MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Anatomy of a Murder, To Catch a Thief

ANATOMY OF A MURDER (Also Blu-ray) (Two discs) (Four Stars)
U. S.: Otto Preminger, 1959 (Criterion Collection)

Anatomy of a Murder, one of the best and most true-to-life of all American film courtroom dramas, is also the crowning achievement of producer-director Otto Preminger.

It’s the best film he ever made, I think, and he was a master, at various times,  of film noir (Laura, Angel Face), of realistic urban drama (The Man with the Golden Arm), of romance (Bonjour Tristesse, Daisy Kenyon), of historical epics (Exodus), of spy dramas (The Human Factor), of musicals (Carmen Jones), and, most characteristically, of big, complex film dramas, adapted from best-sellers, which examine big, complex institutions: densely plotted and populated films that anatomize American politics and Washington statecraft  (Advise and Consent), the Catholic Church (The Cardinal), the U.S. Navy in World War II (In Harm’s Way) and also, of course, the legal system. In fact, even above 12 Angry Men or The Verdict, Anatomy of a Murder is the American movie that takes us most deeply inside the workings of that system, and guides us most trenchantly and knowingly through the mechanics of a trial, from start to finish.

Of course, not everyone is partial to Preminger, and with, they think, reason. As an actor, he was, like that great Teutonic silent movie villain of World War I, Erich Von Stroheim, the  “man you loved to hate,” playing memorably nasty and arrogant, bald, bullet-headed German Nazi villains in movies like Stalag 17, The Pied Piper and Margin for Error. (He was also, like Stroheim, Jewish in real life.)

As a director, he seemed arrogant too, famous for screaming at actors and manipulating publicity. He played anti-censorship battles with such shrewd facility and seemingly cynical effectiveness for his own productions The Moon is Blue, Man with the Golden Arm, and Anatomy, that it sometimes seemed he had gulled the Production Code and the censors into being his unofficial P.R. team. The notably wry film critic (for Esquire) Dwight MacDonald once mused “What’s art to Preminger or Preminger to art?”. And that acid comic Mort Sahl is said to have risen up at the New York City premiere of Exodus (with Preminger present) and loudly proclaimed, “Otto! Let my people go!”

Otto had the last laugh. If Anatomy of a Murder, based on the bestseller by the pseudonymous Michigan State Supreme Court Justice who called himself “Robert Traver,” looked (to some) like an opportunistic and deliberately over-sensational shocker back in 1959 — when Preminger had another dustup with the Production Code over his trial lawyers’ and witnesses’ use of the words “panties,” “rape” and “entry” — today it seems a genuine classic.

It‘s a great realistic film on a great subject, with writing that cuts to the bone (Traver’s and adaptor Wendell Mayes‘), and great acting from a phenomenal cast: Jimmy Stewart at his best as the wily and ingenious old school small town Midwestern defense lawyer Paul Biegler, Ben Gazzara as his cocky murder trial defendant-client Army Lieutenant Frederick Manion , Lee Remick as Manion’s sexy wife Laura, George C. Scott as the icily smart prosecutor Claude Dancer, Eve Arden and Arthur O’Connell as Paul’s sharp-tongued legal secretary Maida Rutledge and his amiably soused fellow counsel and bachelor Parnell McCarthy.

And, in the kind of press-snaring casting coup that Preminger loved, the trial’s owlish, chatty but punctiliously fair Judge Weaver was played unforgettably by the famed attorney Joseph Welch, the elfin and much-admired counsel who looked his belligerent opponent Senator Joe McCarthy dead in the eye at the Army-McCarthy hearings and said gently but firmly (in words to that effect) “At long last, sir, have you no decency?“

To top it off, Anatomy of a Murder has one of the most famous and much-copied title sequences (by Saul Bass, of course) in movie history. And one of the best and most influential movies scores of the ‘50s and ‘60s, an original jazz score, composed by Duke Ellington and played by The Duke and his great 1959 band, including those supreme saxophone men Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves.

Anatomy of a Murder may have raised a few hackles in its day, but it’s survived as a movie treasure, and one of the top films from a Hollywood year that now seems truly vintage, 1959 — a time that also saw the release of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, Alfred Hitchcock‘s North by Northwest, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur, Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, George Stevens‘ The Diary of Anne Frank and Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running — major American film classics all. Otto’s “over-sensational” trial drama can stand with any of them. (Not above, but with.)

Why has it lasted? Improved with age? Actually, surprisingly, when the shock elements of the movie began to seem tamer, it‘s excellence as a realistic film drama became far more apparent.

.Anatomy of a Murder was based on an actual murder case that was actually tried by novelist/ lawyer/judge Traver a.k.a. John D. Voelker) — though as a prosecutor rather than a defense lawyer. In that trial, an outsider and Army man shot and killed a popular small town bar-owner who, he said, had raped his wife. The real-life defendant invoked the so-called “unwritten law” as his defense, as does the fictional Lt. Manion in the novel. But the endlessly savvy and resourceful Paulie Biegler — who is considering the case after a call from Laura Manion and prodding by his best friend, the gifted alcoholic lawyer Parnell — quickly disabuses him.

There is no unwritten law. If Paul is going to get Manion off, there are only three possible defenses, and the only one that is likely to work, Paul informs Manion, is Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity — an “irresistible impulse” that drove Manion to kill his wife’s rapist, Barney.

Paul Biegler is the “lawyer’s lawyer” of trial fiction, a consummate attorney — and no one could have played him better than Stewart. But the movie makes clear (and so do Preminger and Stewart) that Paul is not necessarily seeking the truth, but a victory for his client. And though we like Paul and his crew (Arden and O’Connell) and though we feel a pleasant erotic buzz in the scenes with Manion’s flirtatious and cheerfully brazen and narcissistic wife Laura (originally a part intended for Lana Turner, but played, and wonderfully, by the young Lee Remick) — and though we definitely dislike the prosecution’s arrogant and seemingly cold-hearted head lawyer Claude Dancer (played with nerveless intensity by Scott) — we probably dislike Manion too, and distrust him from the very start.

So the trial becomes in some sense, a piece of theater in which everyone is role-playing. Paul is creating a dramatic scenario (his version of the murder and why it happened) that we know is, at least to some extent, a false or slanted one,. So is the script of satanically grinning rival “writer-director” Dancer. The very wordy and gently sarcastic Judge Weaver is there to mediate, but also to be a kind of commentator and chorus. And because he’s played by Welch, a symbol of rectitude for most liberals and moderates in the ‘50s  — and maybe some moderates conservatives too — we trust that the theater is in good hands.

We want Paul to win, but mostly because he’s played by Jimmy Stewart — who brilliantly manipulates his well-loved movie persona as the stammering sincere, amusing, upright, small town hero, while also showing us the more devious, adult and brainily manipulative professional beneath the lovable mask. It’s an incredibly adroit, eminently satisfying performance, as good in its way as Stewart’s signature roles as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo, and Jeff Smith in Mr. Smith Goes too Washington).

And it anchors that entire eminent satisfying cast — from the attacking Dancer of Scott, to Gazzara and Remick with their slightly pathological sexiness, to Arden with her sardonic cracks to O’Connell with his soused warmth. We follow these people through the whole terrifically recreated trial and we root for Paul‘s group because we want the lawyer to win, not necessarily his client. (The film’s darkly comic last scene settles that question for good.)

But at the same time, both Traver and Preminger — the son of a major Viennese trial lawyer and a law school graduate (who never practiced law himself — give us a master’s course in what really happens during a trial, and why the American legal system, for all its seeming flaws, is a model of both legal science and human compassion.

The movie was shot mostly in Marquette, Michigan (in Traver‘s home town area). The streets are real, the bar (where Ellington “duets” on piano with Stewart) is real, The courthouse is real. And the scenes in Paul’s raffish home, with its compact law library, fishing gear and jazz record collection: Well, they’re real too. Preminger actually shot them in Traver’s own house, which makes Justice Volker a sort of unofficial set dresser.

When we watch the movie now, it has the flavor of a semi-documentary, or of one of those recreated true life Henry Hathaway crime dramas/noirs of the ‘40s: The House on 92nd Street, Call Northside 777 (with Stewart as a crusading and heroic Chicago reporter) and Kiss of Death. But it’s also highly theatrical,  just as the law and its lawyers can be highly theatrical.

And just as Otto Preminger could be highly theatrical too. By now, everyone who writes about Preminger and his films, seriously, tends to remind us that Preminger’s filmmaking style is “objective,” that he doesn’t try to force reactions on us with his staging or with big nudging close-ups, but instead shoots from more distance and leaves us free to observe and judge. Anatomy of a Murder is especially ripe for such analysis, since the jury is the audience and the audience is the jury.

But there’s a catch. Does anyone really watch a Preminger movie without knowing, almost from the beginning who The Good Guys and the Bad Guys are? Even in Laura? Or even in Anatomy of a Murder, where we sense that Paul may be defending a guilty client, but where we also know that he’s upholding the law, and his vision of it: the depth, mercy and grandeur of the law in which he and Parnell deeply believe.

The fact is that Preminger is never completely objective. A lawyer as well as a man of the theater, he is always arguing a viewpoint, and letting us know whom he likes and whom he doesn’t. He just does it in a subtler, more stylish, more inclusive, less forced manner. Like Paul, or Stewart., Otto knows his audience and he knows how to play to them. He is also convinced that he has command of the facts, and that the drama lies in those facts.

What’s most special about Preminger’s cinematic style — and something I particularly like and admire in his work — is his propensity for long takes and single shots with an almost unobtrusively moving camera. Preminger once said that ideally, every scene should be done in a single shot. And that’s often what he often tries to do, for the sake of the actors (who don’t get their performance chopped up)’ but also to preserve the feel of realism he usually wants. Preminger never made his Rope, Hitchcock’s faked one-take movie, much less his Russian Ark: Sokurov’s actual one-take film, with the most virtuosic single shot — tracking for the movie’s whole length through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg — in the history of cinema.

Otto didn’t have the camera equipment for a Sokurov shot. But, in Anatomy, he has a great stiry, a great cast. And thrioughout the court sessions, he does try to preserve the fluidity and unity of a good theater piece, which is what a great trial drama needs. He wants us to know that life, in many ways, is theater — and so are the big and powerful institutions he anatomizes so brilliantly.

Extras: Interviews with Foster Hirsch (on Preminger and the movie), Gary Giddins (on Ellington’s score), and Pat Kirk ham (on Bass’ titles); Newsreel set footage; a 1967 Firing Line TV debate between Preminger and William F. Buckley, Jr.; Excerpt from documentary work-in-progress “Anatomy of ’Anatomy’”; Life Magazine set photos by Gjon Mili; Trailer; Booklet with Nick Pinkerton essay and article on Welch in the movie.

TO CATCH A THIEF (Blu-ray) (Three and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Alfred Hitchcock, 1955 (Paramount)

Cary Grant is a Riviera cat burglar, framed by another mysterious thief and chased by both the local gendarmerie and his old pals in the Resistance; Grace Kelly is a rich luscious vacationer who can really get those fireworks and colored lights going.

One of Hitchcock’s most purely entertaining movies, beautifully shot in Cannes and surrounding locations, with Grant and Kelly making up his sexiest couple, except maybe for Grant and Bergman in “Notorious.” From the (not too good) novel by David Dodge, scripted by John Michael Hayes. With Jessie Royce Landis, Charles Vanel and John Williams. Pure — well,a litttle impure — fun.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon