- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 28, 2009

Memorable titles don’t necessarily reflect the content of their stories with impeccable fidelity. An advertising copywriter before he became a successful television dramatist, Reginald Rose seemed to resort to the hard sell when titling his most famous script, “12 Angry Men.”

Upon close observation, only two or three of the jurors invented by Mr. Rose to render the verdict in a New York City murder case qualify as conspicuous or incorrigible hotheads. If inclined toward the soft sell, he might have called the same material “The Jury Room” and avoided any hint of expedient exaggeration.

Similar quibbles might be argued against a more expansive and ambiguous courtroom melodrama that appeared soon afterward: Otto Preminger’s durably enjoyable movie version of “Anatomy of a Murder,” approaching its 50th anniversary on July 1.

A methodically effective blend of storytelling attributes that might have ended up at cross purposes, the leisurely and the sensational, the film derived from a best-selling novel of the previous year. Snapped up by Mr. Preminger soon after its publication, “Anatomy” was filmed evocatively in the small-town backyard of the author, a Michigan judge named John D. Voelker who moonlighted under the pseudonym Robert Traver and lived in a far northwest region of the state’s Upper Peninsula.

The judge’s hometown, Ishpeming, and the county seat, Marquette, became principal locations for the movie company, which enhanced the scenic specificity and novelty — the shores of Lake Superior remain a rare port of call for Hollywood — with a distinctive and versatile ensemble, led by James Stewart as a cagily folksy defense attorney named Paul Biegler. Returning from a fishing trip — like Judge Voelker himself, the hero is a devoted angler — Biegler belatedly catches up with a recent murder and is persuaded, a bit reluctantly, to represent the accused, Ben Gazzara as an Army officer named Frederic Manion.

There is never any doubt that Lt. Manion killed a saloon owner named Barney Quill, allegedly in retaliation for Quill’s rape of the lieutenant’s wife, Laura, an unforgettable mix of provocation and susceptibility in the person of Lee Remick. The title suggests an exploration of underlying motives that never materializes. There is no Dostoevskian dimension to “Anatomy of a Murder.” Based on a similar 1952 case in which Judge Voelker represented the defendant, the fictional trial is depicted from the point of view of an advocate who contrives an ingenious defense for his devious client but never needs to be persuaded that he is representing a virtuous or guiltless man.

One of the intriguing, wised-up aspects of the movie when new remains a strong point — in striking contrast to “12 Angry Men”: “Anatomy” doesn’t need to formulate a special-pleading case for an accused killer. Indeed, it would be foolish to do so, since the Manions are revealed to be opportunistic and untrustworthy beneficiaries of Paul Biegler’s savvy and sincerity. The movie’s knowing outlook is content with the assurance that its hero is a reliable professional and pillar of the community. The notion that his clientele must be beyond reproach belongs to a naive branch of courtroom melodrama, exemplified with a pent-up, claustrophobic flourish by “12 Angry Men.”

Both movies were nominated for Best Motion Picture in their years of release, and both lost to sagas of high adventure, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Ben-Hur,” respectively. “Anatomy of a Murder” was a major contender in 1959, with seven nominations, but emerged empty-handed from Oscar night. Unlike “Angry Men,” it was a box-office success from the outset. Several factors might explain this popularity, from its bracing cynicism to its frank courtroom testimony about the circumstances surrounding the alleged rape of Laura Manion.

The range of stellar personalities in “Anatomy” must have been a decisive selling point as well. Among other abiding merits, it was the first movie that showcased George C. Scott with brilliant effectiveness. His contemptuous cross-examinations of Lee Remick and Kathryn Grant, the latter a decisive blunder for the prosecution, remain irresistible high points of cinematic courtroom theatrics.

Otto Preminger had a happy inspiration when he persuaded the attorney Joseph N. Welch, who became famous by rebuking Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Wisconsin Republican, during televised hearings, to portray a judge whose pixieish charms seem to coexist with a sense of command. In retrospect, it may have been a picture-saver for Mr. Preminger to replace Lana Turner with Lee Remick, clearing the way for a generational contrast.

Miss Remick and Mr. Gazzara made sense as an amoral mismatch.

Who was supposed to match up with Miss Turner? Robert Taylor? Dana Andrews?

For some reason the DVD edition of the film does not incorporate a letter-boxed format that conforms to the original wide-screen ratio of “Anatomy of a Murder.” The “full-screen” formatting is adroit, but spectators should have the option of an authentic ratio. An amusing theatrical trailer, in which Mr. Preminger purports to swear in his cast, is worth a look, partly as a facetious souvenir but also for its brief glimpse of Judge Voelker in an exchange with the director. It confirms hearsay that the author of “Anatomy of a Murder” bore a certain resemblance to John Wayne. Not that Mr. Wayne in the role of Paul Biegler would have lent much credibility to the movie, in 1959 or 2009.

TITLE: “Anatomy of a Murder”

RATING: No MPAA Rating; released in 1959, a decade before the advent of the rating itself; elements of sexual candor.

CREDITS: Produced and directed by Otto Preminger. Screenplay by Wendell Mayes, based on the novel by Robert Traver. Cinematography by Sam Leavitt. Art direction by Boris Leven. Film editing by Louis R. Loeffler. Music by Duke Ellington.

RUNNING TIME: 160 minutes

DVD EDITION: Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.cthv.com

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