Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), in its title alone, makes quite a promise. The most effective of its kind (taken from the best selling source novel by Robert Traver – a.k.a. Judge John D. Voelker – loosely based on a case of his), the title promises a full investigation of the eponymous crime, one that’s central to American genre film, and hence, the national cinema. Saul Bass’s title design, used on the cover of the new Criterion DVD/Blu-Ray sets, presents a corpse outline in fragments, in need of “remembering” (in the elemental sense of the word, i.e, the opposite of dismembering). Preminger’s film directly addresses the culture’s ultimate crime, which in this film, results from rape, material more problematic to film censors at the time. Delivering a full account of the crime(s) calls for more than an investigator on the scene (unofficial ones such as private eyes populate noir, since that tradition distrusts the police). To depict murder and the vengeance necessary for the classic American screen, Anatomy avoids depicting the crime and moves to the courtroom. Both accused “criminals” are accounted for – one, an army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) in custody for the murder, and a dead bar owner whom the former claims had raped his wife – as is the avenger, a small-town lawyer (and former district attorney) stepping up for the accused killer.
According to Chris Fujiwara’s The World and its Double, Preminger thought through the material, closely reading the source text and choosing to film on location. The filmmaker avoided a serious generic problem that comes with taking a crime story to court. Usually, the setting will deliver the truth and, regretfully, moralistic verbiage in tandem. This is the main fault I see with To Kill a Mockingbird, a court-crime tale showing up onscreen three years later that was doomed by the mawkish language of its source material. Though Fritz Lang’s German proto-noir M undercuts moralistic judgment, the court film tradition prior to Anatomy promised little escape. A courtroom setting is transformed to the Senate floor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, with everyman James Stewart rooting out political corruption. Stewart playing the defender Paul Biegler (the Voelker figure, as an attorney before elected to the Michigan Supreme Court) in Anatomy seems like stunt casting, though really a tough role placed in sure hands. Still the face of Middle American purity to viewers, Stewart had done it all as an actor. He was an obsessive avenger on the frontier for Anthony Mann. The actor’s man of action was a clever revision as one concerned little with taming the land and saving the community, the values beneath the U.S.’s myth of the West. His tenure with Mann ended before his higher profile role as a haunted obsessive in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, filmed just before Anatomy.
Stewart came to Anatomy as an acting powerhouse, a friendly face that could flash with rage at any time. Hence, he made Preminger’s truth-seeking conscience a picture of verity. From the testimony Stewart’s Biegler draws the truth (or what seems to be it) in spite of George C. Scott’s prosecutor, a killer-in-torts whom Biegler manages to dodge and eventually counterattack. The film is plot-bound, essentially melodrama. And yet it allows drama to emerge as we come to know the allegedly raped wife, shifty in her come-on to Biegler but still the victim, and her husband, whose rage grew, more likely than not, from jealousy and insecurity. (Fujiwara notes that Preminger wanted Lana Turner, who turned the role down, to include a study of a younger man’s obsession with an older woman – one of the great casting misses in film history.)
And yet, it’s the anatomy of Stewart’s character we want most. He’s a loner, unmarried and connected to only his assistant (Eve Arden) and a fallen ex-lawyer who redeems himself by helping with the case. With greater times behind him, Biegler enjoys fishing, which feels more like color for the character than useful data. He finishes the film an enigma, possibly the good go-getter of Capra but too much of a shadow.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J. His book, The New American Crime Film is forthcoming with McFarland.