Thursday, August 26, 2010

Anatomy of a Murder

TCM's Summer Under the Stars honors Lee Remick today with 24 hours of her movies. Unfortunately, The Omen was made over at Fox, so TCM apparently couldn't obtain the broadcast rights to it. Instead, we have to content ourselves with other good movies, such as Anatomy of a Murder, which airs tonight at 10:30 PM ET.

The movie has a plot that on the surface is extremely simple. Struggling small-town attorney Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is asked to defend Army Lieutenant Fred Manion (Ben Gazzara) on a charge of murder. The defense is justifiable homicide through temporary incapacity: the defendant claims his wife Laura (Lee Remick) was raped, and that he was just defending his honor against the rapist. Unfortunately, the defense isn't quite that simple. First, the defendant waited some time before killing the other man, much too long for any sort of temporary insanity plea. Second, his wife was quite the flirt, and may not have been raped after all; or, she may have been willing to go at least part of the way but balked at going all the way. Date rape, thirty years before the term became fashionable. As such, the details of the case are quite murky, and we see our lawyer hero spending quite a bit of time before we get to trial trying to untangle the whole thing. And it doesn't help that he's struggling, and really needs to win this case for the sake of his career. Biegler decides, for example, that the best way to make his defendant look sympathetic is to have the wife not look like a flirt -- even though at trial, it will require her to act quite out of character.

All this is before we get to trial, which is one of the better trials you'll see on film. That's in no small part because the movie is based on a real case, which was turned into a book by a Michigan judge (the movie is set in Michigan). When it came time to make the movie, Director Otto Preminger hired a judge to provide technical assitance with the trial scenes. It turned out, though, that Preminger didn't like the actor originally hired to play the judge, so Preminger put the real judge in to play a judge on screen, with a result that works quite well. Also at trial is George C. Scott, playing a State Attorney who is sent from downstate to the Upper Peninsula to prosecute this by now prominent case. He sees this as a chance to make his career, ethics be damned.

Authenticity is on display not only in the trial scenes. The movie is set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and was in fact filmed mostly on location, although several towns were used for filming, making the final product a composite of any town in the U.P., or more broadly, any place anywhere in small-town America. That's the sort of thing that makes Anatomy of a Murder much greater than the sum of its parts. Despite having a lot of great names in the cast, the movie is really more about the story and the themes presented than the actors presenting that story. And together, they make for quite a good film.

One more note involves the score, which uses jazz music, possibly to juxtapose the jarring nature of the crimes committed with what is stereotypically placid small-town America. The music is courtesy of Duke Ellington, who actually shows up performing some of the music, although not under his own name. The movie has also made its way to DVD, so even though tonight's TCM showing will end around 1:20 AM ET, you don't have to stay up that late to see it.

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