Anatomy of a Murder

(Otto Preminger, USA, 1959)


1959 was a good year for movies. The French New Wave was springing to life. Films were appearing from Poland, Japan and Italy that would help to change the face of modern cinema. And in America, in the dying days of the old Hollywood system, the loveliest swansongs of the classical style emerged: Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo, Hitchcock's North by Northwest and Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder.

Like Nicholas Ray and Elia Kazan, Preminger began directing in the '40s, and his films straddled old and new Hollywood styles. There are many modern touches in the film: Duke Ellington's jazz score; Saul Bass' stark credit sequence of an animated, disembodied corpse; and a plot intrigue that does not entirely shirk from the more gruesome details in a court case involving rape, violent beating and murder.

At the same time, old Hollywood hands including James Stewart and Eve Arden provide a rock solid anchor amidst all the dark mystery of the story. Stewart gives one of his finest performances as a country lawyer stirred back to life by a particularly challenging assignment.

Preminger sets Stewart's easy humour, graceful movements and controlled rage against the very different mannerisms of Ben Gazzara (as a soldier who has committed a crime of passion) and George C. Scott (as a fancy city lawyer).

If directing is the art of placing bodies in a space before the camera, then Preminger was a great director. He liked large, open frames that allowed maximum latitude for elaborate movements of both actors and camera.

In the courtroom sequences that are the highlight of Anatomy of a Murder, film, this style beautifully expresses Preminger's favourite themes: public life as a theatre of lies, bluffs and masquerades; the lethal ambiguity of human actions; and the fascinating inscrutability of what drives the heart and mind.

MORE Preminger: Whirlpool

© Adrian Martin September 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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