Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Studio Line: Columbia TriStar - Last year's number one bestseller. This year's (we hope) number one motion picture!

A riveting courtroom drama of rape and premeditated murder is brought to life with an all-star cast in the suspenseful and highly-acclaimed Anatomy Of A Murder. Nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture (1959), the film pits a humble small-town lawyer (James Stewart) against a hard-headed big-city prosecutor (George C. Scott). Emotions flare as a jealous army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) pleads innocent to murdering the rapist of his seductive, beautiful wife (Lee Remick). Produced and directed by the renowned Otto Preminger, the film features a brilliant score by Duke Ellington. Packed with drama, passion and intrigue, Anatomy Of A Murder is a cinematic masterpiece that will keep you on the edge of your seat!

Director: Otto Preminger
Cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O'Connell, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant, George C. Scott
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Picture; Best Actor-James Stewart; Best Supporting Actor-George C. Scott, Arthur O'Connell; Best Screenplay; Best Cinematography; Best Editing, 1960.
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono, Spanish Digital Mono; subtitles English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai; closed-captioned; single side - dual layer; 28 chapters; rated NR; 160 min.; $24.95; street date 7/11/00.
Supplements: Production Notes; Vintage Advertising; Photo Montage: "Anatomy of a Classic" (Featuring the Music of Duke Ellington); Talent Files; Theatrical Trailer; Bonus Trailers.
Purchase: DVD | Novel - Robert Traver | Score soundtrack - Duke Ellington

Picture/Sound/Extras: B-/B-/D

Although I never actively considered a career in law, I always found films and stories related to the profession interesting and compelling. There's something about the stark showdown of the courtroom and the natural drama inherent in such proceedings that I find fascinating and stimulating.

As such, I tend to favor law-related films that stick to the court and avoid as many other plot complications; that's why I didn't much care for something like The Firm, as it has little to do with law and a lot to do with soap opera fluff. Much more strongly rooted in the legal proceedings is Otto Preminger's terrific 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder, a picture that spends the majority of its 160-minute running time where it belongs: in the courtroom.

Actually, I was shocked at how much time this film devotes to the depiction of a trial. AOAM enters the courtroom at a little before the one-hour mark, which surprised me; movie trials normally won't last longer than a half an hour or so. I wondered how the film would proceed after those proceedings ended, since I was sure there had to be an extended period following the verdict.

However, that wasn't the case; once the trial begins, it lasts until almost the end of the film. That's nearly 100 minutes of legal fun, and although I think some of the proceedings wouldn't hold up to scrutiny - no movie yet has followed the scriptures of the law very precisely - the action moves as a very satisfying rate and the battle creates some crackling drama.

The elements of the story are simple: shortly after Laura (Lee Remick) is raped, her husband (Ben Gazzara) kills the offender. Lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart) takes the case and we go from there.

The plot itself is nothing special, but the movie executes the tale extremely well. Preminger paces AOAM at a crisp rate. Obviously, the film is too long to really crank through the action, but the movie moves much more quickly and engagingly than you'd expect from a picture that approaches three hours; few dull moments set in once thing get underway.

I don't want to relate many details, but I found that AOAM seemed more morally-ambiguous than I'd expect from a movie of this era. As the story proceeds, quite a lot of questions arise that involve the participants, and many of these never really receive a satisfactory explanation; although we eventually know the outcome of the trial, we never feel very certain as to what the truth of the situation actually was. Some may attribute this to sloppy filmmaking, but I think it was intentional; we're left to draw our own conclusions, and I liked that.

I knew little about AOAM when I agreed to review the DVD, and that extended to the cast and crew; I was aware that Preminger directed it and that Stewart starred in it, but that was it. As such, I was fairly astonished to see the list of notable talent in the project. Perhaps none of these names startled me as much as that of Duke Ellington, who composed the film's score. You don't see famous musicians like that attached to movies everyday, and I initially figured the picture must have just used Ellington's music in the same way Kubrick utilized various classical pieces in 2001.

However, that wasn't the case. Indeed, Ellington wrote the music explicitly for the movie; it's an unusual score but it definitely was done solely for the film. Ellington even offers a cameo in AOAM; he turns up as - surprise! - jazz musician "Pig Eye" in a bar. It's a cute and fun touch.

In addition to my surprise over Ellington's contribution, I also was astonished to see the list of notable actors in AOAM. From leads Remick and Gazzara through supporting cast like George C. Scott, Murray Hamilton, and Orson Bean, this sucker is replete with well-known names.

All acquit themselves well, especially Scott. As usual, Stewart's performance anchors the film, and he actually shows a bit more fire than we'd expect; he adds spark and verve to Biegler that seems unusual for him, and he makes the part shine. As good as Stewart is, Scott upstages him during their scenes together. Scott plays a big city lawyer who helps the local district attorney prosecute the case, and he offers the character a wonderful air of smugness and superiority; the coolness with which he unnerves witnesses and Biegler is terrific. The piece as a whole is well-acted, but Scott stands out among the crowd.

And that's saying something in this film, since it's a fine piece of work. I feared that a film as long and potentially tedious as Anatomy of a Murder would be a bore, but my concerns were completely unfounded; it's a thoroughly engaging and entertaining movie that holds up extremely well even after 40 years.

The DVD:

Anatomy of a Murder appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Why it appears fullscreen is a mystery to me. Granted, it looks as if it's an open matte transfer, which means that we see more information at the top and bottom of the frame but lose nothing from the sides; the lower portion of the frame is hard to judge, but the excessive headroom almost always on display convinced me this was the case.

Apparently AOAM appeared with a 1.85:1 ratio theatrically. While an open matte film like this seems to be the best of both worlds - fullscreen fanatics get their fill, and those of us who hate pan and scan lose no visual information - I don't find it terribly satisfying. I like to have movies in their original aspect ratios and that's that; I don't care if I see extra information and lose none. Since the added material was never meant to be seen, it's just wasted space. I find it very odd that Columbia-Tristar (CTS) would release a DVD like this fullframe, since it will appeal mainly to film buffs, but that's the way it is, unfortunately.

Despite my displeasure with the aspect ratio, I found AOAM to offer a pretty pleasing image. Sharpness looked crisp and tight most of the time; a few small instances of slight softness occur but nothing genuinely distracting or problematic. I saw a few cases of moiré effects and jagged edges, but these also were not frequent. More problematic were print flaws, which seemed fairly minor for a film of this vintage but still happened pretty regularly. White speckles were the worst offender, but I also saw occasional light grain and a couple of scratches.

Contrast periodically tended to the bright side but for the most part, the black and white image seemed satisfyingly gray, with a nice variation in tones. Black levels appeared appropriately deep and rich, and shadow detail revealed strong definition without any excessive murkiness. Anatomy of a Murder shows its age at times, but it largely presents a very nice image.

Also relatively positive is the film's monaural audio. Dialogue sounds slightly metallic due to the technical constraints of the period - the echo caused by the courtroom doesn't help - but it appears very clear and easily intelligible throughout the movie; a few loud lines seem slightly harsh, but otherwise all speech comes across well. Effects are clean and realistic - though still a bit thin. Duke Ellington's score lacks tremendous range but it seems distinct and well-reproduced. I noticed some light background noise throughout the film but found it mild enough to be only a minor distraction. Make no mistake: this remains a soundtrack from 1959, and it contains all of the limitations inherent from that era's technology. Nonetheless, it seems perfectly adequate for the movie.

However, the DVD's supplemental features are a distinct disappointment; we find very little here. First up is a "Photo Montage". As was the case with CTS's Picnic, this presents a variety of pictures as a running eight and a half minute program; the shots are filmed and accompanied by Ellington's score (and some dialogue as well). It's a nice piece that includes some fun material. I don't know if I prefer this presentation to the traditional frame-by-frame gallery of stills, but it makes for a nice change, at least.

The DVD features three trailers. There's one for AOAM itself plus two other legal dramas offered by CTS: A Few Good Men and Philadelphia. The ad for AOAM is an absolute hoot and definitely deserves your attention; as is the case here, trailers from the past often featured material shot expressly for the previews, and this makes them much more fun than the usually montage of film clips. This still happens on occasion but I wish it occurred more frequently.

We get "Talent Files" for Preminger and actors Stewart, Remick, Gazzara, Eve Arden, and Scott. As is typical for CTS DVDs, these are extremely rudimentary and seem largely useless. While I love much of the work they do at CTS, I hate their talent files; either do them right or don't do them at all, folks!

Finally, the DVD includes "Vintage Advertising" which consists of four frames worth of posters and other promotional materials. The DVD's booklet features brief but unusually strong production notes; these relate a short history of the project and toss in some very nice details, such as the reason Lana Turner left the film.

Although it skimps on extras, Anatomy of a Murder is a terrific movie that translates well to DVD. The film maintains a fine pace from start to finish and kept me thoroughly involved in the story. The DVD provides fairly good picture and sound, though I sure wish we'd gotten more substantial supplements; a movie this strong deserves additional details. Nonetheless, the quality of the film itself is enough, so I definitely recommend Anatomy of a Murder.

Menu: DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top