One of the finest and purest courtroom dramas in the movies, Anatomy of a Murder shows two masters at their best: James Stewart and Duke Ellington.
In its small town setting in the 1950s, it is also a good movie to revisit for some cautionary perspective on the spirit of our much later times. It is most salient.
Ellington’s score is, of course, superb. And with his magical jazz orchestra, he sets the right moods for many and varied scenes. Director Otto Preminger tries too hard to portray Ellington as a jive-talking hipster in the one scene in which he appears, disguising Ellington as a flashy bandleader in a “juke” dive in rural Michigan. But the suspenseful and realistic thrust of the movie overcomes any momentary irritation at the thankfully dated pandaring treatment of a magnificent American composer increasingly considered in the company of Copland, Gershwin and Ives. In the scene, Ellington’s orchestra plays a beautiful and happy mid-tempo dance number which contrasts perfectly with the quiet noodling music which focuses and intensifies the frequent times in watching this movie when you find yourself musing on the timeless and self-defeating forms of human behavior.
Stewart dominates a fine cast through his economical performance as a knowing veteran actor near the end of a remarkable career. His restraint and timing seem flawless. He needs no histrionics. And he surely “realizes” his character of the wily small town lawyer, Paul Biegler, who is an expert on the aforesaid human behavior. Anatomy of a Murder dramatizes a triumph of common sense and earthiness–values then often linked with small town America–over the cosmopolitan life and the urban cultural vanguard. As such, it doesn’t typify some important tendencies of today. Here Stewart isn’t the idealist who goes to Washington; the national scene isn’t shown in Anatomy of a Murder. George C. Scott as Claude Dancer, the big-time and sophisticated lawyer from Lansing, is a telling foil for Biegler and plays his part wonderfully: Dancer is the Outside World tripping into Our Town. The presiding judge is played by Joseph N. Welch, the judge who excoriated Joseph McCarthy in the Army-McCarthy hearings, and is an inspired casting. In the moment, Welch is someone to remember.
Preminger artfully and beautifully brings over small town culture throughout the movie.
With Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Eve Arden and Arthur O’Connell.
Much worth another look.