Otto Preminger’s courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder is a powerful and fascinating film, but I have to confess, I think I really need a second viewing to properly judge it. This is really through no fault of the film itself, but instead due wholly to me being distracted by Lee Remick’s character, Laura, the raped wife who proved to be a particular point of difficulty for me. This wasn’t anything to do with Remick’s performance, which was excellent, and as it turned out, quite true to the real-life origins of the film which I’ll get into shortly. Rather, it was perhaps my perspective of enlightened times some sixty years later, and my disbelief at her apparent casual reaction to her own rape. Having reflected upon it for several days, I suppose that casualness was the whole point, but on my initial viewing of the film (and who knows? It might irritate me always) it bothered me throughout, it didn’t ring true; it seemed grossly nonsensical. Laura has been raped, a deeply traumatic and devastating experience for any woman, and yet Laura not only seems to have dismissed it as just an unfortunate episode, but subsequently continues to flirt with every man she meets, including our nominal ‘hero’ Paul Biegler (James Stewart) and dresses provocatively, like some kind of decidedly dumb-blonde femme fatale.
Of course, the unreliable narrative of her rape is the whole point of the film, but on this first viewing it appeared to me to be too obvious, too blunt. I suppose this may be a case of how strange real-life can be (the film is based on a real 1952 case, but I didn’t know it at the time – perhaps coming into a film ‘unspoiled’ can actually sometimes be counter-productive) but it hampered my enjoyment of the film somewhat. I guess what I’m getting at is that I think more subtlety would have been preferable, as I was repeatedly distracted by it: how could anyone take her, or her story, so seriously, if it was so blatantly dubious? Again, maybe that’s the point of the movie.
Anatomy of a Murder is a film about a man who has killed someone in cold blood, in front of witnesses who clearly saw him do it, who then tasks a lawyer to try to engineer some way through the law to ensure he gets away with it. Not so much the law getting justice done but the law thwarting justice. In these troubled and more cynical times we are used to injustice and criminals escaping their just deserts but in 1959 this must have been a very troubling, radical and rather scandalous subject for a film. Its detailed dramatisation of the courtroom and machinations of the justice system enables a view that must have been remarkable at the time it was first released.
The key to me accepting some elements that I initially deemed preposterous was something done in retrospect (hence thinking a second viewing will prove more enjoyable), by later discovering the true events that inspired it. The film is based upon a book written by attorney John Voelker (under the pen name Robert Traver) that was based on one of his own cases, in which Voelker secured an acquittal for his client Coleman Peterson, who had shot dead Mike Chenoweth, a tavern owner in July of 1952 (Voelker is pictured above with Coleman Peterson and his wife, Charlotte). Charlotte claimed that she had been raped by bar-owner Chenoweth, and Voelker’s case centred upon the argument that the enraged Peterson acted out of brute instinct and temporary insanity- an “irresistible impulse”- essentially that he didn’t know what he was doing, unaware of right or wrong and was therefore innocent of the charges. This was a case not without precedent (as is detailed in the film) but remains a rather dubious chapter in judicial history. For my part there is lingering distaste considering the injustice done to the victim, whose murderer got away scot-free.
The film followed the real events very closely, indeed proving to be a fairly reliable and sincere representation (even the dog and his torch was real): so much so in fact, that it largely filmed in the locations (or close to them) that the events occurred, including the trailer park where Peterson and his wife lived and from where they skipped town without paying the Voelker the three thousand dollars they owed him. In the film, this appeared to me to be one twist too many, but incredibly it did indeed happen, even down to the note Peterson left him claiming he was following “an irresistible impulse” in clearing out, the bitter irony of it being the same justification used to get him out of the murder charge serving the film as a final moment of fitting black humour (Voelker, of course, later earned plenty for his efforts by turning the story into the best-selling novel and later selling it to Hollywood).
Its pretty clear that Anatomy of a Murder has a certain noir sensibility and feel- partly this is the atmospheric soundtrack by Duke Ellington, whose modern jazz score lends a definite moody, semi-noir ambience. Moreover, the characters themselves are quite dark and multifaceted, doubling the films moral ambiguity. Traditionally, our attorney defending Frederick “Manny” Manion (Ben Gazzara), would be a righteous and noble defender of justice, especially with James Stewart cast in the role (the modern equivalent would be someone like Tom Hanks): instead Paul Biegler knows he’s on the ‘wrong side’ and isn’t avert to subverting justice to win through. Biegler is clearly suspicious of Manion’s claim that his wife Laura was raped but then suggests to Manion the mechanism of how to get away with the murder, leading Manion into the idea that he was crazy with rage and temporarily insane. Biegler seems to be a typical hometown, ordinary decent guy and unassuming, but at others is canny and astute and manipulative: its almost disconcerting seeing Stewart in such a role, but the almost unlikely casting certainly works in the films favour.
Laura Manion, as I have noted, is definitely an unlikely victim – clearly an attractive woman with low self-worth, she evidently seeks the attention of men which is hardly wise whilst married to a blatantly jealous, violent and abusive husband who perhaps neglects her. It could be inferred that she cheats on him often and that any sexual contact with innkeeper Bernard “Barney” Quill was likely consensual; the rape claim was either a defence she made to her husband or one they concocted together after Manion killed Quill. Biegler makes a point of instructing Laura to dress less provocatively when in court, to play up to the jury her role of decent and loving housewife, to reinforce the idea that she was raped rather than a cheating nymphomaniac. Manion, of course is a hot-tempered and violent military man who is using the system to escape justice and is shady enough to skip town without even paying the attorney who saved him.
Perhaps the biggest noir element of the film is what it chooses not to show us- the film lacks any flashbacks to the night of the murder, so we are not given any visual clues, only aural testimonies which at times contest with each other. Flashbacks might have been perceived as definitive, revealing the truth, which in the film is left as uncertain. We only know what the Jury is led to believe, and the ambiguity, both implicit and moral, is rather concerning.
What a subversive and shocking film for the 1950s! Indeed the film came under fire by the censors, criticised for its use of words like “panties” and “contraceptive” and terms like “penetration”, “sexual climax”- the film pushed the boundaries of what was permissible at the time and its clear how groundbreaking and scandalous the film was back then. Even today -perhaps particularly so- its sense of thwarted, even abused justice resonates.
The cast is excellent-James Stewart was always a gifted actor capable of considerable nuance, Lee Remick is naturally beautiful but carries with it surprising layers of depth: possibly a manipulator of men, or a foolish young woman and victim of domestic violence: its a remarkable performance from a relative newcomer to the screen (originally the role was destined for Lana Turner whose unfortunate designer wardrobe claims had her at odds with Preminger, and replaced by Remick). Ben Gazarra is suitably slimy and cunning, always submerging constantly pent-up rage; at his wife, at his jailers, at the world at large. I was particularly impressed by a very contained performance by George C. Scott as prosecutor Claude Dancer, who seems well aware of what Biegler is doing: there is a subtlety to him that threatens to steal every scene he is in, just drawing in your attention: I was not surprised to learn that it earned Scott an Academy Award nomination, but was surprised that it was one of his very earliest film roles, it is so self-assured.
The person who does indeed steal the show was, ironically, not even an actor- Joseph N. Welch, a real-life attorney who had served as counsel for the U.S. Army during the Army-McCarthy trials and was at the time a publicly-known figure, plays the presiding Judge Weaver. His quiet and affable nature lends an air of dignity over the courtroom drama and his ease is quite remarkable.
So I really did enjoy Anatomy of a Murder, and suspect my misgivings during my first viewing will be removed upon watching the film again, now that I am aware of the story behind it. Sometimes reality can be crazier than fiction, after all, and its interesting how remaining spoiler-free possibly harmed my first viewing. Fortunately this Criterion edition on Blu-ray looks quite splendid and has a raft of supplements, and I’m sure will indeed reward subsequent viewings.