Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

What a wonderful treat this picture was. I simply can't remember the last time I watched a film that was nearly 3 hours long that was so brisk and so entertaining. After 2 hours and 45 minutes, I actually wanted it to go on a little longer because it felt like the ending was little rushed.

James Stewart plays Paul Biegler, a small-town lawyer down on his luck, who takes on a high-profile murder case involving the alleged rape of a war hero's wife. The accused, Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), undoubtedly murdered Barney Quill, the man accused of raping Manion's wife, Laura (Lee Remick), but did the rape really happen? And furthermore, can Biegler convince the jury that the murder was allowable?

With the aide of his underpaid secretary, Maida, and his longtime associate (and town drunk), Parnell, Biegler plots a temporary-insanity defense for Manion. Unfortunately, he's not just battling against an inexcusable crime, but also the big-city/high-priced prosecuting team, spearheaded by Asst. State Atty. Gen. Claude Dancer (played exceptionally well by George C. Scott). The good news for Manion is that Biegler is craftier than he lets on, pulling out diversion tactic after diversion tactic, in an attempt to cast doubt on everything and confuse the hell out of the prosecution, all the while playing up his small-town disadvantages. By the end of the film, he's so far off the deep end in his battle against everyone and everything, that he recalls Phil Hartman's “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer” with his “your Honor, I'm just a simple small-town lawyer.”

The case gets complicated by the reputation of Manion's wife, Laura. She's a party gal who likes to go out to the local lodge and dance with random men and play pinball through the night, all the while wearing suggestively cut clothing. It doesn't help her case, at least from a modern audience's perspective, that Laura is by far the most chipper rape-victim I've ever seen in a movie.

The film has plenty of drama, but also unloads a healthy dose of humor here and there. My favorite bit being a whispered discussion between the Judge and the lawyers concerning what word would be best to use when speaking of Laura's torn "panties" in the court room. George C. Scott's Claude Dancer stares off into the distance pondering the question as he remarks "When I was overseas during the war, Your Honor, I learned a French word. I'm afraid that might be slightly suggestive." "Most French word are," the Judge replys.

The movie is particular interesting in the way that it's moral compass works, Gazzara's murderer-on-trail is not only undoubtedly guilty, but has also obviously concocted a flimsy defense, yet as an audience member, you root for Jimmy Stewart's Biegler. In spite of Gazzara's temper and ambiguous relationship with Laura, you still want him to get away with it because you want what's best for Biegler.

This is the second film by Otto Preminger I've watched this summer at the Paramount, the other being "Laura." Both films were quite good, and Preminger definitely has a knack for pacing.

Okay, that's all got for this one.

"Anatomy of a Murder" screened at the Paramount at 7:00 on 9/10/08

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