Otto Preminger’s Anatomy Of A Murder studiously avoids hard conclusions of any kind. But if it does have a statement of purpose, it comes out a brief and funny little scene where a judge confers with the lawyers on the bench of a murder trial. The basic facts of the case are settled: A young army lieutenant shot and killed a local tavern owner who he believed raped his wife. But the lieutenant’s lawyer, played by James Stewart, is seeking a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, and in order to make his case, details of the rape have to come out in trial. Among those details is a pair of missing undergarments. The question posed to the judge is this: Must they really be referred to as “undergarments” instead of “panties”? Is it necessary to soften up the language in a trial dealing with rape and murder? Aren’t we all adults here?
The judge rules in favor of using the word “panties,” and in a sly piece of commentary, Preminger gave the role to real-life attorney Joseph N. Welch, who was head counsel for the Army in the Army-McCarthy hearings and who uttered the famous line (“Have you no sense of decency, sir?”) that signaled an end to McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt. Preminger spent a career fighting censors and challenging taboos—he once released a film (1953’s The Moon Is Blue) without Production Code approval, broke the blacklist by allowing Dalton Trumbo a screenwriting credit for 1960’s Exodus, and dealt with heroin addiction (1955’s The Man With The Golden Arm) and homosexuality (1962’s Advise & Consent)—and Anatomy Of A Murder is about, among other things, the value of candor in pursuit of the truth. In a trial dealing with crimes of passion, Preminger makes certain that passion isn’t muted.
Beginning with a Duke Ellington score, Anatomy Of A Murder has a libertine quality that carries over into other aspects of the film, especially Lee Remick’s turn as the sexually brazen head-turner at the heart of the case. Running a modest and struggling law practice in between fishing sessions in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Stewart catches a break when Remick asks him to represent her husband Ben Gazzara, an army lieutenant in jail for murdering the man Remick accuses of raping her. Stewart seeks to argue that Gazzara was under the grips of temporary insanity and cannot be held responsible for his actions; the prosecution, aided by big-city lawyer George C. Scott, asserts that he was in complete control of his faculties. After a careful setup, the bulk of the drama is given over to the trial itself, and the revelations that come out from the expert and contentious lawyering on both sides.
Courtroom dramas are generally not the best candidates for location shooting—that’s what Hollywood set-builders are for, after all—but Preminger insisted on shooting Anatomy Of A Murder in the Upper Peninsula, and his devotion to verisimilitude only starts there. Legal professionals have long admired the film’s authenticity, and Preminger allows the facts to come out, brick by brick, witness by witness, without tipping his hand in one direction or another. As much as Stewart earns our sympathy, he’s arguing up an awfully steep hill and his volatile clients unsettle the case inside and outside the courtroom. Anatomy Of A Murder respects the audience enough to turn us into the jury, and trusts that we, too, can consider the facts like adults.
Key features: Though an interview with Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch, and segments on Ellington’s score and Saul Bass’ title sequence are informative, the real highlights on this set including a vintage making-of newsreel of Hollywood descending on the Upper Peninsula, excerpts from the incomplete documentary Anatomy Of ‘Anatomy’, and Preminger talking about censorship on William F. Buckley Jr.’s show Firing Line.