Anatomy of a Murder (Blu-ray)(The Criterion Collection, 12.13.2011)
Anatomy of a Murder is arguably the greatest courtroom film, edging out Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution and Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict. Featuring a unique blend of suspense, humor, character study and insight into changing American mores, this 1959 film is also the last unqualified masterpiece by Otto Preminger. In a small town on Michigan’s upper peninsula, folksy attorney Paul Biegler (James Stewart) defends Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), an army lieutenant charged with the murder of a man who raped his wife, Laura (Lee Remick).
Anatomy of a Murder is unusual for a trial film because it avoids melodramatic sentimentality and moralizing. Instead, Preminger focusses on the personalities of his protagonists. The audience is suspicious of anything Manion and Laura say. She drips sexual lust and he seems likely to erupt in violence at any time. Despite his misgivings about the Manions, Biegler accepts the case because he likes a challenge and loves arguing points of law.
Preminger was renowned for loving a fight himself, devoting several films to controversial sexual, racial and political topics. Although Anatomy of a Murder seems tame now, it broke ground in its rather graphic courtroom discussions of sexual matters, including use of such forbidden terms as “intercourse” and “panties.” Preminger’s visual style involves placing the face of one character in the foreground with one or more others in the background. This approach is especially effective when George C. Scott’s slick prosecutor interrogates an uncertain Laura, with Biegler protesting from his table.
In the best of the extras on this disc, Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch discusses the director’s skill with long takes, his interest in moral ambiguity and his censorship battles, calling Anatomy of a Murder “a tribute to the American system of justice.” In this disc's other extras, (1) Saul Bass biographer Pat Kirkham talks about the title designer’s fruitful association with Preminger, (2) music critic Gary Giddins analyzes Duke Ellington’s jazz score (which sounds wonderful here), (3) Marquette, Michigan locals recall the production and (4) Preminger debates movie morality with William F. Buckley, Jr. in a 1967 episode of the latter’s Firing Line.
In the accompanying booklet, critic Nick Pinkerton places the film in the context of Preminger’s oeuvre. Criterion also includes a 1959 Life profile of Joseph N. Welch, the lawyer famous for the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, who plays the film's judge with pixyish pluck. -- Michael Adams