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Reviews in Retrospect: Anatomy of a Murder

Gross and morally cobwebbed, Otto Preminger’s 1954 opus is an arresting answer to the black-and-whiteness of feel-good crime dramas.

Anatomy of a murder screenshot film

If you’re in the courtroom drama mood after Trial of The Chicago Seven hit Netflix last season, consider something a little more candid.

Otto Preminger's 1954 opus Anatomy of a Murder is an arresting answer to the black-and-whiteness of feel-good crime dramas like Aaron Sorkin's work, in part because it defies so many conventions of the formula. The actual crime at the centre of the trial is never shown. It’s a finely-tuned legal study directed by a man with a law degree, based on a book by a Supreme Court Justice, which is in turn based on a case in which he was the defence attorney. It’s gross and morally cobwebbed, the crime is arguably never solved and the details and plot schematics that lead us to the verdict are personal, ugly and very sexual. 12 Angry Men, this isn’t.

Jimmy Stewart heads this up as former lawyer and yes, you’d be forgiven for assuming this is a Hitchcock joint at first blush. Approached by the femme fatale of intrusive dreams, the mysterious Mrs Laura Manion in smoke-screen sunglasses, Paul is brought out of his alcohol-infused retirement and tangled up in a new case. Manion’s husband is being tried for murder and she wants Paul to help.

The details come later. US Army Lieutenant Frederick ‘Manny’ Manion is in custody for the murder of innkeeper Barny Quill, who allegedly raped his wife Laura. The murder itself isn’t disputed but the reasons surrounding it will become the matter of courtroom debate.

It's a script like no other, a rapturous stage play of red herrings. Paul, the likeable, salt-of-the-earth underdog with 'improper' methods, will confuse the prosecutors using vaguely relevant and spontaneous lines of questioning akin to the off-the-cuff jazz records he cherishes.

When the big-shot city lawyers he’s up against object to his seemingly irrelevant questioning he’ll surrender with a flirtatious ‘withdrawn’, throwing his hands in the air with a graceful wink at the jury, as if saying, ‘I’m just a local townie doing my best here, up against forces an individual like me can’t hope to beat!’

It is frustratingly prescient. Jimmy's line of defence, which is essentially that Mrs Manion is the real victim here, is constantly ridiculed. To use modern lingo, she is slut-shamed, accused by the opposition of flirting with other men and teasing advances, the insinuation being that her encounter with Quill was consensual. Paul seems to warm up to Manion in the face of all this misogyny, but her smoke-screen sunglasses and constantly developing version of events challenges your loyalty. You can trust no one in the theatre.

Preminger had a law degree but there’s little academic showboating here. In fact he avoids it, opting instead for a shape-shifting dynamic that prefers character over grandstanding. He paints the system as a well-oiled machine and Paul as an outsider going up against it, perhaps because Preminger himself was an outsider, an Austro-Hungarian expat whose family fled Ukraine when The Great War erupted and therefore saw America from an invaluable outsider’s perspective. He chafed against Hollywood’s Hays Code which found his films about drug addiction, abuse and homosexuality much too taboo, and he probed the hypocrisies present in American thought, a square peg going up against a round hole.

It’s no anomaly that Jimmy's character loves jazz. The way a jazz crew flexes in and out of a musical rulebook, one member tearing apart from the whole momentarily for a solo to then curve back towards the cohesive direction, mirrors his scattershot approach to colouring in the aspects of the case and winning over the jury by defining social-political context, even when due legal process denies it. It’s Rashomon played out in a 'civilised' era.

And what could be more appropriate for our times than a stage where what is lawful is corrupt. If we can’t beat them by playing them at their own game then we’ll change the playing field, Preminger suggests. I’d ask him who he thinks is truly guilty in Anatomy of a Murder, but his ashes are buried somewhere in the Bronx. Pretty rude of him.

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Anatomy of a Murder is available wherever DVDs are sold. Physical media isn't dead yet, people!

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