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Anatomy of a murder

Director: Otto Preminger

U.S.A.| 1959. Black and white. 159 min.) New 35mm print.


Otto Preminger’s classic courtroom drama is reissued to coincide with a recent London retrospective. Rightly regarded as a highpoint in a substantial body of work that ranges from the sublime (Laura) to the ridiculous (Rosebud), Anatomy of a Murder reveals both Preminger’s artistic strengths and his canny commercial sense. Never one to shy away from publicity or controversy, for this ingeniously constructed trial drama he made a pair of ladies ‘panties’ the centrepiece of a legal battle, cast a famous lawyer (Joseph N. Welch) in the role of judge, and topped it all off with a superb music score by Duke Ellington and characteristically imaginative titles designed by Saul Bass.
Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) has killed bar owner Barney Quill. He says that Quill raped his wife Laura (Lee Remick), and that when he heard about that he . . . Well, says shrewd lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart), you yielded to an irresistible impulse, didn’t you? At which point Manion gives the kind of insolent grin the young Gazzara was so good at.
But then Biegler (and we the audience—or are we the jury?) see that Laura Manion is one of Lee Remick’s sauciest sexpots. So just what did happen? Preminger, who held a law degree himself, creates a fictionalised murder trial which has less to do with who’s right or who’s wrong (we’re never really sure) and everything to do with courtroom skirmishes, legal infighting and walking a fine line between realism and sensationalism. As the critic David Thomson has noted, ‘in an age dominated still by Perry Mason always being right and 12 Angry Men vouching for the nobility of juries, Preminger’s real daring was to say that the law is a game or a play determined by the best actors. O.J. Simpson and Court TV could not be far away.’

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