October 17, 2017

Posted March 5, 2012 by D. K. Holm

In the unlikely event that Sight and Sound asks me for my top 10 films of all time for its decadel poll, I am going to include Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. It is a great American film, one of the best adaptations of a novel to the screen, and is paradoxically epical as it bores into a heinous crime in a small community. It’s a movie I’ve seen at least once a year when possible since my teens, and it never loses its power or its ability to unfold new mysteries and nuances.

Released in 1959, Anatomy of a Murder was Preminger and screenwriter Wendell Mayes’s adaptation of the bestselling novel by Robert Traver. The book told the story of Michigan small town up-state lawyer and former D. A. Paul Biegler taking on the case of one Lt. Frederick Manion, accused of murdering resort hotel bar owner Barney Quill, because Quill allegedly raped Manion’s wife, Laura. Like a summer beach read, the novel is long and detailed, and unfolds across many pages of courtroom examinations as it delves into the intricacies of the scandalous case, in which the subjects of – and terms used for – rape, semen, ejaculation, and panties scandalized a reading public still reeling from the publication of books such as Lolita.

But as it turns out, Robert Traver was a pseudonym for Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker, an actual former D. A. in the same region who upon losing office took on the case of a real army lieutenant who killed a barkeep after the rape of his wife. As in the book, Voelker got him off on a technicality, and the soldier skipped out on his debt to the attorney.

Published in 1958 by St. Martin’s Press, the book came under the attention of a Preminger “reader,” and Preminger quickly bought the rights.1 Preminger then shot the film in the actual town of Big Bay where the real events occurred with an all star cast of old time Hollywood pros (James Stewart as Biegler, Arthur O’Connell as his gay-in-all-but name lawyer partner, and Eve Arden as the secretary), Actors Studio newcomers (Ben Gazarra as Manion, Lee Remick as his wife, George C. Scott as Dancer the imported prosecutor, and Murray Hamilton as a bartender2), and a wealth of authentic-looking locales. For novelty casting, Preminger put behind the judge’s bench Joseph Welch, famous for calling McCarthy on his vile practices during the Army-McCarthy hearings. With a score by Duke Ellington, one of the best every committed to film, and a poster-ad campaign supervised by Saul Bass, the film was a hit, earning $5.5 million at the box office. 3


The film was released in a bare bones DVD in 2000, back in the days when the back of the box would list “interactive menus” as an extra. Now the Criterion Collection has taken on the film and issued it in both regular ($29.95) and Blu-Ray ($39.95) editions, loaded with good extras. AoaM boasts a new digital restoration, with an uncompressed mono soundtrack on the Blu-Ray edition, plus a new alternative 5.1 soundtrack, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio, also on the Blu-Ray. Major extras include a 20-minute interview with Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch, who talks about Preminger’s career and the circumstances around the creation of AoaM; Gary Giddins talks about Duke Ellington and the film’s score in another 20-minute video interview; biographer Pat Kirkham talks about graphic designer Saul Bass and his work for Preminger and Hitchcock (about 15 minutes); Preminger faces off against William F. Buckley Jr., a Catholic and conservative commentator, on his PBS show Firing Line around the time of Preminger’s later film, Hurry Sundown, discussing Preminger’s (rather shaky and inconsistent) views on censorship and adult material; newsreel footage from the set, and a gallery of behind-the-scenes pix by Life magazine photographer Gjon Mili; the film’s trailer; and a 32-page booklet with cast and crew credits, transfer information, chapter titles, an essay about the film by Nick Pinkerton, and a reprint of a Life magazine article about Welch playing the judge.

The most charming extra, however, is what is called a work in progress called Anatomy of ‘Anatomy,’ which turns out to be a documentary narrated by a home town girl who worked near the settings where the film was shot, and who has numerous stories to tell about about such things as the “flirtatiousness” (a code word, surely) of Gazarra, and interviews with several of the still-living townsfolk who appeared in the film or worked on it, including the local who played Barney Quill, whose appearance in the film is as a bunch of photos on a bar wall and crime scene pix of a corpse. Still photos from the set in this short film suggest that Preminger may have shot footage of a scene in which Laura Manion is attacked by Quill but as it stands now, the film begins with the crime already committed and Manion awaiting a hearing.

This is probably the most distinguishing thing aboutAnatomy of a Murder. The viewer never sees the crime, but must understand and infer what happens from Biegler’s investigations and from the testimony – just like the jury. Preminger leaves a great deal of ambiguity about the case: how much did Manion know – or remember – and when did he know it? Just what defines the marriage of Manion and Laura? What does Biegler believe and how can he reconcile his moral values with “blind justice”? Upon re-viewing and reflection the depth of the film only increases, as this video essay by academic Christian Keathley on one tiny scene in the film illustrates:

Pass the Salt from Christian Keathley on Vimeo.

Criterion Collection spine No. 600, hit the streets on Tuesday, February 21, 2012, and is available at a video merchant near you.

1 As Robert Evans points out in The Kid Stays in the Picture, power in Hollywood resides in he who owns the property.

2 Long before he became the mayor of Amity in Jaws.

3 The film was nominated for seven Oscars but won none in the Ben-Hur hailstorm.