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Anatomy Of A Murder  

Otto Preminger directed a number of taboo-smashing films during the 1950`s: The Moon is Blue, a romantic comedy which used such naughty words as virgin and seduction, The Man with the Golden Arm, a film starring Frank Sinatra as a heroin addict, and Anatomy of a Murder, about a man on trial for killing his wife`s rapist.

 Buy Anatomy Of A Murder [1959] at Amazon!

This third movie is no doubt the most popular of these groundbreaking films. The film stars Jimmy Stewart as a small-town lawyer, Ben Gazzara as the killer, Lee Remick as the wife, and George C. Scott as the big-time prosecutor. Stewart, a lawyer who was voted out of his long-time district attorney job, is a man who likes nothing better than a day of fishing and reading law with his friend, an old drunk who had a chance at legal prominence. One day, he gets a call, out of the blue, from a woman who was raped, and whose rapist was killed by her husband. He checks out the situation and agrees to take the case, which becomes a major event. The crime itself is enough to rock the community, as the rapist is a respected member of town, and the details of the crime are overly sensitive. The sensational aspect of the case is also enough to attract a big-city prosecutor (Scott), who attempts to win his case by both his slickness and his professional witnesses from the psychiatric profession. Gazzara`s fate rests upon a notion that he suffered from involuntary impulse at the time of the murder, and both lawyers use the validity of this condition to win their cases.

The most effective way of understanding how strong this film really is to realize this was made in 1959. None of the content, as shown, would be too shocking for an episode of Law and Order nowadays, but in 1959, this was strong stuff. Words such as "bitch", "slut", "sperm", and, yes, even "hell" are uttered. We are witness to the incredible sight of Jimmy Stewart actually discussing evidence of semen residue and sexual climax during the rape crime. And, most importantly, we are confronted head-on with the issue of rape. The script spares few words. The woman retells that horrible night, and we know exactly what she is talking about. The man attacks her once, and says that he will do it again. He gives her bruises and tears her clothes and undergarments. This is not a pleasant event.

While this film does expose the world to a previously hidden reality, the one thing which this film may be guilty of is the questionable depiction of the victim. She is the standard femme fatale: she has no problem flirting with Stewart, and going out to bars to meet the other guys from her military husband`s force. Also, it is very clear that Gazzara is a jealously possessive man, which is enough to question the validity of the rape charge. While Preminger broke ground in many areas, he didn`t quite break the gender barrier, which depicted women as property of husbands, and divided those women between "good girl" and "bad girl". Of course, it`s the "bad girl" who gets raped.

Actually, it isn`t just the woman who is ambiguous. Most of the major characters are not very clear about their motives. With Remick and Gazzara, that goes without saying. But look at Stewart. We like to think of him as a moral guy, and here, he is certainly appears a man of simple, quaint pleasures, who believes in justice. But look at his attitude in the court. He is a showboat, getting a rise out of Gazzara, Scott, the judge, and the court audience. And his demeanour in private with both Gazzara and Remick is interesting. I don`t believe that Stewart`s character is remotely convinced that these two are innocent victims, and, in reality, is merely using them to recover his formerly high spot in the legal profession. In both cases, he wants them to help him win the case, not the other way around. To Gazzara: "Let`s see how bright you really are." And to Remick, he hauls her out of the bar, and tells her to be a good, and meek housewife for the court. He is also not above using a 100-year old judgement to further his case. Basically, Stewart is a lawyer, like all the others. It is a very neat performance.

While this movie is dated, it is very good, even at 160 minutes. Stewart and Scott demonstrate two different styles: one from a Golden Age veteran, and the other, in his first major role, an example of what was to come in the 1960`s and later. The topic is a powerful one to witness in an old film. And, overall, it is a good example of fine narrative in a big Hollywood film. 

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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