Anatomy Of A Murder (The Criterion Collection) Review

The sexual revolution was a funny thing; though easier to define it by natural endpoints (say, the Kinsey report to AIDS) and big seismic symbols (the pill), it’s the little things that really shifted the Earth under everyone’s feet. Anatomy of a Murder is hardly more graphic than an episode of Sesame Street, but there’s something notable about being the first major release to ever say the word ‘panties’ let alone having it come out of the mouth of George Bailey himself. The film itself may be a mere ripple in the gradual tide that overturned the Hayes code, but it represents the possibility of what could be achieved by such a reversal of values as well as any film of the period.

Just as major world figures openly attending Deep Throat (Jackie Onassis among them) redefined the boundaries of acceptable conversation, the appearance of Jimmy Stewart in a film whose major inciting incident is a rape surely represented a fissure of its own. Though the worlds of entertainment and political institutions aren’t generally supposed to converge, their power players operate by remarkably similar rules, and act as similar road markers of just what people are willing to accept. If anything, film is even more telling because it acts as a referendum of public tastes every weekend, whereas you have to wait four years to elect a president. Stewart, however, was one of those stars who didn’t merely understand his audience but was held in such an esteem that he helped chart its course, and if he gave the go-ahead, millions of ticket buyers were likely to follow in his path.

Anatomy is fairly straight-forward: Stewart defends a young man (Ben Gazzara) clearly guilty of murdering his wife’s (Lee Remick) rapist, and in doing so, spars energetically with a wily prosecutor (a very young George C. Scott). While the cast alone would ensure some degree of watchability, the real factor behind Anatomy’s success is its plain-spokenness, its patience, and its attention-to-detail; it’s possible that no bureaucratic proceeding has ever received the thoughtful cinematic documentation that this trial receives. The excellent screenplay (by Wendell Mayes) appears to dramatize nothing (or at least very little), while drawing out its running time long enough to make every reaction and plot directive feel believable.

Fourteen years before, Mom and Dad became one of the most successful films of the 1940s. Though largely an educational film about pregnancy and venereal disease, it was marketed almost as a sideshow attraction, with live presenters introducing and commenting on the film. By contrast, Anatomy is nearly clinical in its discussion of sexuality, not merely using the word ‘panties’, but using it repeatedly to bring the details of a crime into stark clarity. And not merely in the past tense: the attraction between Remick and nearly all around her (but particularly Stewart) is not hidden in coy, coded language, but stated explicitly, and dealt with maturely. Were this something that the hysterical sexuality of modern cinema were capable of, Anatomy might seem pretty square, but it modulates discussion at such a clear, frank level that it’s likely that this film could make people uncomfortable in perpetuity.

Which is the way that it should be. Modern audiences are prepared for both timidity and juvenile irreverence, but they’re rarely ready for the gritty details: the angle, the timing, the passion reduced to a mere set of chemical processes. It’s hard enough with murder, but sex can still hardly be talked about without being couched in immaturity. We may never be able to calculate the exact tremors that resulted when Mr. Smith did exactly that, but it’s safe to say that his doing so (with all the gravitas and authority that one would expect of him as an actor) threw down the gauntlet for anyone bold enough to follow. In the fifty years since, it’s remarkable how few have been able to.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

As usual, Criterion delivers the payload. There's an interview with Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch, an exploration of Duke Ellington's score by critic Gary Giddins, yet another Preminger biographer (Pat Kirkham) looking at the relationship the director had with Saul Bass, some newsreel footage from the set, an excerpt from an episode of Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr., an excerpt from Anatomy of 'Anatomy', some behind-the-scenes pictures, and a trailer. In case that's still not enough, there's an essay by Nick Pinkerton and a Life article on real-life lawyer Joseph N. Welch, who plays Judge Weaver in the film. 

"Anatomy Of A Murder (The Criterion Collection)" is on sale February 21, 2012 and is not rated. Crime, Drama. Directed by Otto Preminger. Written by Wendell Mayes. Starring Ben Gazzara, George C Scott, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick.

Anders Nelson • Associate Editor


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