Anatomy of a Murder is a film that is way ahead of its time. It tells the story of the court case of a soldier (Ben Gazzara) who has apparently jealously kills the rapist of his wife (Lee Remick). This is a great film as it broke down numerous barriers and taboos of the time, and is intelligently told without spoon-feeding or patronising its audience.
Anatomy of a Murder was made in 1959 by director Otto Preminger. The
film stirred controversy at the time for using the words "panties",
"rape" and "spermatogenesis" in its plot, terms that many
ultra-conservative middle Americans of the time would have almost
certainly balked at. The film was actually based on a novel by Robert
The use of jazz and Duke Ellington was perhaps also a bold move for the time, but reflected the growing profusion of musical diversity and taste in a country going through great change.
I mentioned that the film does not patronise the audience. This is reflected primarily through the witty, intelligence script and characters that are excellently drawn and presented. Of course, we get to see whether the jury find the defendent guilty or not at the end, but in between, we are treated to some of the finest pieces of exposition in a courtroom perhaps ever put on film, with two remarkable performances from the always brilliant James Stewart as attorney Paul "Polly" Biegler and the prim, sharp legal eagle George C Scott as Dancer.
What makes Anatomy of a Murder stand out is its refusal to show any of the events surrounding the rape or the murder - we are left to make up our own minds based on the testimony and the credibility of the characters as they are presented. Some viewers might feel cheated that they are not able to witness more by way of flashback or further exposition, but this would be tantamount to spoon-feeding the facts and would almost certainly have ruined the film.
The film also deals with the use of the 'temporary insanity' plea in the courtroom. A perfectly valid and interesting topic, but, for the Fifties, a controversial subject that would not have sat well with some of its audience. By today's standards, it would not even raise an eyebrow, perhaps more indicative than anything else of the film being ahead of its time. What we are left with are two morally ambiguous characters, (Mannion and his wife), and two extremely ambiguous questions. Was she, or was she not, raped? Did he, or did he not, commit murder whilst temporarily insane?
Another revelation in Anatomy of a Murder is the young Lee Remick - whilst not a performance that will blow you away, Remick's is a confident, assured turn of a suburban vamp who knows just how to maximise her sexual energy. What's great here is that Remick portrays her character very ambiguously - we sense that there is a degree of guilt on her part in enticing and flirting with men, and that, to an extent, she might very well have encouraged unwanted attention by her provocative dress and behaviour. Her performance is reminiscent of Sue Lyon as the coquettish lead in Kubrick's Lolita.
For me, the film is all about social change. Made in 1959, there is the undercurrent of the social and political upheaval that was to come - the Sixties. Here is a film that was, in its own way, going against the grain of other movies of the time. There is a subversive, almost rebellious seam running through it - perhaps a harbinger of the great changes ahead. I can't help but wonder whether the oppressive, stifling McCarthy era might have fuelled this ground swell of change, perhaps more than people realise. And on that point, the judge in the film was Joseph N. Welch, a real life judge well known to the American people after his legendary televised battles with McCarthy during that time.
Interstingly, Anatomy of a Murder was nominated for eight Oscars, but did not win a thing. To my mind, Anatomy of a Murder is an equal in quality of that other excellent Fifties court drama classic 12 Angry Men, and anyone who enjoyed that will enjoy this.
Perhaps a little too lengthy in parts - the intelligent script, brilliantly witty and challenging dialogue, superb acting and involving plot, the jazz music - all make up for an overlong film that will keep you enticed right until the edge-of-the-seat ending. I don't know whether this film became the touchstone for all court drama's that followed, (I suspect it did), but if courtroom drama's are your bag, then you could do a lot worse than pick up Anatomy of a Murder.