Anatomy of a Murder is a very well made courtroom suspense-drama thanks in large part to a well put together selection of actors. James Stewart continued his streak of wonderful performances while the story manages to hold its own throughout the duration of the lengthy running time.
Anatomy of a Murder: Criterion Collection (1959)
The Movie | Special Features | Video Quality | Audio Quality | Overall
Genre(s): Drama, Crime
Criterion | NR – 161 min. – $39.95 | February 21, 2012
Directed by: Otto Preminger
Writer(s): John D. Voelker (novel); Wendell Mayes (screenplay)
Cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant, George C. Scott
Theatrical Release Date: July 1, 1959
Features: Featurettes, Interviews
Number of Discs: 1
Audio: English (DTS-HD MA 5.1), English (PCM 1.0)
Video: 1080p/Widescreen 1.85
Subtitles: English SDH
Disc Size: NA
Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
THE MOVIE – 4.0/5
Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder is one of his more mainstream and popular films that, from my reading, is well regarded amongst those in the judicial system. For me, in my first viewing of this courtroom thriller and although I can’t speak as highly of it compared with others, it’s still well made with some great performances and a few a bit on the exaggerated side.
The story centers on attorney Paul Biegler (JAMES STEWART) who was once the town’s district attorney but lost out in a re-election bid. When he’s not taking on smaller cases, Biegler is out fishing – has a fridge full of them – and spends time with alcoholic buddy Parnell McCarthy (ARTHUR O’CONNELL) and sarcastic but tough secretary Maida Rutledge (EVE ARDEN).
After returning back from a fishing trip, he is contacted by Laura Manion (LEE REMICK) by telephone and without really knowing the crime until hanging up, agrees to see her husband who is housed in the local jail. It’s only after hanging up when Parnell informs him and the husband, Lieutenant Frederick “Manny” Manion (BEN GAZZARA) was arrested for a murder for which he has confessed to doing.
At first Biegler reluctant to get back into the game courtroom trials and his meeting Manny doesn’t exactly help finding the man to be cocky. And yet, he takes the case anyway but that’s only the beginning… First thing is, he has to find a way to defend his client who killed the victim after the man had raped Laura but there’s only one option of defense: irresistible impulse (i.e. insanity). Another issue at hand is Laura doesn’t exactly act like a victim and as he would discover later, doesn’t mind flirting around while her husband is on trial.
Inside the courtroom, meanwhile, Biegler goes before a genial but straight forward judge (JOSEPTH N. WELCH), the district attorney who took his old job (BROOKS WEST) and state prosecutor Claude Dancer (GEORGE C. SCOTT).
How will the trial turn out? Is he innocent or guilty? The answers to those questions won’t be obvious and really not supposed to be as it would seem director Preminger set out to make a film showcasing the judicial system, albeit with a cynical flavor, but throw in some titillating elements as a form of controversy… for its time as nowadays Anatomy of a Murder probably would’ve received a light PG-13 rating. What’s more interesting, and for the good, is this isn’t Perry Mason or Matlock or “Insert Generic Yet Quirky Lawyer Here” TV series because while you have plenty of passion from each side, there’s not really a last minute “ah ha” scene, although one does come pretty damn close yet it’s still satisfying.
Outside of the interesting and unique plot, what probably stands out the most are the performances, save for one: Welch was not a trained actor and while it wasn’t a deal breaker, it still brought unneeded attention in an otherwise finely acted movie.
In any case, James Stewart obviously is the headliner here and it would seem it’s during this period where he goes from playing the morally pure characters (It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Rear Window, etc) in the 30s and 40s to somebody a bit more ambiguous in the 50s and 60s. It makes for a far more multi-dimensional character.
The other actor who makes a splash is Lee Remick as the puzzlingly sultry wife/victim. Whenever she’s on screen you’re never quite sure what to make of her and in turn of Ben Gazzara as her husband. As a pair it’s obvious they’ve got some serious issues going on but beyond that, you’re never positive as to what the truth is and what spin from Stewart to get his client off the charges.
Clocking in at an astounding 161 minutes, I was concerned that the movie would drag in parts but as the plot moved along, even at a slower pace, I never looked at the clock wondering how much longer it was until the end. Instead Anatomy of a Murder breezes along, an accomplishment that’s rare today. This is a movie well worth checking if nothing more than to see a great cast and some brilliant and bewildering performances.
SPECIAL FEATURES – 4.0/5
Interviews – The disc contains interviews with Otto Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch (29:45), Otto Preminger (excerpts from a television show) (10:41), critic Gary Giddins talking about composer Duke Ellington (21:47) and writer Pat Kirkham discussing graphic designer Saul Bass (14:53). All of these are absolutely fascinating but if you can only watch one, it’d be Giddins’ as you can’t help but be pulled in talking about Preminger.
Newsreel Footage (5:02) – This is kind of cool to see this old footage of making the movie in a small town in Michigan. I look at this as the pre-cursor to Entertainment Tonight and eventually any number of web sites.
Photos by Gjon Mili – This is a gallery where you can check out images made for Anatomy of a Murder and taken from the book, “Anatomy of a Motion Picture”. The images range from costume test shots to general publicity photos.
Anatomy of “Anatomy” (30:11) – In 1997, a Marquette County, Michigan resident published her firsthand account of the impact that Otto Preminger’s film had in 1959 on the Upper Peninsula community where it was shot.
VIDEO – 4.75/5
Criterion Collection releases Anatomy of a Murder onto Blu-ray with an absolutely brilliant looking 1080p high-definition transfer. The film, presented in its original 1.85 widescreen aspect ratio, is free of the wear and tear you often see with older films (this one going on 50+ years). Although it is in black and white, the movie looks excellent with natural film grain showing through while still providing crisp and clear detail levels throughout. Once again Criterion has shown how releasing a catalogue release should be done.
AUDIO – 4.5/5
The disc comes with the original PCM 1.0 track as well as a robust 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. I only tested the film with the PCM track but even that one is decent while the DTS-HD MA one sounds great and is free of crackles and pops that make this a track which rivals most dramas released on Blu-ray today.
OVERALL – 4.25/5
Overall, Anatomy of a Murder is a very well made courtroom suspense-drama thanks in large part to a well put together selection of actors. James Stewart continued his streak of wonderful performances while the story manages to hold its own throughout the duration of the lengthy running time. The Blu-ray in the meantime has excellent video and audio transfers and the features have some informative featurettes/interviews.