Movies We Like: 'Anatomy of a Murder' (1959)

There was a time when an “adult film” meant a movie by, for and about adults, not a tawdry tale of some tatted-up, dead-eyed 19-year old with daddy issues numbly coupling in front of a video camera for the gratification of leering, backward-hatted frat boys and twitchy loners with DSL. They don’t make many truly adult films anymore – to see what you are missing, a good place to start is 50 years ago with 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder.

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Let’s start with the cast: James Stewart. George C. Scott. Lee Remick. Eve Arden. Ben Gazzara. Even Big Hollywood’s own Orson Bean in a supporting part as a doctor who plays a key role in the story. If you love movies, you only needed to get to the word “George” before you were adding it to your NetFlix queue.

The plot is simple. Small-town lawyer Paul Biegler (Stewart), who is more concerned with fishing than his practice, is talked into meeting Army lieutenant Fred Manion, who is sitting in jail for the murder of the man the soldier claims raped his wife Laura (The hotter-than-hot Remick). Beigler takes the case, and faces off with Claude Dancer (Scott), the ace prosecutor sent in from the big city to chalk up yet another conviction. There is much more to the story – the movie is a brisk two hours forty minutes long – but there’s no sense in going into the details here. You just need to know this: Jimmy Stewart goes up against George C. Scott in court. Case closed.

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The sparks fly in the courtroom under the direction of Otto Preminger, the enfant terrible of 50s and 60s Tinseltown, but the interesting part (at least for a lawyer) is that the film covers all aspects of the trial, in and out of the courtroom. Cases are often won not in front of the jury but hunched over a dusty book of old cases (or, today, in front of a computer screen looking at precedent online), and Anatomy doesn’t hesitate to show the hard work involved in putting up a defense.

That sounds dull as dirt, but Anatomy is anything but. Stewart is helped by his burned out, alcoholic mentor Parnell, played perfectly by Arthur O’Connell. His character is funny, irascible, sad and, in the end, redeemed. O’Connell even manages to steal scenes from Jimmy Stewart while snagging a best Supporting Actor nomination for himself (Stewart and Scott both earned Oscar nominations as well).

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Preminger was known for the pushing boundaries, and he does it again here. This was 1959, and audiences must have been in for a shock not only hearing a frank discussion of topics like sexual climax and seminal fluid on the big screen but hearing it come from the mouth of George Bailey himself. But it’s not exploitation – it’s reality, and there is nothing wrong with adults viewing adult subject matter. If only films today were brave enough to put forward an ambiguous character like Laura Manion – perhaps a rape victim, but perhaps something else. They’d be picketed by bitter, snarling feminists furious over the movie’s rejection of easy archetypes and easier answers. And almost no studio today would risk the ending either – an ending that is a perfect fit for what comes before.

The beauty of Anatomy is how it never treats its audience like children. Its characters are fallible – sometimes they drink to excess, smoke, have questionable morals and lie, but the movie expects the audience to understand that human beings are not purely black and white. That audience had come through three terrible wars and the Great Depression. They knew something about real life even if most of what Hollywood was putting out was sanitized and saccharine.

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If Anatomy was being remade today, those twit studio suits would probably try to push Josh Hartnett as Beigler, Scarlett Johansson as Laura, and some kid from a CW TV series about vampires as the accused. It’s sad that there are so many mediocrities out there today, and sadder that the suits don’t even realize it. No matter how hard she tried, the pretty but vacant Johansson could never get anywhere as close to down and dirty as Lee Remick does here. And there’s no comparison in life experience - Stewart flew B-24s over Dusseldorf; Harnett looks like he bursts into tears when he runs out of his Axe body spray.

The only problem with Anatomy in my book is the music. It’s jazz, and aficionados of that art form hail Duke Ellington’s soundtrack as a masterpiece. But if you feel that jazz is like a colonoscopy for your ears, the musical interludes can be downright painful.

It’s been a summer of sequels to lumbering blockbusters that should have never been made in the first place, twee romances between self-consciously awkward 20-something nerds, and big screen adaptations of “graphic novels” that demonstrate why generations of parents past declared comic books a pernicious waste of time. Now give Anatomy of a Murder a look - it is a reminder that not all films are aimed squarely at the half-wit demographic.

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