Otto Preminger is in the midst of reappraisal. Foster Hirsch just published a new bio about the bald and fulminating showman (here's my review), the New Yorker's David Denby recently discussed the director/producer on the occasion of Hirsch's book and Chris Fujiwara's more analytical book The World and its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, and there was also a retrospective of Preminger at NYC's Film Forum. There are times when it seems like there's very few big rediscoveries to make in Hollywood cinema. The longing that maybe there's someone out there who has been overlooked strengthens the idea that Preminger needs new viewers and new understanding. Skidoo, for instance, which I'll be writing about shortly, is an astonishingly strange film, strange in that mind-roasting way that makes it really distinguished. Preminger's less-seen films deserve a revival, but his best work hardly needs a defense. The 1959 Anatomy of a Murder is a juicy, involving court-room drama with a splendid Duke Ellington soundtrack. It's about the wolf-like ardor for the law, a legal duel over a pair of wasted lives, held in a small town that sits right on the line between "picturesque" and "squalid."
Preminger takes us to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The leaves on the local trees are gone, and the unnameable horror of a Michigan winter isn't too far away. The main character, an oddball called Biegler (Jimmy Stewart) is a slightly bohemian ex-district attorney; he's fond of fishing, inexpensive bourbon, those black, crooked Italian cheroots, and jazz. His nearly non-existent law practice is suddenly energized by a phone call; he's rung up by a lady whose husband has just been arrested for emptying his Luger into a local bartender, Barney Quill. The accused -- a surly, dead-behind-the-eyes Lieutenant Manion, played by Ben Gazzara -- isn't exactly remorseful. He believes the Unwritten Law will get him off: Quill had beaten and raped Manion's wife.
"You can call me Laura." The name is a charged one in Preminger's work, and Lee Remick's Laura Manion is apparently as lethal as the Laura Gene Tierney played in that earlier Preminger film. Remick, a solid actress who died young, is these days remembered as the mom in the original version of The Omen. However, there was a short period right before 1960 when Remick used to play The Woman Most Likely to Spontaneously Combust. "Everybody in this movie needs a cold shower," said Pauline Kael on Remick's debut film A Face in the Crowd, and the first one in the bathroom should have been Remick, whose baton-twirling routine was as bad for the male heart as a triple bacon cheeseburger. Here, Remick's Laura wears skin-tight pants suits, carries around a frowzy lapdog, and lives in a trailer park. And even if Stewart is aware of Laura's lethal hotness (she tries to sit in his lap while he's standing up, in Philip Marlowe's phrase) he's able to hold her off. Biegler rounds up a dream-team of his alcoholic best friend Parnell (Arthur O'Connell) and his hard-working secretary (Eve Arden). And he has to move fast, since down in the state capital in Lansing, they've decided to send up a shark-like prosecutor (George C. Scott, at his most mandarin) to nail up the case.
"Anatomy was all location," Hirsch quotes Preminger's assistant Rita Moriarty; it's an indelible movie about the stillness of a town where the only recreation is drinking or hitting the roadhouses. Before the picture builds to its climax in the real-life courthouse in Marquette, the characters move through their smaller-than-life backdrops. They're framed by smudged walls, or they wait in a police station where the eye-charts for the driver's license tests hang on the walls. They lunch at an outdoor stand, and iron-ore barges are loaded behind them as they dine. But Preminger stages this film as a story of a pre-World War 2 man dealing with post-World War 2 people. Though Biegler isn't a moralizer, he has trouble understanding the violently passionate, transient, roughhousing marriage of the Manions.
And the scenes of Stewart with Gazzara are as good a conflict of two separate schools of acting as the 1950s film offers. Gazzara is legato, slow with his meanings, given to outbursts; Stewart is more staccato, clipped when he wasn't drawling. Stewart's drawl was a trick, and in his best movies he let the audience in on it. The most quotable line in Anatomy of a Murder is Biegler's famous protest to the judge: "I'm just a humble country lawyer..." (as the fox said to the hens). Gazzara, though, was a New York method actor searching out the deeper sense of the part, and he was thwarted in the search: "[Preminger] did not know how to talk to an actor in the actor's own language..." Gazzara told biographer Hirsch. Accident or not, the confusion Gazzara brings to the part of this murderer ads to the divine moral ambiguity of this courtroom drama.
In my review of Hirsch's book, I quoted Keir Dullea's comment that "no one ever gave the performance of their life in a Preminger film." Truth is, Eve Arden pretty much does just that, as the wise-cracking lady of a certain age; maybe it's the lightless, almost austere backdrops, but Arden is less arch here than she ever was in her many appealing comic roles. American hero Joseph Welch, famed as the lawyer who stopped Senator Joseph McCarthy in his tracks (here's the clip), plays the judge in the case. Welch gives a little speech about the duties of a judge that has the charm of an amateur Shakespearean reading a favorite passage. Like Gazzara and Stewart, Welch has a music of his own.
This Detroit News article by Vivian Bolsch discusses John D. Voelker, the fondly-remembered Michigan Supreme Court justice who wrote the novel Anatomy of a Murder under the pseudonym Robert Traver, along with some books on trout fishing. Preminger -- a doctor of law from the University of Vienna -- should be remembered for the bravery of getting explicit details of a rape-murder case out for the first time in a Hollywood movie. Excessive and tone-deaf as Preminger could be, he helped shove the American cinema into the 1960s. Some conservatives denounce moral relativism as a force that's making our nation weak. As an unusually mature, entertaining and well-informed drama about the law - -the "naturally impure" law, as O'Connell's Parnell calls it -- Anatomy of a Murder reminds us that the courtroom must always be a place of moral relativity. Just like our theaters, come to think of it.