#340. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

The copy of Anatomy of a Murder that I got from the library was old and had the awkward packaging of early-generation DVDs of classic movies, with cover art forged out of colorized movie stills; this one also featured, next to Jimmy Stewart’s crudely pastel-colored face, a blurb from Variety, or maybe it was Vanity Fair, declaring it, simply, “one of the greatest movies of all time,” and since it’s being featured here on the List (a credit on its own), and it’s directed by Otto Preminger with yet another subversive jazzy soundtrack (this one by Duke Ellington). and since the runtime is listed at three hours. with Jimmy Stewart and Lee J. Cobb as opposing lawyers in a murder case, I thought, yeah, this looks pretty austere. 

I was surprised when I finally sat and watched it (over three sittings in two days) that it doesn’t feel austere at all. 

It actually feels kinda dirty.

The writer Ray Bradbury was offered a job on the script for this movie, but he turned it down, and decades later, during a stream-of-consciousness keynote speech in his 80s, he spoke of the premise reductively by saying it’s about a woman’s soiled underpants and that he head no interest in contributing to such a movie (which is just as well). What he means is that the movie revolves around the trial of a man who murdered his wife’s rapist. One of the key pieces of evidence is the rape victim’s dirty underwear from the night of the crime(s).

The capacious panties in question.

It’s hardly pornography, but it feels like a heavy gesture on Preminger’s part. It’s just a starchy white garment when it’s held up in court (after everyone in attendance snickers at the judge for saying “panties” and has to be reprimanded), but it’s an image that suggests semen, and feces, and blood and vaginal secretions. It’s held up and studied and discussed–and remember, this is 1959, we’re still a year away from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in which a toilet will be flushed for the first time in a studio feature.

A woman is called a “bitch” for what might be the first time in an American studio picture. 

Also, when the panties are first mentioned, the judge takes a moment not only to confer with the lawyers about whether their might be a more courtly word for the garment. When it’s decided that there isn’t, the judge rises, declares to the court that the evidence in question is a pair of “panties”–the whole place erupts in giggles and whispers. 

But he hushes em.

He goes on to say he wanted them to have a moment to get their giggles out of the way. Then he says he’ll tolerate no more of it, because they are a piece of critical evidence in a trial on which the fate of two men depends. 

It’s hard for me to imagine that a modern courtroom, during a murder trial, would erupt in giggles at the mention of a rape victims panties. Nor do I believe the people in a 1950s courtroom would have giggled that way. 

What I think this is supposed to reflect is a statement from the filmmaker (as judge, but not jury) to his audience, in his studio film with its gritty indie vibe, that the ugly things you’re going to see here are not vulgar. They’re facts of life. And as Philip Roth once said during a Q&A, when asked if he hesitated over writing about vular subjects, there’s no topic on Earth that’s too vulgar to write about. 

The question is whether you write about it in a vulgar way.

And one of the most vulgar things depicted in Anatomy of a Murder (the crimes, after all, are only discussed, and never shown) is the way that a trial proceeds in an American court. Granted, this is a rural court in a small town where everybody seems to know each other and so the structures of decorum are somewhat loosened. But still! My dad has worked in law his entire career, and my close friends Bob and Lynda are both lawyers, and I seem to be disproportionately surrounded by lawyers through familial affiliation (grandpa, great-grandpa, cousin–the work friends they bring into our orbit)–from what I’ve heard, it seems like Anatomy of a Murder seems like a pretty accurate portrayal of how things work.

But it gets pretty annoying when Preminger, I guess to belabor his point that these lawyers are just two dudes doing their jobs, has them fall into stupid campy banter, like casual competitors in a baseball diamond instead of two attorneys in three-piece suits at a murder trial. It seems a bit odd, in fact, that the judge is so quick to castigate his audience for snickering at panties but allows the lawyers to do schtick for the crowd and elicit laughter. 

Nobody, not even the defendant nor the rape victim, seems to be taking this murder trial all that seriously.

And maybe that’s got something to do with the postwar existentialism we’re seeing in Italian and French cinema of this period too. An edginess made tasteful because of style and studio and a big-name cast. 

The general idea, though, of these two lawyers being so desensitized about their clients’ criminal activity that they’re downright chummy and jocular int he courtroom is probably somewhat accurate, similar to the way cops and EMTs get such a vulgar mordant humor that they can joke at a crime scene (I wrote about an EMT who told me a memorable story in that exact same register, it’s here in the opening essay of my eBook, if you’re interested…). It’s also trying to show that lawyers and judges, whatever the authority or privilege or prestige bestowed on them, are still basically just dudes in costumes who feel uncomfortable talking about panties. Who explode at each other. Emote. Show what the judge calls “intemperance.”

Maybe this, too, is a manifestation of postwar authority-questioning.

The accuracy of court proceedings, albeit a little bit campy and trill and cute, also makes the movie kind of exhausting. The interactions between lawyers and everybody else is uniformly interesting, I honestly wasn’t bored by a single scene, but there’s something about going from one heavy info dump to the next, and keeping track of the whole thing for nearly three solid hours–I just had to take a break here and there.

Though only three hours long, I’m convinced that, if this story were adapted for the screen today, it would be a miniseries, not a movie. 

Even though it might not have aged well as a piece of single-sitting entertainment, Anatomy of a Murder is a nice baggy monster that, being familiar now with its its concerns and where it’s heading and what it’s worth to me, I’d actually be happy to re-examine, ideally with a lawyer friend, and probably with a little more patience than I sported the first time.

One comment

  • Hmm. I came at this from a different perspective – I pretty much mainlined LAW AND ORDER SVU for about three straight years (I finally had to quit cold turkey to stop myself), and this felt ABSOLUTELY straight out of your average episode.


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