Anatomy of a Murder

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The MovieAnatomy of a Murder

Where You Can Stream It: The Criterion Channel

The Pitch: A folksy former district attorney takes the case of a U.S. Army lieutenant who admits to killing a man. But was the killing justifiable?

Why It’s Essential Viewing: Twenty years after Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart took on another monologue-heavy role in Anatomy of a Murder, which he later called one of the biggest challenges of his entire career. Seeing him rise to that challenge in Otto Preminger‘s courtroom classic is super satisfying – has anyone ever not rooted for Jimmy Stewart?

If Tom Hanks is accepted as America’s dad, Stewart is probably America’s grandfather. And when grandpa steps into a courtroom, you best pay attention.

Stewart is well known for being able to deliver snappy, rapid-fire dialogue (see: The Philadelphia Story), but there’s no romantic angle or sexy charm to his role here. In Anatomy of a Murder, his words are so powerful, a man’s life depends on them. It’s a very different mode for him than his breezy rom-coms or dusty westerns, but he’s firing on all cylinders here, fiery and passionate and sly and funny. On one level, Duke Ellington‘s jazzy score serves to provide a bit of lightness to a fairly heavy story: the lieutenant’s wife was raped before the film begins, and he killed the man who did it. On another, the complexities and improvisations in jazz reflect the way the lawyers work in court – reacting on the fly to poking and prodding from the other side, building up their case piece by piece. They have a plan, but they have to be flexible enough to stay on their toes and respond accordingly to convince the jury their side is the righteous one. It all works together perfectly.

The film clocks in at just over two hours and forty minutes (which I would have called “long” before the quarantine made the idea of time essentially meaningless) and the majority of it takes place in a courtroom, but the dialogue is so well-written and fast-paced that the whole movie flies by. Stewart is top-billed and rightfully gets most of the attention for his performance, but Arthur O’Connell is a great drunken assistant for Stewart’s character, Lee Remick is solid as the lieutenant’s mysterious wife, George C. Scott rolls in as the slick prosecutor who faces off against Stewart, and a young Ben Gazzara is caught in the middle as the man accused of murder. (Gazzara would go on to play the heavy in the 1989 Patrick Swayze movie Road House.)

If the movie has a downside, it’s that it’s fairly straightforward in its plotting – don’t expect too many Witness for the Prosecution-style twists. But there’s a simple pleasure in watching top tier performers executing their craft at a high level, and the Criterion Channel also offers six additional bonus videos for you to catch up with after you’ve seen the movie itself, including one focused on Preminger and Saul Bass, one on Ellington’s music, and a thirty minute documentary about the movie’s legacy on the area where it was filmed.

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