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DVD Review: ANATOMY OF A MURDER [The Criterion Collection]

Joshua Brunsting

by:
February 29th, 2012

Throughout the history of film, there have been great filmmakers, and then there are the icons.  Spielberg. Godard. Truffaut. Renoir. Kubrick. Kurosawa. Bergman.  Just a few of the names that come to mind when thinking of the greatest filmmakers ever to walk the planet Earth. However, one name that is far less discussed is that of Otto Preminger.

Best known for his ability to span genre and story, Preminger has, within his filmography, classic pieces of cinema ranging from film noir, taboo busting comedy, musicals, or in the case of the newly Criterion Collection minted ANATOMY OF A MURDER, court room drama.

One of the best, if not the very best courtroom drama ever caught on celluloid, MURDER follows the story of a small town lawyer from Michigan (Mighty Mitten represent), who comes to the aid of a young army lieutenant who is accused of murdering a man who his wife revealed raped and beat her. With a cast including James Stewart, the late Ben Gazzara, the magnetic and sultry Lee Remick, and even a young George C. Scott, along with a score from iconic jazz maestro Duke Ellington, MURDER is one of Preminger’s most beloved masterpieces - and it may be the biggest addition to The Criterion Collection in quite some time.

Cinematically, Preminger is rarely better than he is within this film.  A perfect example of everything the director stood for conceptually and stylistically, Preminger’s camera is as lyrical and naturalistic as you’ll find within his canon, particularly in the sequences leading up to and outside of the meetings held within the courtroom.  Featuring a series of long, drawn out takes shot entirely on location, the film has a singular sense of realism, capturing something that feels wholly visceral given the often stilted sense of style that crops up in normal, run of the mill courtroom dramas.

However, all these years later, it's still difficult to figure out just what touches make a Preminger work, well, a Preminger work.  A filmmaker who thrived on pushing taboos, Preminger is also one who not only jumped from genre to genre, but spent much of his time outside of the studio system, making the films he found fitting of his skills.  Be it the brilliant LAURA or the entertaining and envelope busting THE MOON IS BLUE, the destroying of taboos is not the only thing Preminger loved to do with his films.

Proved here in ANATOMY, Preminger, a stickler for a good censorship battle, loved language.  Be it his kinetic, almost screwball script used for MOON or the percussively comedic gem of a screenplay he found himself directing here, language and the use of language was always a trope that Preminger seemed hell bent on exploring.  And rarely did he do it better, if ever, than within the walls of this film.  Clocking it at 160 minutes, the film feels at least half of that, and it’s not only due to Preminger’s great pacing, but his ability to use language as just one more character within the structure of the film.

It helps when your cast is as good as this one is, too.

Stewart leads this film, and has rarely been better.  Arguably the actors most interesting performance, this is far and away this writer’s favorite Stewart turn, as he imbues this character with a sense of both humanity while also making the character seem two steps ahead of each other person within the film, and even more so the audience.  Gazzara is fantastic here as the soldier on trial, and his wife played by Remick is equally as great.  The two’s chemistry is fiery, and both add a great sense of depth to the film.  Toss in a young and intense George C. Scott (and a young and intense George C. Scott’s jawline), and you have one of the most visually appealing casts around giving some of the most entertaining performances of their brilliant careers in one of the greatest films from one of cinema’s great directors.

All featuring one of film’s greatest scores.  Composed by Duke Ellington, the film’s score is a love letter to jazz, and a time capsule from a  period where original, big band scores were not only used, but in the case of ANATOMY, used in a type of film that hadn’t seen anything of the sort before.  Often used for simply film noir, the Ellington score is not only the film’s most impressive attribute, but it’s also one of its most timeless.  Unlike anything you’ll hear from films before and after its release, ANATOMY is a one of a kind film from a one of a kind filmmaker, featuring arguably one of the most original pieces of composed music ever partnered with a piece of film.

It also hasn’t looked this good in ages.

Thanks to Criterion, the film not only comes with a glorious new digital restoration and a soundtrack upgrade that gives the Ellington score a whole new life, but also a cavalcade of supplements. There is an interview with Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch that gives a great look into the work of Preminger, despite being a bit too brief.  Pair that with an episode of Firing Line featuring Preminger, set newsreel footage, a look into the work of Preminger and his right hand creative man Saul Bass and you have a truly deep look into what made Preminger tick. There is also a series of photos from the set, an interview with Gary Giddins looking at the Ellington score, and a great booklet with a fantastic piece from Nick Pinkerton. There's also a reprint of a Life interview with lawyer Joseph Welch, who plays the judge in the film. Simply put, for spine number 600, Criterion pulled out all the stops.  This is one of the first true “must own” releases of 2012.

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