Fred and Yasser’s Film Club: Week Twenty, Part Two: ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ (1959)

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The Premise
Film fanatics and friends
 Fred Sullivan and Yasser Akram are on a mission to watch 25 of one another’s favourite movies. Each week they will watch one movie each and then get together to discuss what they have seen. It’s been a few weeks since they last got together, but now they are back and ready to discuss, dispute, disagree, and disappoint each other.

Fred’s choice at number six is a classic courtroom drama starring screen legends James Stewart and George C. Scott, and directed by the great Otto Preminger.

You can read the entries from previous week by checking out the archives on the left of the screen.

To have a look at what Fred has picked so far, click here.

Likewise, for Yasser’s choices, click here.
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Fred: The second courtroom drama on my list, and in at number six, is ‘Anatomy of a Murder‘. Did you enjoy it and was it better than ‘Inherit the Wind‘?

Yasser: Yes. It was interesting. I liked it much more. It has James Stewart in it and as the main star he has a lot of screen time

FS: Yeah, he’s virtually ever-present on-screen. You like James Stewart then?

YA: Immensely

FS: I know you’ve seen some of his sentimental movies like ‘Harvey‘ and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life‘, but have you seen him in this sort of straight, adult role before?

YA: One of my favourite Hitchcock’s, man, – ‘Vertigo

FS: Of course! Do you prefer him in serious roles, or do you think he’s an actor who can play anything?

YA: I’m pretty impressed by James Stewart. He’s one of those serious actors who can play anything. I mean, if you compare him to actors these days that are known for brilliant serious acting, it’s never the same when they go into comedy

‘Anatomy of a Murder’
1959 – USA
Director: Otto Preminger
Starring: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, George C. Scott

FS: What did you think of the film itself?

YA: It’s longer than most of your choices, clocking in at over two-and-a-half hours, and the good news is I wasn’t clock-watching. I liked it

FS: Good! What in particular did you like?

YA: James Stewart (laughs)

FS: Okay. Let’s talk some more about him. He plays Paul Biegler, a former DA who now works as a self-employed lawyer. When we first encounter him, he seems more interested in fishing than practicing law

YA: He seems to have lost the love for it, but he likes helping those who can’t really afford to pay him. He’s turned noble, in a way

FS: Yes. We see that also through his continued employment of Parnell (Arthur O’Connell) who is a drunk that has lost his career because of his addiction

YA: I quite liked O’Connell. For a small role, he was good

FS: These two lawyers, who for different reasons have lost their drive, are offered a case defending an army officer (Ben Gazzara) who has shot a man who allegedly raped his wife (Lee Remick). What did you make of them?

YA: I’m familiar with Lee Remick from ‘The Omen‘, but she’s playing a different role here of a very provocative young lady. She knows she’s a tease and thrives on a man’s attention. She is what my brother would call a ‘sket’

FS: I’m not familiar with that term. Was she convincing?

YA: Very. She has a very confident sassiness to her

FS: I think she is a criminally underrated, almost forgotten actress. Her scenes opposite Stewart are some of the highlights of the film. He doesn’t know how to take her

YA: Very awkwardly at times, but he knows she’s the type to use her womanly ways to get what she wants

YA: Fred, this is the type of female role I like. Not once does she play the victim, unless it’s to her advantage. This is how a female lead should be done

FS: I thought you’d like her

YA: (laughs)

FS: What about Gazzara?

YA: He was the one I was on the fence about

FS: Yep! Agreed. I think he’s the weakest of the main players

YA: Sometimes I think he gritted his teeth and clenched his jaw because he didn’t know what else to do with his face

FS: Method acting at its worst. There are moments when I find him very unrealistic

YA: There are other ways to make yourself seem tense

FS: His scenes in the jail-cell are good, but when Stewart is questioning him on the stand I think he struggles

YA: There’s almost a blank expression from his eyes and, to me, that is the reason he’s not believable

FS: What did you think of the story?

YA: I liked it. It’s a serious courtroom drama, like ‘12 Angry Men‘ or ‘Kramer vs. Kramer‘. There wasn’t laughing, joking or mockery like in ‘Inherit the Wind’

FS: It was just played straight

YA: I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a trial, but I have and it is boring. Now, I’m not saying the court scenes were boring, but they were serious

FS: Yes. The humourous moments were realistic – just little comments that people would make in their everyday life. The ‘one-upmanship’ between Stewart and George C. Scott is a good example. Scott played the prosecutor Claude Dancer. What did you think of him?

YA: I liked how he Dancer respected Biegler. He knew what he was up against

FS: That’s interesting. I feel he CAME to respect Biegler as time went on, but I didn’t think he thought much of him to begin with. He was quite arrogant

YA: In a way, yes, but he had to assert himself in front of Biegler instead of brown-nosing him

FS: Scott appears for the first time about halfway through and nearly steals the film. I think he was excellent

YA: You know, I’d almost forgotten him until you mentioned him, but that doesn’t mean I disliked him

FS: (laughs)

YA: It is a good courtroom drama, but it’s not one of my favourites. there weren’t many scenes of emotion that shook your humanity. It’s not like ‘To Kill a Mockingbird‘ or ‘A Time to Kill

FS: ‘A Time to Kill’? Please!

YA: Hey man! Don’t hate

FS: It’s good, but it’s not in ’12 Angry Men’ or ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’s league. Anyway, ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ is a very different film. One of the great things about it is you are never sure what the truth is, whereas ‘A Time to Kill’ is cut and dried

YA: True

FS: The film was pretty controversial when it was released. Rape, sperm and pink panties all get discussed. Were you surprised at some of that?

YA: Well, at the time I can imagine it being controversial. In the late-50s rape was probably inconceivable as a topic for a mainstream movie

FS: It doesn’t feel shocking to a modern audience, but nor does it feel like they held back

YA: Nothing is explicit, but I think it is important that things like that are discussed in movies because they can happen

YA: I have a question. Why does it make your top six?

FS: The talent involved in every aspect of the film is absolutely top-notch. We have spoken about the main actors, and Stewart, Scott and Remick are excellent. O’Connell, Eve Arden and Kathryn Grant also give very good supporting performances. Even Gazzara, for all his method intensity, has some very good moments

YA: Okay

FS: At the helm, we have one of my favourite directors, Otto Preminger. He was, by all accounts, an absolute bastard, but he made his name in America making great film noir. He then began to make films about social issues, such as this and ‘Advise and Consent‘ where he assembled excellent ensemble casts to tell a compelling story

YA: Prior to this I can’t say I knew his work, but what makes him stand out?

FS: I think it’s the way he tells a story and how he presents a character. Like Christopher Nolan, he doesn’t allow bad actors to appear in his films. With good actors you feel a connection to the characters straight away

YA: Nice name drop

FS: The film is long, but every scene is integral to the telling of the story. I think some directors make very tight films because they don’t stand for any shit. Chaplin, Lang and Welles are other examples. This story grabs me from the beginning and the ‘did he or didn’t he‘ question around the rape marks it out from other courtroom dramas where you have a clearly defined hero to root for

YA: Anything else?

FS: Finally, there is the contribution of two legends – Saul Bass and Duke Ellington. Saul Bass’ iconic titles are wonderful and match the brilliant jazz soundtrack perfectly

YA: Finally a soundtrack to talk about in one of your choices!

FS: I adore Duke Ellington

YA: I like jazz. It’s soothing

FS: It’s like classical music in that it has the power to soothe or excite

FS: I think I have to ask you what let the film down?

YA: I didn’t like the ending. It made sense and everything, but it was abrupt

FS: I think I know what you mean. That’s a shame

YA: I was hoping for a longer ending after the court stuff finished, or a more comprehensive conclusion of the trial

FS: Do you need stories to have a clearly defined conclusion?

YA: No. ‘Inception‘ is a case in point

FS: What about storied based in reality?

YA: I’d have liked it in this instance

FS: Okay. What else was poor?

YA: I really didn’t like Ben Gazzara, but, other than those two points, the film was pretty awesome

FS: Well that is good

YA: Before I summarise and rate it, tell me why you come back to this again and again

FS: Aside from what I said before, it’s the realistic, but fascinating courtroom battle between Scott and Stewart. It’s human drama. It’s not black or white, good versus evil. I like watching all the bits of the story slot together. Stewart’s performance was Oscar-worthy

YA: Okay. Well if there is nothing else…

FS: Go for it

YA: ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ is a courtroom drama that, at the time, was controversial and I found it realistic and gritty at times. James Stewart, the main male lead, is good at playing pretty much anything and he doesn’t disappoint here. He’s equally met by Lee Remick, who really drives this story with the mystique she brings to her role. Both of their performances help engross the audience from the beginning. I was disappointed with the abrupt ending. The story of the Manions (Gazzara and Remick) wasn’t concluded in a way that felt ‘full circle’, but the mystery at the end runs parallel to Remick’s performance. In fact, reflecting back, she is probably the best thing about the film. She goes from strength to strength conveying multiple part of her character’s personality

FS: Excellent. I’m pleased with that

YA: It’s really unfortunate that her husband was played by the lacklustre Ben Gazzara who can act only when he’s moving. He thinks he can go through the film looking like he’s chewing a piece of MDF. All in all the movie works well, though. the story slots together like a perfect game of ‘Tetris’ with good direction and a top score. It’s quite easy to understand why you love this picture. It’s not perfect and left me wanting more in a sad way. I have to give it 8/10, but it was close to a nine

FS: Ooooo! Fair enough. I was expecting worse so I’m pleased with that

Next time: We are into the top 5s with two 1970s classics, ‘The Godfather’ and ‘All the President’s Men’

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4 thoughts on “Fred and Yasser’s Film Club: Week Twenty, Part Two: ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ (1959)

    […] Anatomy of a Murder […]

    […] I love the cast. Like ‘Anatomy of a Murder‘, this film contains several excellent performances. I’d say that all six of the main […]

    […] That is a victory in itself. You spoke about how highly you rated him when we discussed ‘Anatomy of a Murder‘. What is it that makes him so […]

    […] When we watched ‘Anatomy of a Murder‘ the ensemble cast didn’t really ‘wow’ you, but James Stewart did. I get […]

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