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Thread: Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder

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    Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder

    From Suspicion to Trust:
    Biegler and Manion in Anatomy of a Murder

    by Oscar Jubis

    Anatomy of a Murder (1959) is based on a novel about an actual murder trial. It was written under a pseudonym by John D. Voelker, who served as defense attorney in the case and later became a Supreme Court Justice in Michigan. The film adaptation was produced and directed by Otto Preminger. It is hard to think of a more appropriate marriage of filmmaker and source material. Preminger had shown an interest in matters of law and justice throughout his film career, most explicitly in The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955). Moreover, Mark Preminger, his father, had a brilliant legal career, becoming Austrian Emperor Franz Josef’s Chief Prosecutor(1). Otto himself managed to obtain a Doctor of Law degree at the University of Vienna while heavily involved in theatrical productions under the aegis of the great Max Reinhardt(2). Anatomy of a Murder was a critical and commercial success. It is a legal procedural commonly used as a teaching tool in law schools. Michael Asimow, Professor of Law Emeritus at UCLA, regards it as "probably the finest pure trial movie ever made."(3)

    Anatomy of a Murder is told almost entirely from the point of view of Paul Biegler (Jimmy Stewart), an underemployed lawyer who worked in the Prosecutor’s office for a decade. The homespun and single Biegler somehow maintains an office with a secretary even though he seems primarily occupied by jazz and fishing. He receives a phone call from Laura (Lee Remick), the wife of army lieutenant Manion (Ben Gazzara), who has been charged with the murder of a barkeeper who allegedly raped and beat Laura. Matters regarding viewer identification are complicated but it is clear the audience is in alignment with Biegler. We never know more or less of any consequence than what he knows about Manion, Laura, the murder victim and alleged rapist, and past events (the commonly held notion that Preminger didn’t like flashbacks is evident in Anatomy of a Murder). The absence of flashbacks makes it possible to sustain various interpretations about what exactly happened between Manion, Laura and bar owner Barney Quill.

    One of the aspects of Anatomy of a Murder that interests me the most, and the topic of this essay, is the way Preminger and his collaborators trace the arc of the relationship between the accused and his defense lawyer. This is accomplished with great skill and economy in three scenes that chart a trajectory from initial meeting to their coming to an agreement. These scenes take place during the first forty minutes of the film. Subsequently, the relationship between Biegler and Manion remains quite stable and invariable. Anatomy of a Murder raises the possibility that Biegler and the Manions will constitute the kind of love triangle at the core of so many of Preminger's previous films such as Laura, Daisy Kenyon, Angel Face, Whirlpool, Fallen Angel, and River of No Return (which ends, like a Anatomy of a Murder, with a close-up of a pump discarded by the leading female character.) However, this potentiality never materializes because Biegler, while acknowledging Laura's loneliness and attractiveness, maintains professional distance.

    First Scene

    According to Laura, "someone" told Manion about Biegler. The lieutenant asked Laura to call him and Biegler agreed to meet him. For whatever reason, it is apparent Biegler has been unable to generate clientele lately. Anatomy of a Murder establishes at the onset that, although he needs income, Biegler would benefit the most from the publicity that a successful defense of Manion would generate. In terms of mutual need, Biegler and Manion are on a more even keel than the average defender/defendant relationship.

    Biegler comes to the county jail and asks guard Sulo to bring Manion to the sheriff’s office. Sulo introduces them. They shake hands perfunctorily. Manion seems rather solemn and ill at ease. They go inside the office. Biegler sits on a desk while Manion walks to the opposite end of the room. For the first time, the camera isolates Lt. Manion, shown framed for several shots with a background of posters of wanted criminals. At this early stage of the narrative, Biegler (and the viewer) largely regards Manion as just another lawbreaker, not unlike those whose mug-shots decorate the wall.

    Preminger uses classic shot/counter-shot montage during this sequence which lasts roughly four minutes. There are no two-shots in it, as to emphasize the separateness and emotional distance between the two characters. Even when a cigarette lighter is exchanged between them, the object is tossed back-and-forth. Several views of Biegler from Manion's point of view show a window in the background. It is logical that all the windows in a county jail would have iron bars. What is significant is that what Manion sees out of this barred window is another set of iron bars. The suggestion is that, for Manion, the world outside and the freedom that comes with it is inconceivable at this point. The bars in the back of the chair where Biegler now sits serve to further underscore the motif.

    Ben Gazzara had made his screen debut playing a vengeful senior cadet at a military college in The Strange One (1957). In his first scene in Anatomy of a Murder, he channels that character's self-satisfied insolence. He suppresses any expression of the desperation one would expect from a man who could possibly be sentenced to death or to spend his life incarcerated. Manion is guided by a need to determine whether Biegler is sharp enough to have him acquitted. He asks: "How do I know you can handle my case?" and regards Biegler with guarded suspicion.

    During the 1930s and 40s, Jimmy Stewart's acting usually centered on an aw-shucks persona and hesitant line delivery, almost a drawl. During the 1950s, his roles in Anthony Mann westerns and Hitchcock thrillers, well attuned to the times, demanded more dimensionality and assertiveness from Stewart. If our introduction to Biegler paints him as a somewhat goofy and mildly eccentric "country boy," his handling of Manion’s swagger during their first meeting allays any suspicions that this Stewart is on a trip down memory lane. "I'll be the judge of that,"retorts Biegler when Manion questions the need to give Biegler "the matrimonial rundown." Biegler gets Manion's biographical information and his version of the incident. Most importantly, Biegler persuades Manion to cooperate. It does not matter if Manion is being sincere, at the end of the scene, when he apologizes for having doubted Biegler’s ability. Biegler does not believe Manion is being genuine (the line is delivered with a sardonic smile). What matters is that Manion saw the need to make a conciliatory gesture. The scene concludes when Biegler announces he will return after lunch.

    Second Scene

    Biegler is already at the office when the scene commences. He usurps the space occupied by Manion in the first scene but simultaneously makes a peace offering: he brings Manion a carton of cigarettes. This time the object exchanged between them is handed not tossed so they briefly appear together in the frame. The conversation that ensues has sparked debates in law schools regarding the tenuous demarcation between preparing a defendant or witness to testify effectively and unethical coaching(4). The exchange has been analyzed more often and more thoroughly in schools of law than schools of film. My exploration of it, just like my treatment of the introductory scene and the scene that cements their relationship, focuses on the deployment of the tools of cinema, on the use of film grammar, to weave a dramatic narrative and mold characterizations.

    Preminger again alternates between views of each character alone in the frame as Biegler lists the four ways he can defend murder. This time Manion is framed in front of a wall not seen in the first scene in the sheriff's office, a wall with posters of driving license and vision tests on it. Appropriately, Biegler's purpose during this visit is to evaluate Manion's ability to provide the kind of testimony and to project the type of personality that might persuade a jury not to condemn him to death or long-term imprisonment. Manion is under the impression that the rape of his wife justifies his shooting Quill. Biegler argues that, since he did not "catch Quill in the act," he had time to bring in the police so the murder was "premeditated and with vengeance." The camera becomes more mobile at this stage, panning to track behind the characters as they leave their seats and amble around the enclosed space. When the characters appear together, the positioning of the characters in the shot reinforces the unequal power position between them and the fact that Biegler has earned the upper hand. Preminger adroitly places Sulo, a representative of law enforcement, in the background between Biegler and Manion.

    By a process of elimination, it becomes apparent to Manion that the only possible defense Biegler can mount would be based on the murder being "excusable." He ponders the answer to the question: "What’s your legal excuse, Lieutenant?" He initially appears baffled, perhaps also humbled by the dawning realization that he wasn't justified to kill Quill as one would when acting in self-defense. Manion gets up from his chair and walks towards a window we did not know existed. It is a window with a view of the town that contrasts markedly with the view from the window in the first scene. It is as if the inherent possibility of freedom afforded by this sight inspires Manion, or clears the cobwebs in his mind, so he can approximate the answer Biegler tries to elicit:"I must've been mad." Biegler responds: "Bad temper is no excuse" as he places a cigar between his lips. Manion takes three short steps towards Biegler: "I mean, I must've been… crazy." He takes two more steps forward so that the view of his face becomes a close-up shot, the only one(5) in Anatomy of a Murder hence indicative of a transcendental moment. Biegler has punctured Manion's aura of invincibility and made him conscious of the dire nature of his circumstances. Gazzara's expression conveys concern, with a parting of the lips that denotes a previously unseen vulnerability. "Am I getting warmer?" he asks without a trace of irony. Biegler heads towards the door without answering. Manion blocks his exit and reinstates the question. Sulo immediately comes to the door, repeating the previous framing of the principals with the guard standing between them. Biegler finally responds, rather obliquely:"I'll tell you after I talk to your wife. In the meantime, see if you remember just how crazy you were?"

    Third Scene

    Whereas the previous scenes discussed are set in a neutral, semi-public space, the third scene between Biegler and Manion takes place in the latter's personal jail cell. It is a more intimate and austere setting. This time the beginning of the visit has been elided. When the scene begins, Biegler and Manion are in the middle of a conversation and framed in a typical two-shot. There is no intermediary and no representative of law enforcement on view. These characteristics of the mise-en-scene convey further progression in the relationship between the characters. Whereas the average shot length (ASL) of the first and second scenes,7.4 and 9.4 respectively, conform to Hollywood practice(6) at the time of the release of Anatomy of a Murder, this third scene begins with a one minute and forty five seconds long continuous take, cuts once to show Sulo coming to open the door for Biegler and concludes with a considerably long thirty two second shot. It is the type of scene that has come to define Preminger, mostly because its long takes diverge from established editing codes. Other than the brief cutaway to Sulo, Biegler and Manion appear on every frame.

    At first, Biegler stands with his back against the bars of the door while Manion sits on a bench. Seconds into the scene, as he describes his partial recollection of the events of that fateful day, Manion stands next to Biegler but closer to the camera, which looks up at them. The placement of the actors within the filmic space and the tilt of the camera make the two men appear equally tall (previous views of the two men do not hide the fact that Stewart is substantially taller than Gazzara). I read the scene as expressing Preminger's belief that Manion has achieved equal standing with Biegler, that he deserves an expert defense, that he has a right to be given a certain consideration by a jury of his peers, and that he has passed Biegler's test. Manion's cooperation and openness strike a contrast with his demeanor during the first scene. Manion returns to his bench. Biegler exclaims in a friendly tone: "Lieutenant, I'll take your case," and proceeds to sit on the bench next to his new client. The fact that Biegler has yet to discuss his fee with Manion and does not even known whether Manion can afford his services supports the impression established at the onset that Biegler is rather desperate to return to the courtroom and restore his legal reputation. Biegler is now literally on Manion's side. Manion has earned Biegler's trust that he can project the type of persona that could possibly lead a jury to determine that the shooting of Quill was excusable.

    There is an additional subtext concerning the chasm between the different notions of masculinity held by Stewart's and Gazzara's cohorts and between their contrasting acting styles. This third scene between them optimistically suggests that a bridge can be built, metaphorically speaking, to facilitate cross-generational rapport and allegiance.

    By the time Otto Preminger produced and directed Anatomy of a Murder, he had achieved a great deal of artistic independence. He had the freedom to hire his crew and had final say regarding the casting of most of the films he made. My close examination of three scenes from this film illustrates how the different aspects of film production, such as scriptwriting, choice of location, art direction, editing, cinematography, and performance become integrated in the crafting of a film narrative. Moreover, the scenes discussed provide ample evidence of a major film director operating at the top of his game.



    Notes


    (1)Preminger, Otto. Preminger: An Autobiography. (Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York, 1977.)23-24.
    (2)Ibid., 34.
    (3)http://www.usfca.edu/pj/articles/anatomy.htm
    (4)For a discussion of Anatomy of a Murder from a legal standpoint read the article cited above and Paul Bergman and Michael Asimow’s "Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies" (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2006.)
    (5)Medium close-ups abound in Anatomy of a Murder, including tight shots of Lee Remick giving testimony with George C. Scott's intimidating prosecutor lurking at the edge of the frame. There is also an insert shot of a piece of writing. But this view of Gazzara's face is the only unequivocal close-up in the film.
    (6)In his book "The Way Hollywood Tells It," David Bordwell assigns an ASL range of 8 to 11 seconds for American films released prior to 1960. In "Film Style and Technology," Barry Salt estimates an ASL of 9.3 seconds for American films of the period 1958-1963.

  2. #2
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    Good job, Oscar, very well written, and I learned things about the actual legal content of the film. Would not have known this is "a legal procedural commonly used as a teaching tool in law schools." Your observations on how small details in the backgrounds of shots and their duration and distances convey details about the character development -- and Preminger's distinctive style -- seem very germane. Your choice of the three scenes seems academically shrewd and economical.

    I always admired Gazzara from THE STRANGE ONE on, and the laid-back Jimmy Steward had such charisma. Makes me want to see it again.

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    Can a critic argue without clips?

    This topic, which has come up several times on threads here recently, is discussed by (former?) New York Press film critic Matt Zoller Seitz on his blog. Kevin Lee the filmmaker has done a series of short instructional type videos about film on YouTube. I referred to one in my review of Sam Raimi's DRAG ME TO HELL. Lee had some trouble about screen captures but has gotten his postings back now. Anyway, difficulties with copywright aside, YouTube is a possible outlet. And Kevin Lee continues to make his videos. He's a pioneer in the field.

    Kevin Lee's YouTube videography is on ALSOLIKELIFE'S YOUTUBE CHANNEL, which you'll find here. There are 119 videos.

    He describes his "Shooting Down Pictures" project of talking about a 1000-film list with clips for analysis you'll find here. (There's a part 2).

    Warner Brothers omplained about their music, and YouTube "shot down" Kevin Lee's whole account as a result. This led to controversy that has helped put Keven Lee on the map more, at least via Google on the cinephle blogs. And he has gotten his account back as a result of taking the necessary steps to have his videos reinstated.

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    Anatomy of a Murder is a Masterpiece.
    I saw it on a double bill in Vancouver at the Ridge theatre with A Clockwork Orange about 5 years ago. Two long movies.
    I remember my butt being sore from those old seats at the Ridge.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    Thanks guys. I appreciate your attention to this thread. The issue you bring up, Chris, is very interesting. I don't understand much about legal rights to copyrighted material. It's a complex, multi-faceted issue. My professors typically use screen captures and clips from films in their writings and their presentations at film conferences. I don't get the impression anyone bothers to contact the copyrights holders when it's not a money-making venture. As opposed to, for instance, playing a film in any format to a paying audience. Then the ethics are very clear.

    I didn't put captures to illustrate my points because it's time-consuming and complicated in this format. I have learned how to do it expertly using Word 2007 software, the preferred format at schools and on-line magazines like Senses of Cinema.

    Currently about to start writing the second of the three parts of my thesis, which I hope to finish in late November.

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    That with Kevin Lee is more a YouTube issue. I understand using clips have other issues such as being time-consuming to insert, but I have not bothered myself so don't know the details.

    Lots of material is taken down on the web because somebody complains. But their complaints often have no legal basis.

    What I learned from Kevin Lee's reports on his experience is that YOuTube does have a procedure for reinstatement after a take-down.

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    "Anatomy of a murder" and Otto Preminger are two topics that meld perfectly together. Preminger cut his teeth on noir pictures ("Laura") and more or less established the precedent. This film represents the pinnacle of that career.

    A renown stage director, Preminger always sought out realism in his films (such as using Joe Welch, the famous councel who defended the Army during the McCarthy hearings, to play the judge. Everyone remembers his line, "...have you no shame, sir." It was the only movie he ever did.) and looked for realistic performances, which is probably why he hated working with actors like Marilyn Monroe, whom he considered phoney. Part of the reason for his successful films revolved around his ability to cast them with people he considered talented.

    I was familiar with writer, John Voelker, as I grew up in Michigan and Voelker had a reputation around the state as one of "premier" Supreme Court justices. I never went to the notorious bar where the incident took place in the UP (evidently, the owners kept the body outline in the bar as a sales gimick, although it may have been moved for display purposes).

    I found your review and analysis insightful and susinct, as usual Oscar. Do I suspect this was part of a class project? At any rate, your contribution to this film's understanding is invaluable to any reader of this site, and appreciated by as many. I would highly recommend to this site's readers to watch the DVD first and then read Oscar's incredible in-depth examination.
    Colige suspectos semper habitos

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    Very informative comments about Preminger, cinemabon. Thank you so much for your very kind words. This year, I have posted a number of essays originally intended to meet course requirements of one kind or another. I have decided not to post longer essays, including one I like a lot about Mizoguchi's Tale of the Last Chrysanthemums. This Preminger piece was not required. It was written for a class I was merely auditing to learn from the Professor and from the discussion with students.

    Most of my essays consist of an introduction followed by close readings of particularly meaningful scenes. These readings benefit greatly from screen captures made possible by computer programs such as VLC. Lamentably, it is particularly difficult to transpose those stills from Word. So it is very encouraging that you guys found the content useful, even without the stills I use to illustrate my points.

    Thanks again.

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