Wednesday, September 9, 2015
Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959)
An exceptional film, far more deserving of the year's best picture Oscar than the bombastic Ben-Hur, Anatomy has a lot of great things going for it: the wonderful courtroom conflict between old Hollywood pro James Stewart and Method-trained newcomer George C. Scott; the tension and volatility of Ben Gazzara as the defendant; the presence of such scene-stealers as Arthur O'Connell and Eve Arden in the supporting cast, along with other character actor stalwarts like Murray Hamilton, John Qualen, Orson Bean, Howard McNear, and Jimmy Conlin. And even the "stunt casting" of non-actor Joseph N. Welch, famous for the integrity he showed in his confrontation with Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings five years earlier, pays off handsomely, with Welch bringing both gravitas and humor to his role as the trial judge. The soundtrack by Duke Ellington also adds a touch of greatness to the movie, which David Thomson calls "magnificent." But where I think it falls short of magnificence is in the treatment of the rape victim played by Lee Remick. There is, of course, some ambiguity remaining in the film as to whether she was in fact raped, but the part as written by Wendell Mayes and the performance as directed by Preminger turns the presumed victim into an air-headed sex kitten. It's possible that Hollywood, so long precluded by the Production Code from even treating the subject of sexual assault, hadn't yet developed a grammar and vocabulary for dealing with the subject. Remick was a fine actress, and she does manage to show moments of vulnerability in her performance, but the general impression of the character given by the film verges on the despicable "she was asking for it." Preminger had been taunting the Code since The Moon Is Blue (1954) and The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), challenging the strictures on language (the words "virgin" and "seduce") in the former and drug use in the latter. Anatomy continued the assault on prudishness, though few who watch it today will be shocked by its rather clinical discussion of whether Laura Mannion was indeed raped, or be inclined to sniff daintily, as Time magazine did in its review, that the film "seems less concerned with murder than with anatomy."