letting us see and hear Preminger (probably the main intention of its inclusion), the Criterion extras hit the major points. Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch talks a lot about the filmmaker’s style, marketing savvy and moral umbrage he took over censors (Hirsch also reminds us that Preminger was trained as a lawyer as well).

There’s also a section on Saul Bass’s genius with opening credits and movie ads (often with Preminger) during an era when the latter were so much more exciting than now. There’s also an interview with the great Gary Giddins about Duke Ellington’s famous Murder score, whose recording I’m guessing has never been out of print. I’ve always liked it as music but was previously one of those fogeys who could never figure out what it had to do with a rural Michigan lawyer (and the film was shot on location a galaxy away from Hollywood) who spends as much time as he can fishing. Giddins just about convinces me that I’m wrong and certainly convinces me that the utilization of Ellington (who briefly appears in a small role) still anchors the movie in the modern era, which was certainly in keeping with a new era of major studio subject matter.

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