Anatomy of a Murder

Otto Preminger


This is a near perfect film, and maybe the greatest courtroom drama I’ve ever seen. The plot isn’t as important as knowing that the film portrays an almost complete rundown of the entire legal system from arrest to verdict, and it has terrific acting (Jimmy Stewart, George C. Scott, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell and Eve Arden all shine).

Even though long, the film is consistently engaging. It’s refreshing to see any movie with such an interesting plot along with intelligent dialogue and banter, let alone one made in the 50s. The film falters in the end because of a lack of sympathy on the viewer’s part. The protagonist, played by Stewart, is clearly a good guy and you kind of pull for him. Except he’s representing an obviously guilty man, so the resolution can’t satisfy. If he wins the case he has successfully freed a dishonest, murderous wife-beater, and if he loses you will feel bad after having invested 2.5 hours in his work.

The real value of the film is in its honest portrayal of all aspects of the justice system, from the unethical witness-coaching to the gaming of the system by all parties. There is no true hero here, and the moral ambiguity leaves you discomforted at the end. You end up disappointed as a viewer, perhaps not in the outcome of the film, but disappointed that despite the great achievements of our legal system, it is still open to manipulation and corruption. Preminger presents this in a way that is not necessarily a condemnation of the system, but merely an accurate reflection.

The movie is not very emotionally satisfying, as we’re used to movies being. It doesn’t pull on the right heart strings (which is to say it’s not manipulative). But the more I think about it, the more I like it for that very reason. Preminger (and the author of the novel that this true-ish story is based on) had the courage to present the story as it was, as it occurred in real life. And they didn’t worry about making it palatable to the Hollywood audience. They were much more concerned with presenting a realistic depiction of a complicated courtroom case. And it works fabulously.

Another great strength of the film is its cinematography. From the opening shot of Jimmy Stewart driving on the highway at night, you know it’s going to be special, mainly because Preminger knows how to use shadow and lighting in a way that was not generally done in the era. It continues when Stewart arrives at his house, gradually turning on lights in the darkened house. The protagonist steps into and out of shadows, and even when he turns the lights on the corners of the room are kept dark in visually arresting ways. Its almost as if Preminger is purposely foreshadowing the shadowy gray areas that he intends to explore in the film, as opposed to the stark black and white of accepted morality.

In conclusion, you may not end up liking this film, but it will definitely keep you intrigued. And it’s worthwhile to see a movie that is supposedly used in some law schools to illustrate — from the lawyer’s perspective — the entire interview-to-verdict process of a trial.

19 June 2010

Other Reviews for “Anatomy”


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