How director Otto Preminger made his movies

 

Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder,” from 1959, is still the best courtroom drama ever made in this country, and, in its occasional forays out of the court, among the finest evocations of place—an Upper Peninsula Michigan resort area in the off-season, leafless, underpopulated, alcoholic, and forlorn. James Stewart, in one of his wonderful melancholy “late” performances, plays a former county prosecutor named Biegler, a lifelong bachelor who now spends his time with a non-practicing lawyer (Arthur O’Connell) and an unpaid secretary (Eve Arden), who sticks around for the wisecracks. The movie is leisurely, detailed, realistic, intensely companionable; you get a sense of how people exist at the margins of a profession without losing their dignity. It’s my favorite Preminger movie, edging out the celebrated “Laura” (1944), a suave murder mystery set in a studio-built Manhattan. “Laura” is sly and haunting—a Park Avenue ghost movie that anticipates the dark-shadowed noir style that blossomed in Preminger’s work later in the forties. The light in “Anatomy,” on the other hand, is not shadowy but gray and even: in that world, good and evil are not easily identifiable. And the music, in contrast to David Raksin’s lush popular romanticism for “Laura,” is pure mockery—a tickling jazz score by Duke Ellington that suggests something unruly going on beneath the surface.

As it turns out, “Anatomy of a Murder” is stunningly ambiguous. Rousing himself from his lethargy, Biegler defends an Army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) who has killed a local man—a hotel owner and saloonkeeper—after the guy has mauled and raped the lieutenant’s wife (Lee Remick). Or at least that’s what the wife says; the medical evidence is inconclusive, and the bruises she has on her body may have come from her husband knocking her around. As played by the young Lee Remick, the wife is almost haplessly flirtatious. She flirts even with the disconcerted Biegler, who disapproves of her but also feels a certain chagrin: she’s young, she’s sexual, and, looking at her, he feels that he missed the party. What’s going on with this surly Army lieutenant and his enticing but anxious wife? Are they playing their lawyer for a sucker? We wait for the trial to make things clear.

(Source: New Yorker)


Commentary, Directors


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