Anatomy of a Murder
Director: Otto Preminger / Screenplay: Wendell Mayes (from novel by John D. Voelker) / Editing: Louis R. Loeffler / DP: Sam Leavitt / Score: Duke Ellington
Cast: James Stewart / Lee Remick / Ben Gazzara / Arthur O’Connell / Eve Arden / Kathryn Grant / George C. Scott / Orson Bean / Murray Hamilton / Brooks West / Ken Lynch / John Qualen / Joseph Kearns
The Irresistible Impulse…
A Viennese émigré who initially took shelter under Darryl Zanuck’s wings at 20th Century Fox, Otto Preminger was nothing if not a wilful Director, unafraid of fighting for principles. Indeed, he made a lifelong career out of standing beside – not within – the Hollywood crowd.
After serving a penance doing hack-work during the war years, following an acrimonious split from Fox, Preminger was eventually deemed to have made amends and returned to features. But Preminger had been busy and was already gearing-up to Produce features in his own right, with independent financing; treating the Studios as mere distributors on a case-by-case basis. Each film thereafter, challenged the cloying censorship of the Pre-War ‘Producer’s Code’ that, by the late Fifties, had been stifling freedom of speech in movies for over twenty years.
The Moon is Blue (1953) was a breakthrough in successfully flouting the regulations. Despite limited distribution, the film still made a decent return, thanks to Preminger’s gift for self-promotion at every turn. After that, the doors were opened. By the time he came to Anatomy of a Murder at the decade’s end, Preminger’s brand recognition was such, that he could bill the film as ‘Presented by’, no doubt cribbing Alfred Hitchcock’s own ‘Seal of Quality’.
I learn that Preminger had begun thinking about the institutions of his adopted homeland and wanted to capture something of their underlying ‘mechanisms’ in-film, using tangential narratives as his way-in. Serendipitously, the novelisation of an all-too real – and intriguing – murder trial, had been written & published under a pseudonym by the defence attorney in the case, John Voelker.
Having been impressed at the novel’s suitability for adaptation into a motion-picture, Preminger snapped up the rights and set to making Anatomy’ the first entry in his ambitious project. Screenwriter Wendell Mayes was the first to be hired and turned-in a witty, clever adaptation of Voelker’s novel. As the project advanced further, it was also decided to shoot entirely on-location, in and around scenes of the actual crime and trial, centred on the small town of Marquette. Located on the southern shore of Lake Superior, this modest, rugged town at the tip of Michigan’s Northern Peninsula was re-named ‘Iron City’ in Voelker’s novel and Preminger delighted in grounding cast & crew in the gritty Mise-en-Scéne. Even if two-thirds of the picture are set in the town’s County Courthouse, what we do see of the place is evocative of that easy-gong, frontier spirit that one still encounters at the fringes in any society.
Preminger was able to assemble a sparkling cast for the picture, thanks to his other role as a de-facto Producer, unshackled from Studio politics. As a result, he was able to secure James Stewart for the lead as Paul Biegler; a popular District Attorney for ten years, now unemployed thanks to – wouldn’t you know it – a Democratic Vote. So, he spends his time trout fishing and dodging entreaties from his loyal secretary Maida (Eve Arnold at her sarcastic best). He’s even got a friend: another washed-up bachelor and one-time lawyer, Parnell McCarthy, brought to sozzled life by the inimitable Arthur O’Connell.
While ‘Polly’s’ been away fishing, a call’s come-in, asking for his help on a murder case. It all looks cut-and-dried at first glance. The killer – an Army Lieutenant – has ‘plugged’ local hotel-owner Barney Quinn, with five shots from a souvenir Luger, causing ‘death by lead poisoning’. The reason? Quinn had – apparently – raped Manion’s wife. The problem, for Biegler? The killing took place an hour after the wife returned in-distress, to their marital trailer. What might’ve been seen as a cri-de-coeur, is now something else: a premeditated Murder.
So why does Biegler take the case? It’s my guess that he’s angry at having been replaced as D-A by a character such as Mitch Lodwick (a deliciously smarmy Brooks West). Lodwick’s a vain, uncertain man who gauchely boasts about the ‘genuine Picasso print’ now hanging in his redecorated office: Biegler’s OLD office, need I remind you. Biegler accepts the need to transition into private practice, but he sees how Fate dealt an unhelpful hand to Parnell and doesn’t want to go the same way. So, taking-on this troubling case is one way of securing publicity, a little notoriety and maybe, attracting new business… Little wonder that Preminger was attracted to the tale, given his own, similar experiences.
Things step-up a gear for Biegler, on meeting Laura Manion the next day. A striking blonde, with an all-knowing, all-conquering effect on the men around her; this is Lee Remick’s time to shine. She carries her own Cairn terrier Muff as a trophy, wears tight sweaters and tailored trousers as armour and only wears those impenetrable shades to hide the bruises. She’s a force of nature: the patron saint of the trailer-trash generation, but there’s more to Laura than what the mask allows. She knows this dance too well, it seems.
Then there’s Lt. Manion himself: the cut-price, Brando-esque Ben Gazzara, who’s jealous streak always threatens to break-cover. He’s a quick learner, too. See how he catches Biegler’s thread when asked, not for a reason for killing Quinn, but an excuse. They settle on ‘crazy’ for lack of anything better; a plan corroborated by a shrink on-loan from the Army. Turns-out that, following Manion’s service in Korea, he – along with others – came home fulfilling the diagnosis of ‘Irresistible Impulse’; a catch-all that, along with much of psychiatry, is open to interpretation but which, in both the film and the real case, would form the anvil on which the defence’s metal would be tempered.
For what are we watching here, if not people telling stories about themselves? Aren’t stories – our fictions – what we tell ourselves, to get by every day? We’re all storytellers. Biegler likes the one about the bachelor D-A who used-to-be-somebody and who’s still got the chops to do it again. Laura’s, is the one about the sexually mysterious tease who derives esteem from her superpower – while it lasts – and her husband? Manion is a misogynistic, jealous bully who made a career out of soldiering, because it came with a State-sponsored licence to kill. It suited him. But out of the war-zone, he’s struggling to adjust to a world that’s moved-on without him.
He clings to Laura. He hates Laura. And, sometimes, I think she returns the favour.
There’s still more for Biegler to uncover, namely the background to Laura’s rape and the character of the deceased. Could he have done it? Signals are mixed. Biegler visits the bar for himself and sees where, on the fateful night, Laura had been drinking – alone – and ‘swishing’ around the pinball table. He also sees a trio of concealed gun-racks behind the bar and an array of framed photographs, showing Quinn excelling as an amateur boxer and shot. Thrown-in for free, is a difficult conversation with Al Paquette (Murray Hamilton), the barman on-duty that night. Biegler also meets Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant), the manager of the adjacent hotel and a girl whom Quinn had apparently shipped-in from nearby Canada for some as-yet unknown
Parnell sobers himself up to fill the vacancy of Biegler’s partner in the upcoming trial and before we know it, has absented himself; not to drink, as Biegler fears, but to sally forth in search of ‘supporting evidence’. Having talked-himself into sobriety, it’s a shame he’s not around to see more of what turns-out to be two-thirds of the picture.
For what follows is a lauded masterclass, in how to stage a trial-by-cinema and it begins at the top, with Preminger’s signing of Joseph Welch; the Bostonian lawyer who famously rebuked Sen. Joe McCarthy, during a pernicious witch-hunt for ‘Communists or their sympathisers, who ‘might’ have been employed within U.S. military contractors. Welch’s then-famous rebuke (‘Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?’) was to prove a turning point in McCarthy’s deranged wild-goose-chase through American popular culture. That Preminger would want him, as the presiding Judge Weaver, in a picture celebrating the even-handed nature of the American justice system, was almost a given and, it seems, Welch concurred. What better way of celebrating the return of the Nation’s collective sanity, than a cheque for $50,000 and an all-too-brief dalliance with movie stardom?
Welch might’ve been reading from cue-cards, but you’d never know, such is the fluidity of his mellow, yet razor-sharp delivery. He’d also advise on small script changes, for the sake of authenticity, all of which leads once again, back to those stories we tell ourselves and each other.
Anatomy’ was perhaps the first of Jimmy Stewart’s films, in which he allowed the mask to slip a little. In Paul Biegler, we have two people. First, the capable lawyer, respected by the cops and the gaolers as a straight-up professional, worthy of their respect. Second, is his public persona, trotted-out in the Marquette courtroom: the aw-shucks, darnit ‘small-town country lawyer’ routine. Both Stewart AND Biegler, are using every trick in the book, to win-over a jury and audience comprised of the very people to whom such homespun material appeals. As a piece of writing, I’m dazzled by the nuances in Mayes’ screenplay, as much by the self-conscious tricks brought to its interpretation.
Even Judge Weaver isn’t immune to Biegler’s charms. At one point in proceedings, Biegler is engaged in the tying of a fishing lure, that he uses as a bookmark. Later, whilst in the Judge’s chamber to discuss a point of law, the book – and the page – is opened to reveal the lure, thus triggering a conversation about fishing for Bullfrogs, to the obvious frustration of the Prosecution. We know that Biegler’s a keen fisherman but I wonder, just how much of this was intentional? The bait is taken, after all…
Talk of traps being set, leads me to realise something else about the film: throughout, we see little of either the Jury or the audience, except in wide-shots. In any other court-room drama, we’d have close-ups of an old lady knitting, or jurors passing-round a bag of humbugs, but not here. Come to think of it, we’re shown nothing of the fateful night in-question, either. It all happens before the film’s beginning, which infers that Preminger is treating us as jurors. It’s our assumptions that are being challenged, as much as those in the court-room, which is testament to the faith Preminger invests in his audience’s ability to ‘keep up’.
Until the verdict is given at the end, we’re treated to a virtuoso display of court-room drama, as the principle actors – sorry, lawyers – dominate the stage. In-between Biegler’s homespun schtick, we get the pantomime villain, Mr. Dancer. An early role for George C. Scott, the brilliantly-named Dancer has been sent-up from the state capital, Lansing, to bolster the inexperienced Lodwick and Scott makes full-use of the opportunity granted. As well-read as Biegler when it comes to legal precedence, Dancer is more of a cajoling bully with his witnesses; adept at leading them on and probing their weaknesses.
Dancer’s winning the argument, too, until Parnell comes-through with a vital, last-minute nugget: Mary Pilant is actually Quinn’s illegitimate daughter. This leaves Dancer’s pursuit of the notion that she was herself ‘involved’ with Quinn, to fall apart. Especially when she takes the stand and produces Laura’s ripped panties…
Missing since the night in question, it seems Quinn had dumped them in the hotel’s laundry chute (not the safest repository for incriminating evidence…). But discussion of the garment, along with terms such as ‘Spermatogenesis’ were unheard of in American pictures of the time, so in giving responsibility for discussing ‘the panties’ over to Welch, it lent undeniable gravitas to proceedings. Preminger wanted to break the shackles of censorship, if you recall. That such descriptive language was delivered with gravitas by an esteemed lawyer, simply added weight to the film’s assertion of free speech as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
While the film is a superlative take on the court-room formula, I think we can all agree that no court-room scene in and of itself (and of such length), lends itself to Great Cinema. All good things eventually come to an end and, in films of this genre, that usually involves the Good Guys winning-out, but Preminger’s keeping things ambiguous to the bitter end. After all, Remick’s Laura is incapable of walking past a lamp-post without flirting with it, so maybe those lacy, white flimsies were torn amidst throes of consensual passion, rather than rape: we just don’t know.
The only people who DO know, drag their trailer out of town in a midnight-flit, leaving Biegler his yearned-for reputation but – surprise – no fee. Is their disappearance down to an abrupt re-posting by the Army, or have they just taken their smash-and-grab marriage on to new chaos? Again, we’re left wondering. Manion’s cocky note at the end, just shovels-on more uncertainty.
In a picture revelling in its subversion of expectation, it’s a delight to have a richly-textured score by Duke Ellington (who also makes a cameo appearance). Preminger had invited the legendary jazzman out to Marquette for the duration of the shoot. The result, is a soaring slab of contemporary Jazz, that punctuates the film with a counter-intuitive potency.
It shouldn’t work. Away from the moody night-scenes of a Noir movie, Jazz shouldn’t work as the backdrop to a court-procedural, yet here’s Ellington proving the exception to the rule, thanks to Preminger’s control of the budget: a regular studio would NEVER have done it.
There’s also a connection to be made, between Jazz and Biegler. After all, here’s a complicated man – an outwardly conformist bachelor – who unexpectedly enjoys Jazz because of its improvisational form; a flickering, revelatory schema that mirrors Biegler’s own extemporaneous mastery of the courtroom.
Preminger would go on to round-out his Grand Project with more pictures, but with Anatomy’, it’s as though he crested the rise at the first attempt, with nowhere to go but down. His name might top Saul Bass’s unmistakeable poster, but it’s Stewart’s movie. For here’s an actor playing an actor. But which one is giving the career-best performance: both of them? As in the real trial, Biegler wins on a technicality and I think it’s this, perhaps more than all the other cinematic flair we’ve seen, that had Preminger buy-into the project and invest his even-handed intelligence. Since leaving Vienna all those years earlier, after the Nazis had annexed the country in the Anschluss, Preminger understood that in order for justice to be fair, it must also be blind.
Blind to our faults. Our virtues. Our reasons. For only excuses can be weighed against us.
Them, and our Irresistible Impulses.
If this refrigerator gets any more fish in it, it’ll swim upriver and spawn by itself!