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Review: 'Anatomy of a Murder'

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Theatrical release poster by Saul Bass

Those who think the 21st century owns the rights to the tawdry, the seedy, and the salacious ought to give Anatomy of a Murder a spin. Sex and violence have been around since the beginning of the human race, and will likely remain a fixture on this planet until the end of time. As it was even on Earth, circa 1959, during those bucolic days when we gathered around the television to watch "Leave It to Beaver" and "I Love Lucy."

Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder gives us a look into this other side of the aforementioned Earth, the darker, dirtier side of America in the 1950s. James Stewart (in an Oscar-nominated performance) is Paul Biegler, a small town, small-time lawyer who used to be prosecutor for the district attorney's office. He hasn't had a real case in quite a while, and spends most of his time fishing instead of litigating. When Army lieutenant Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) is accused of fatally shooting the man who raped his wife (Lee Remick), Biegler is pressed into service to defend the lieutenant.

The trouble is, Manion all but admits that the killing of the rapist of his wife was premeditated, and a witness to the shooting concurs. Adding insult to injury, the good lieutenant is a walking ball of violence, anger and jealousy, and Mrs. Manion is a bit...loose, morally, was quite intoxicated at the time, and willingly went for a ride with her soon-to-be attacker. Was she actually raped, or was it consensual? Was she afraid of her husband, so she concocted the rape story to save herself?

As Paul Biegler sees it, the only reasonable defense for Lt. Manion is temporary insanity. But could he get the jury of this small town to buy it, with the study of psychology and the intricacies of the human mind still in its infancy? With Mrs. Manion running around in painted-on pants and tight sweaters, still boozing it up and dancing with men that weren't her husband?

Director Preminger had a thing for taking on subjects that were taboo in American society. He explored drug addiction in The Man With the Golden Arm and homosexuality in Advise and Consent. Here, he tackles sexual assault, and does so with a bravado that landed him into trouble with the Hayes Office, the motion picture industry's watchdog for "moral decency." The script is peppered with terms which the censors found objectionable: "rape," "sperm," "sexual climax," "penetration," and, repeatedly, "panties." While Preminger made one concession in substituting "violation" for "penetration," the film was ultimately released intact and certified by the Hayes Office. But Anatomy of a Murder marked the beginning of the end of The Code and its censorship of Hollywood.

Anatomy is a very good film, made better by the performances of Stewart and the supporting cast, its frank yet often humor-filled dialogue, and a Grammy-winning score by Duke Ellington that exudes pure sex in a way that enhances the picture and tells a different story than what's on the screen--the story of Laura Manion, femme fatale, and the end of America's proclaimed sexual innocence. Otto Preminger made better films (Laura, Advise and Consent), but for what it is--a courtroom drama and envelope-pusher--Anatomy of a Murder succeeds. And if it ended the Hayes occupation of free speech and Hollywood, it's a good thing. (A-)

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