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Thursday, 18 October 2012

Classic Film Review: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Anatomy of a Murder stars James Stewart as Paul Biegler, a lawyer defending Lieutenant Manion (Ben Gazzara) who killed the man accused of raping his wife, Laura (Lee Remick). Working alongside Biegler are his good friend and associate Parnell Emmett McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell) and his secretary Maida Rutledge (Eve Arden). Using the defence of temporary insanity, Biegler tries to untie the knots of secrecy around the murderer and his victim.

This film feels very authentic. Something which adds to this authenticity is the casting of real-life lawyer Joseph N. Welch as Judge Weaver. The tension in this one builds solely from the courtroom scenes - there are no flashbacks of the rape or murder leaving the viewer trying to separate the truth from the lies. Stewart excels as Biegler but, really, all the cast are brilliant, right down to the little dog who becomes important in the trial. There is a definite rapport between Stewart and O'Connell, something which adds a subplot to a film which is very heavy on occasion. I can understand why it may have caused offence on first release in 1959 - a pivotal point in the trial is an undergarment which is discussed in open court. In addition, there are other details about the rape revealed which make uncomfortable viewing now, never mind in 1959.

I wasn't wholly convinced by the performance of Lee Remick as Laura, although it did add to the doubt around the whole situation. There were moments of real intensity such as when she recounts to Biegler the details of the rape but a couple of her scenes feel too false in such a realistic film. This was the straightest role I've seen Eve Arden in to date and she was fantastic, providing a couple of laughs to ease the tension as the film progressed - I particularly liked Maida's comment that Biegler couldn't sack her until he'd paid her. Arden really was excellent but, then, I haven't found a performance of hers I didn't like. This one was just a little more serious than some of the others, proving that she wasn't simply a wise-cracker.

Although a little long at 160 minutes, Anatomy of a Murder is a psychological triumph. Watch out for the cameo by Duke Ellington who also provides the soundtrack because, of course, Paul Biegler is a jazz-loving lawyer. There are some memorable specific scenes in this one but perhaps the extended courtroom drama is memorable all on its own.

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