Anatomy of a Murder (1959) 4.07/5 (2)


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Rating: The Good – 87.4
Genre: Drama
Duration: 160 mins
Director: Otto Preminger 
Stars: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara

Anatomy of a Murder is a near flawless courtroom drama infused with lashings of charm and the most delicate touches of wit. James Stewart stars as Paul Biegler, the former district attorney of a sleepy Michigan town, who elects to represent the defendant in a murder trial involving the possible rape of a woman and the reprisal of her army lieutenant husband. Bemused by the inherent duplicity of both the alleged victim (Lee Remick) and her husband (Ben Gazzara) and eager to pay the bills, Biegler sets about constructing his defence. As the case wears on, the drama shifts increasingly towards the courtroom where he, the opposing district attorney, and a specialist prosecutor sent down from Washington D.C. (George C. Scott) engage in one clever duel after another.

Otto Preminger’s directorial class is all over Anatomy of a Murder. At 160 minutes, it should be a long watch but it never feels that way. The movie glides along from scene to scene as Duke Ellingtons jazzy score spirals in the background. The soft charm, cutting humour, and darker themes of jealousy and vengeance are seamlessly realised and, at all times, they are working towards the same end. The acting is pitch perfect from all concerned with Stewart and Gazzara excelling in parts that were fully complemented by their own unique charm and charisma. Remick is a delight as the mischievous party girl and Scott adds his usual commanding presence.

Wendell Mayes screenplay (adapted from John D. Voelker’s book) is of course the most powerful feature of the film and whether it be its sublime capturing of legal procedure and etiquette or its even more impressive ambiguity when it comes to Remick and Gazzara’s characters, it drives the tone of the film more than any other feature. One gets the feeling that it could have perhaps made better use of Scott’s intriguing character, although in Mayes’ defence, the story was pushing three hours as it stood and there’s not much that could have been sacrificed.

Anatomy of a Murder is a classic piece of cinema from a time when US film-makers were beginning to once again playfully examine the possible uses of the medium. The entire story plays out in a peculiar but completely satisfying manner and for that reason alone it should be seen by all film enthusiasts. The fact that it’s also a cracking legal drama merely adds to this rare quality.

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