Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

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By Scott Ross

Otto Preminger’s legal drama, from a fine, meticulous screenplay by Wendell Mayes (far more interesting and ambiguous than the Robert Traver novel on which it was based) broke a lot of taboos in its day. For the first time in an American movie, audiences heard words like “panties” and “spermatogenesis” — spoken by Jimmy Stewart, for god’s sake! But that’s not the reason to watch, and savor, this brilliant, understated look at the underbelly of American jurisprudence.

Stewart’s “simple country lawyer” routine masks the nearly unflappable tenacity of a man who will do almost anything to win, yet never seems to be doing anything at all. Preminger and Mayes deliberately leave the movie’s ambiguous moral conundrums unresolved, which is what lingers in your mind long after the final credits have spun.

With a superlative supporting cast including Lee Remick, Ben Gazarra, Arthur O’Connell, George C. Scott, Kathryn Grant, Murray Hamilton, John Qualen, Eve Arden, and, as the presiding magistrate, Joseph N. Walsh, the lawyer who used his own faux-naif shtick to help bring down Joseph McCarthy. Duke Ellington contributed a rare—and brilliant—score; the final, terrifying notes are as ambiguous as the finale itself. (He also appears on-screen, as the piano-player Pie-Eye.)

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

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