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Name: Dan Sallitt
Location: New York, New York, United States

Monday, January 7, 2008

Anatomy of a Murder

Anatomy of a Murder is generally considered one of Preminger's best films (I'd rank it behind only Daisy Kenyon, myself), and yet a fair number of Preminger fans don't value it highly. After seeing the film again on Friday night at Film Forum, I think I understand why the film might throw a curve to auteurist viewers.

Preminger is often at his best with melodrama. The upheavals of big dramatic stories give Preminger an opportunity to create a style that works in counterpoint to the upheavals. Often Preminger maintains the same shot or the same mood across a major dramatic change that would cue a matching style change - cutting, or music, or variation of shot size - for most directors. (Those who saw Angel Face at Film Forum yesterday will remember one of the strongest examples of this Premingerian principle: the film contains two shocking transitions from everyday life to horror, both occurring within a single stationary medium shot with no style cues.)

There's a melodrama within Anatomy, but it's contained within a box: it belongs entirely to the characters involved in a court case, and is never shown directly. The foreground of the film is held by the lawyers working on the case, and they have only a modest emotional investment in the life-and-death issues showcased in the trial.

The usual way to make a courtroom movie is to make the audience invest in the events of the trial, and to pin the drama to the outcome of the case. There are potential problems with this format: one is that the outcome always depends on the arbitrary decision of a jury, which is like resolving a drama by throwing dice. Another is the tendency for a courtroom drama to turn into a whodunit, with the audience's interest directed toward plot surprises that connect only vaguely to theme, character, etc.

Preminger's way of approaching the courtroom drama is, as far as my memory of film history extends, unique. The lives of the characters involved in the trial are held at a distance: we don't necessarily even like them, and the law team doesn't get overly exercised about their fate. As a result, the tone of the film is kept light throughout: Duke Ellington's jazz score is used to give the storytelling a jaunty, relaxed quality, and the bad luck that befalls the law team in the last shot of the film doesn't even dent their good moods. The only real character/theme issue in the foreground of the film, the regeneration of the alcoholic character played by Arthur O'Connell, is given a very modest weight: no suspense is generated on the behalf of this story thread. The hero, played by Jimmy Stewart, has little at stake in the movie: his law career is somewhat revived, but he didn't seem to need the revival much; he is physically attracted to his client's wife, but the attraction is passing. There is a sense in which Anatomy can be regarded as a comedy, as a film intentionally working in a lighter emotional range, something like Hitchcock's North by Northwest.

Maybe all courtroom dramas should really be comedies. Emotional distance is built into the format. What makes Anatomy such a good film is that Preminger and the excellent screenwriter Wendell Mayes intuited what a courtroom film might really be about, on a moment-by-moment level: performance, self-presentation. And it is in the realm of performance that the film becomes Premingerian: the lawyers' transitions from sincere expression to fraudulent manipulation are not signposted in the usual ways, but occur smoothly, sometimes imperceptibly, within the continuity of the courtroom procedure. Once we look past the surface drama of whether the hero's client will be acquitted or not, we penetrate to the real substance of the film, the rather droll business of watching nice people do some fancy playacting to move the legal machinery to the advantage of their totally guilty and unsympathetic client. Preminger and Mayes are not so much cynical as philosophically detached: they do not indict the system that gives a murderer the chance to manipulate it to go free, and they do not pull our sympathy away from the lawyers whose job is to wheedle and con a favorable verdict out of a jury. The filmmakers are fascinated and somewhat amused that nice people like Stewart and O'Connell have to act so dishonest in the execution of a perfectly respectable job; and there is no indication that their admiration for the American legal system is damaged.

Anatomy is yet another demonstration that the standard auteurist line about Preminger's objectivity, his refusal to take sides, needs to be qualified. In general, Preminger guides our sympathies quite clearly, pro and con, throughout the film. There is no point at which we lose our emotional connection with Stewart's mission, and no point at which our sympathies are enlisted on behalf of the unpleasant client Gazzara, or even the chilly prosecutor played by George C. Scott. What's distinctive about Preminger is not that he doesn't ask us to take sides - he does, quite clearly - and not even that he shows the unappealing side of appealing people and causes. It's that he doesn't bother altering the form of the film when the moral/dramatic pendulum swings.

Is anyone out there familiar with the novel by Robert Traver on which the movie is based? I'd like to know where some of that great dialogue comes from - especially the hilarious deadpan humor of the trial judge, played by Joseph N. Welch. ("I've always heard this Upper Pennisula of our fair state was a queer place. If it's customary here to allow a man charged with first degree murder to wander about at will, I don't suppose it behooves an outsider to point out that the law makes no provision for such quaint liberalism.")



Blogger David said...

Watching this again a few days ago, it occurred to me that it might be my favorite film of all time; and you definitely point toward a lot of reasons why. Preminger's great at melodramas, as you say, because he puts them in relief: for me, it's not even so much that he maintains a single tone, as that he lets so many different tones coexist and interact. Both jazz and comedy seem ideally suited for him--means of taking simple themes and riffing on them playfully, and in the case of jazz, always remaining prickly irresolute and spontaneous, open to changes (prime Preminger staples, though you would certainly know better than I). Preminger's objectivity is only that of putting all the standard elements into relief so that we can evaluate them, and in his best movies (this, Daisy Kenyon, and out of the blue this afternoon, The Moon Is Blue) so that the characters can as well. But as Anatomy well proves in all its fluid shifts in character, though everyone needs to be evaluated, there are few Preminger characters, including George C. Scott's, who are quite the one-dimensional stereotypes they usually present themselves as or try to be. This is especially true, I think, for all his tough-talking macho noir heroes who turn out to have flimsy volitions and to be pawns in the hands of Preminger's mad women.

I'm still navigating my way through the complexities of his films. Thanks for the post.

January 7, 2008 11:42 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Hi, David. The Moon Is Blue, eh? That's an unusual pick. I just saw the German version recently: Preminger dovetailed the two versions so that the protagonists of each one bump into the protagonists of the other on the Empire State Building observation deck.

I didn't mean to imply that Preminger levels the tone of entire films. (Though I do think he has a slight tendency in that direction.) I think that his trick is to keep style elements constant at key moments, moments where a break in the narrative seems to require a style discontinuity.

January 8, 2008 1:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Dan, thanks for hipping me to this blog. As I told you last night at Premingerfest, I have read the book ANATOMY is based on and there is a lot of sense of PLACE, I'm pretty sure that line about the liberalism is lifted straight from the book. This is the movie that Gore Vidal said something like you make good movies out of bad books, but I think ole Gore was being a bit harsh. The book had a good feel, a bit of the shaggy dog to it, and a romantic plotline about the dead man's secret daughter and the lawyer... not in the film at all! That would've detracted from the Lee Remich/Jimmy Stewart attraction, I suppose. Or the Eve Arden Gal FRiday with a torch feel.

Liz French

January 8, 2008 3:37 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Thanks for posting, Liz. I'm glad that Preminger and Mayes didn't opt for a Jimmy Stewart-Kathryn Grant romance - I suspect they wanted to keep their hero relatively detached and bemused, not too mired in plot urgency. Even the Stewart-Remick sparks fail to ignite, which I think also fits the tone of the film.

I must say that Kathryn Grant's performance is way too pert and cheery for my taste. Preminger is usually really sharp at keeping his actors in an appropriate emotional register.

January 9, 2008 11:31 AM  

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