After 50 years, Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder remains an anomaly in almost every conceivable classification. Foremost among them is the courtroom drama, which, broadly speaking, is typically represented either by socially conscious arguments for the misunderstood genius, suspense-rigged melodramas that hold the fate of the wronged man in the balance, or are otherwise attached toward the end of non-legal tales that need to stand on some kind of ceremony to push the narrative to a head. Preminger’s film takes nearly an hour to get into the courtroom, then half again as much time to unspool a patient, meticulous array of prosecution and defense testimony, before ending on a note of wry indifference that borders on the avant-garde.
Students of Preminger often refer to his style of looking—or dramatic presentation—as “objective.” This is a pretty strange way to describe any artist, especially a filmmaker, but it concerns the way he measures every manageable aspect of a given film, regardless of his chosen genre, or the prevailing attitudes of the day, against the idea that any belief held by a character in the film might be true, and thus deserves a fair shake in the grand scheme of things. Put another way, it was as if Preminger gathered together all the lenses through which each of his principals saw the world, and somehow managed to fuse them together, each given emphasis according to his own, highly literate, fin de siècle-raised, if increasingly relaxed (social mores-wise), sense of jurisprudence. Put yet another way, Preminger did his level best to lead his audience without pushing, to draw them a map without leaning too heavily on the road signs, much as James Stewart’s defense attorney subtly non-coaches his client (the late Ben Gazzara, impossibly young) into figuring out the best strategy for being found not guilty in killing a local barkeep who raped his wife (Lee Remick).
Preminger’s shrewdly attenuated sense of balance, on the other hand, was achieved by the way his camerawork and cutting would invariably seek to deemphasize, rather than punch up, the emotional dominance of any one voice. Raised in the theater, and no slouch in the thespian department himself, Preminger had a style that also happened to suit his stars in two ways—even if he was reputed to be a bit shouty, at one point dressed down by no less than Sir Laurence Olivier on the set of Bunny Lake Is Missing. First, he indulged in long, often highly mobile takes that were tailored to the rhythm of an actor’s reading and movements, and second, he gave them dynamite close-ups when appropriate. Preminger had the confidence in his performers and faith in his intelligent viewers: a happy combination.
That’s a coarse overview of what makes the film great. Its pleasures are another matter, well deserving of another thousand or so words. Anatomy of a Murder is the work of a man who could extract the far less time-stamped psychological underpinning from a very 1959-ish movie, but much of what makes the film a joy to watch, on a repeat basis, is inseparable from the era, even the very moment, of its production. The right honorable Joseph “Have you no decency, sir” Welch makes his first and only dramatic appearance in a motion picture as the plainspoken but wise Judge Weaver. While Welch is, in the words of Jake La Motta, “no Olivier,” his appearance helps Preminger achieve his “objective” stance, as the director is often content simply to listen and look upon the venerated jurist. One of the less used metrics for screen performances, due to its vague nature, is “the quality of existence,” and the time Welch spends on the bench adds up to a pretty amazing existence, indeed.
From that high-water mark, the cast only gets better, not just because of Stewart (giving one of his most beloved performances, not least because it’s a performance that’s so acutely aware of “the Jimmy Stewart performance”), Gazzara, Remick, George C. Scott, or even the great Arthur O’Connell. The cast’s third and fourth and so on tiers are filled out to a degree that would parallel a Preston Sturges classic; not coincidentally, Sturges regular Jimmy Conlin stands before Weaver on a breaking and entering charge.
The film’s distinctive flavor is grounded in Duke Ellington’s score as much as Sam Leavitt’s deep-focus cinematography. As it has been noted many times, the soundtrack had the effect of “legitimizing” jazz in film scores, at least for A pictures. It’s true that composers such as Elmer Bernstein, Alex North, and Henry Mancini used contemporary jazz in noir and melodrama, Anatomy of a Murder was the first major film to use a genuine master of the form, and the soundtrack can even stand apart from the film, as an autonomous work of art.
One of the revelations of the Blu-ray age is not just the increased visibility of grain in transfers of motion pictures that were shot on film, but the behavior of different grains across different eras. By the late 1950s, black-and-white cinematography was on the cusp of seeming passé, increasingly the purview of low-budget genre films and the insurgent medium of television. For the most part, Criterion's high-definition transfer of Sam Leavitt's Oscar-nominated cinematography is crisp and proper, preserving both the deep-focus location shots as well as the shrewdly rack-focus-resistant shallow fields sometimes deployed in the courtroom. In a handful of places, the definition drops out a touch, but this is largely due to flaws in the available materials, or optical work originally done in post-production.
The uncompressed 1.0 mono is perfectly judged, but the 5.1 DTS remix creates a rich, tactile, CD-like sound field that's pleasingly opened up without necessarily seeming blasphemous. Aficionados of the Duke Ellington score may prefer the latter option, though some sound effects sound tacked on in the stereo mix.
An appropriately well-rounded dossier, considering Otto Preminger's affinity for examining a thing from all angles: The man himself squares off against legendary pundit William F. Buckley in a 10-minute chat on the subject of censorship, on Buckley's Firing Line. Nothing is settled, no blood is spilled, but Mr. Freeze more than holds his own against the titan of conservative commentary. The director's biographer, Foster Hirsch, holds forth on a segment of his own, though some might question the authority of a Preminger expert who blithely proclaims that Laura was the man's only great film at Fox (thus turning a blind eye to Daisy Kenyon, which is as great as anything he—or anyone else—ever made), or so insistently paints the director as a champion of free expression and anti-authoritarianism. As is sometimes the case, the jewel of the supplements section is tucked away slightly—in this case, billed just below the photo gallery: 30 minutes from an unfinished documentary by David C. Jones, Claire Wiley, and John O'Grady. An ambling set of recollections without a big narrative push, "Anatomy of Anatomy" is the best bet if you're looking to get away from some of the more typically opinionated talking-heads features.
Give in to the "irresistible impulse" to put Criterion's 600th spine number on your shelf.