Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

(On Cable TV, January 2018) There is a surprising maturity to Anatomy of a Murder that still resonates today, even as Hollywood has long grown out of the restrictions of the Hays Code and proved willing to depict crime in sordid details. To see this black-and-white late-fifties crime film frankly discuss murder, rape and the corruption of the legal process is a bit of a shock, and to see it headlined by James Stewart is even more interesting. Going through all the steps of a trial, this courtroom drama still works well because it’s brutally honest. The protagonist is a disillusioned cynic, the ending is unsettling and some of the frank language still feels daring considering the time at which Anatomy of a Murder was produced. There are plenty of other smaller reasons to like the film: Saul Bass’s title sequence; Duke Ellington’s music; Stewart’s darker performance; and the numerous references of interest to Northwestern Ontarians (just the other side of Michigan where the film takes place). As a legal thriller, it’s still absorbing like a good novel—despite the sometimes-unnecessary length of the film. Director Otto Preminger’s work is straightforward, but what’s often forgotten now is how ground-breaking his movie could be in simply portraying the truth of a complex murder inspired by real-life events. Anatomy of a Murder definitely holds up, especially for fans of legal fiction.

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