The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Anatomy of a Murder

In the 1950s, actors like James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando started a trend in acting that continues even to this day; method acting. Actors tried to really get into the role, often times driving everyone around them nuts in the process. What about method directing then? I couldn't help but think of that idea while watching 1959's Anatomy of a Murder from director Otto Preminger.

A producer, director and actor at different points during his career, Preminger never shied away from telling stories without that glossy finish. His movies feel real, almost like a documentary, because they don't call attention to themselves in a highly visual way. These movies are nonetheless great to look at -- the German-born director favored black and white filming -- but as a viewer you feel like you are there with the actors in the scene. Where some directors overfilm (if that's a word/concept), Preminger puts the camera in place and lets his actors go to work. This style pays off with his depiction of a genre that's been used to death in film, the courtroom drama.

Having lost his position as the county district attorney, lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart) has settled into an easier, slower-paced lifestyle. He spends much of his time fishing, playing his piano, listening to music and reading law with his friend Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell), and then takes an occassional case here and there. But then Paul is offered a high-profile case to defend a soldier, Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who shot a man five times for raping his wife, Laura (Lee Remick). Paul isn't sure if he should take the case but after looking into it and interviewing those involved decides to defend Manion. What's waiting for him in court is Michigan's best prosecutor, a ringer brought in from Lansing, Claude Dancer (George C. Scott).

Having grown up watching countless repeats of Law & Order, Boston Legal, and any number of courtroom movies like 12 Angry Men, I won't say I'm jaded when it comes to that type of story, but I feel like I've seen just about everything the genre has. That doesn't mean I don't seek these movies out, it just takes a little more to impress me. Preminger succeeds on that level with his sometimes leisurely -- slow-paced isn't the right choice of description -- courtroom story that runs 160 minutes. Even at over two and a half hours, it doesn't feel long. The first hour is Biegler's personal investigation as he figures out exactly what happened in the murder. The last 90-100 minutes is the actual trial, and it's one of the best presentations of a courtroom trial I've ever seen, thanks to Stewart and Scott bantering back and forth.

What's interesting in the execution of the trial is the feel of a twist coming, the expectation that we're about to be wowed with some huge revelation. It never comes. There is no twist. Preminger doles out the story, the situation and the characters and lets the story peel like an onion. The jury's verdict is read, and that's it. So in a way, it is a twist. The story is as linear as a story like this could be. Biegler is the viewer because he knows what we know. Was Laura Manion raped, or was she having an affair that went to far? Did Lt. Manion go temporarily insane when he shot the accused rapist? Preminger doesn't give you an easy out, no nice and tidy explanation. And that's why Anatomy of a Murder works.

Working with many of Hollywood's biggest stars, Preminger had a reputation as a stickler for details, but he was always able to get an impressive performance out of his actors. I can't decide about Jimmy Stewart because I say this with every movie I see with him in it, but this is one of his finest performances. With the Manion case, he's up against the wall and must use every trick in the book to get his client acquitted. It's one of those performances where you can't take your eyes off the star, it's that captivating to watch him work. Stewart worked with all the greats in his career, Preminger, Ford, Hitchcock, Capra, and it's easy to see why. He never mails it in, always making his performances special.

To work with Stewart, Preminger assembles an impressive listing for his supporting cast. Gazzara is his typical sneering, intimidating self as Manion, and Remick sexes it up as his possibly trampy wife Laura. Neither character is particularly likable, and we're never sure who's telling the truth so Stewart's Biegler has his work laid out for him if he wants to win the case and get Manion off. This isn't Scott's best part, mostly because it is a one-note part, but he makes the most of it. O'Connell is the stereotypical country drunk who never really lived up to his own expectations but gets a 2nd chance at success with Biegler. Eve Arden has a funny part as Paul's long suffering secretary looking for a paycheck, and Kathryn Grant plays Mary Pilant, the estranged daughter of the murder victim.

Certainly a unique look at a genre that's been overdone at times. Somewhat risque for the time in its depiction of a rape and the rape victim, Preminger has a winner with this courtroom drama. Not a perfect movie, but pretty close to being one. Enjoy the very cheesey, very enjoyable overdone trailer.

Anatomy of a Murder <----trailer (1959): *** 1/2 /****

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