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Craig's Movie Club
Movie Reviews

Spotlight on: Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder

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Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder

This story of a husband's retribution toward his wife's rapist doesn't get the recognition it deserves. With nonintrusive direction from Otto Preminger that puts you right in the courtroom; a jazzy piano- and trumpet-based score from Duke Ellington (who appears in a cameo as "Pie-Eye") that really takes the film to another level (especially those final notes at the conclusion); and compelling performances all around from James Stewart, Ben Gazzara, and George C. Scott to Lee Remick, Arthur O'Connell, and Eve Arden; Anatomy of a Murder is a classic in every sense: one of my all-time favorites.

It is a little-known fact that Anatomy of a Murder (both the film and the bestselling novel written by real-life judge John D. Voelker under the name Robert Traver) is based on the real-life case of a woman named Thalia Massie who was beaten and raped by a group of four local boys while her husband, Naval Lieutenant Thomas Massie, was stationed in Hawaii.

After the trial of the perpetrators resulted in a hung jury, Thalia's husband and mother killed the leader of the bunch, Joe Kahahawai, and were themselves put on trial for their murder. Famous attorney Clarence Darrow was called to Hawaii from Chicago to take up their defense. (For a fascinating look at the truer events of the case, see Max Allan Collins's Nathan Heller novel, Damned in Paradise, in which Heller is the only fictional character.)

Anatomy of a Murder veers a good deal from the specific details of the case, changing names and locations and only really retaining the skeleton of events. Here, in rural Michigan (Traver's home state), Laura Manion (Remick), beautiful wife of Army Lieutenant Frederick Manion (Gazzara), has been raped by local bartender Barney Quill, whereupon Lt. Manion, supposedly under the grip of an "irresistible impulse" coolly and deliberately walks to the bar and shoots Quill dead. Local attorney Paul Biegler (Stewart), just back from a fishing trip, is persuaded by his friend Parnell (O'Connell) to take the case, which puts him square up against the district attorney and his secret weapon, Claude Dancer (Scott), a notorious prosecutor from Lansing. Another real-life judge, Joseph Welch, presides over the case with a friendly demeanor but no nonsense accepted from either side.

Anatomy of a Murder was a truly adult drama made in a time when every film has to be acceptable for the whole family. These days, the terminology seems tame, since you can hear the same thing every night on any of the Law & Order spin-offs or read about it in your local newspaper, but in 1959, words like "rape," "bitch," "sperm," and even "panties" (used in this sexual context) were simply not dinner-table conversation, and the movie was the subject of controversy upon its release. Sadly, those people missed out on a wonderful portrait of characters and their relationships to one another.

I just finished watching Anatomy of a Murder again, due to my reading of the aforementioned Collins novel, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for an involving drama that does not pander to the lowest common denominator. Be sure to set aside the evening, however, because it really should be viewed all at once but the running time is 2 hours and 41 minutes. You'll hardly notice it, though, because every second is utterly gripping.

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