Between the modern and the traditional, the sophisticated and the conventional, Anatomy of a Murder is definitively a curious object. Spanning from the film noir to the well-established courtroom genre, taking place in an isolated and rural setting, the movie is quite a singular one, particularly on its novel depiction of tabooed crime.
Otto Preminger’s films are known for their « rough » content. Before Anatomy of a Murder, the director was already experienced in tough subjects: a shot gun shot in the face in Laura (1944) or drug addiction in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). In Anatomy of a Murder, it is rape that is portrayed, in the most explicite way for its time.
The interest Preminger puts into unmentionable murders directly roots him into the film noir genre. Rape is brutal, so is passionate murder. It lies in that grey zone, where feelings and perceptions are all mixed, which constitutes the heart of film noir twisted narratives. The characters are also very typical: an attorney rejected by his community, spending most of his time fishing or with an old alcoholic; a soldier, back from Korea, married to a stunning woman who does not even try to hide the power she has on men; an ever-faithful secretary, a strong and devoted woman also encompassing a lot of power in her hands. Femmes fatales, again.
Other very strong aspects of the genre appear with use of lighting of course. High key light is used often, particularly in the prison scenes, less during the trial. The shooting in real night, for example when Biegler drives Mrs Manion back to her trailer from the bar, further confirms the links with film noir aesthetics.
Nothing is clear in film noir. Where is the good, where is the bad, nobody really knows. As for the light, it is about shades, greys and angles one takes to look at the events. Anatomy of a Murder is not an exception to that rule. The motivation of Manion to kill is from the start subject to questioning. The attitude of Mrs Manion is equally bizarre while, after she was raped (was she really?), she flirts with her husband’s attorney and later with other officer. She even went through a truth test, which was conclusive, but is not permitted as an evidence during a trial; why isn’t accepted? why doesn’t the truth test work? The speech of the army’s psychiatrist puts us in further doubt when he is asked « – At that time, do you believe he was able to distinguish right from wrong? – He may or may not have been. It doesn’t make much difference.». Finally, the last testimony from the fellow prisoner and the disappearance of the Manions, followed by the note stating «I was seized by an irresistible impulse.» (the very precise reason of his favorable verdict!) clearly shows the truth as a very obscure and unseizable concept.
Despite those obvious genre traits, I would argue that Anatomy of a Murder could be considered what I would like to call a « countryside » film noir. Several elements lead me to this appreciation. First, the action takes place in a fairly rural place, the Upper Peninsula, Michigan being at quite a distance from the cities where film noir are usually shot. The rurality is taken further with Biegler, calling himself « a humble country lawyer, trying to do [his] best » during the trial. He also enjoys nothing more than fishing, stating « Everybody loves something or someone. Me, I love fishing, and an old guy by the name of Parnell.». The caricatural picture of a rustic and simple attorney, with almost comical manners for the urban audience, gives a less serious tone to the atmosphere of the movie. This effect is reinforced by the close familiarity between Biegler, his secretary Maida and his friend Parnell. They form a close and amusing community, fighting for truth against « those of the big city », making them more endearing and sympathetic than most of the true film noir characters.
Another reason I would cite is the prominence of the courtroom setting. Even though this part of the movie offers a lot of new developments of the story, the controlled context of a tribunal makes the action far less spectacular for the audience than shady streets of Los Angeles at 2 a.m. The visual spectacle of shades and reflections just cannot be as outstanding, impressive, frightening. Nevertheless, the movie does not lose any merit, excelling in making the trial excessively enjoyable and full of mysteries, until the very end.
One last point I would like to discuss about concerns the music and the title sequence. I was quite surprised to see Duke Ellington as the music scorer. As a big fan of jazz, it is pretty uncommon but yet very enjoyable to listen to such a great composer write and perform in a movie. The opening credits, likewise, were very impressive visually; created by the famous graphic designer Saul Bass, I can imagine what strong impression it must have left at the time the movie came out.
The jazz alongside with the very stylized titles are very modernist elements, giving the sense of a quite contemporary, “in-its-time” production, somehow contrasting with the rural setting I tried to portray earlier. This is some final argument for me to characterize this movie as a singular, with multiple facets movie, playing in different genres and taking the experience of filmmaking further, reaffirming Otto Preminger’s importance in cinema’s history.