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If you’re watching it for the first time, you’ll only get a few minutes into Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959) before you realize something strange is afoot. Instead of a lush, cinematic score, cool jazz pulsates over Saul Bass’s award-winning title sequence, and then this title card pops up – “Music [by] Duke Ellington.” The bold choice of music is just the first clue that the film has new and modern things on its mind. When you hear “Jimmy Stewart” and “courtroom drama” in the same sentence, you might imagine a Capraesque affirmation of traditional American values, but that’s not what Anatomy of a Murder is at all. In fact, it’s just the opposite: the film pushed our social boundaries in such profound ways that it changed the course of movies forever – and perhaps of America itself.
Stewart stars as Paul Biegler, a former district attorney turned small-town defense lawyer. Most folks in his small Michigan town think he could be having a brilliant and lucrative career, but Biegler prefers his semi-retirement: he takes a few cases here and there and does a whole lot of fishing. But it wouldn’t be much of a movie if that didn’t change in a hurry.
A young woman (Lee Remick) approaches him one night and asks him to defend her husband (a young, excellent Ben Gazzara), who has been accused of killing a man who raped her. Here’s where both the plot and the subtext thicken. Biegler starts digging around and quickly determines that her husband is most certainly guilty, and his best shot is to plead temporary insanity – even though it seems pretty clear that the murder was premeditated.
In order to convince the jury of his client’s temporary insanity, Biegler has to simultaneously convince them that a rape took place, and this is where the filmmakers’ true intent emerges. Watching this film at home in 2013, it won’t surprise you to hear the characters discuss rape so freely. Likewise, the use of the word “sperm” and discussion of “violating” a woman are tame by today’s standards. But in 1959, the Production Code – a list of prohibited subjects that, if violated, could prevent a movie from distributed – was still in effect. Among the Code’s prohibitions were “any inference of sex perversion” and “any lecherous or licentious notice.”
Anatomy of a Murder willfully violated these tenets, yet it was released with the Production Code Seal of Approval. The censors required only one change, the removal of the word “penetration.” The release and success of the film were clear signs that the times were changing, and so were our standards of decency.
And a close reading of the film confirms this was just what Preminger had in mind. The words and concepts discussed in the film often shock the jurors, and surely those sitting in theaters were made uncomfortable as well (especially if they were on a date, I’d imagine). Preminger – who pushed the boundaries of the Production Code in other films, including the acclaimed portrayal of drug addiction in The Man with the Golden Arm – aimed to shake up his sexually repressive society, and one scene in Anatomy of a Murder shows just how he did it.
It comes about halfway through the film. Beigler is discussing a key piece of evidence in the case – the woman’s underwear, which he refers to as “panties” – when the judge asks him and the two prosecuting lawyers to approach the bench. This is the exchange that follows:
JUDGE: All the details should now be made clear to the jury. What exactly was the undergarment just referred to?
BIEGLER: Panties, your honor.
JUDGE: There is a certain light connotation to the word ‘panties.’ Can you think of anything else to call them?
PROSECUTOR #1: I never heard my wife call them anything else.
BIEGLER: I’m a bachelor, Your Honor.
JUDGE: That’s a great help. Mr. Dancer?
PROSECUTOR #2: When I was overseas during the war, Your Honor, I learned a French word. I’m afraid that might be slightly suggestive.
JUDGE: Most French words are.
It’s hard to feel it on the page, but the actors are hitting comedic beats here. I was laughing out loud listening to these stiff professionals be reduced to bumbling men, awkwardly trying to understand the world of women. But Preminger quickly turns the comedy into a serious point. The Judge turns to the audience in the courtroom, and speaks:
JUDGE: For the benefit of the jury, but more especially for the spectators, the undergarment referred to in the testimony was, to be exact, Mrs .Manion’s panties. I wanted you to get your snickering over and done with. This pair of panties will be mentioned again in the course of this trial, and when it happens, there will not be one laugh, one snicker, one giggle, or even one smirk in my courtroom. There isn’t anything comic about a pair of panties which figure in the violent death of one man and the possible incarceration of another.
Since I myself was just snickering at the sight of three buttoned-down men quibbling over how to refer to women’s underwear, I immediately felt as if this speech was directed not at the courtroom audience but at me, and it snapped me back into the reality of the story. And that’s exactly what Preminger wanted: To draw attention to the way we shrug off or otherwise obfuscate our sexuality and the dark elements of human nature. In this moment, Preminger reveals that the entire film exists to push the boundaries of speech and sexuality, to confront audiences with difficult questions of sexuality, feminism, and violence that they have been avoiding but were bubbling up in society in the era of the Beat Generation (hence the jazz soundtrack).
He may have expected the censors to push back against this content, but it was a fight that Preminger knew needed to be had. Anatomy of a Murder was hugely controversial upon it initial release, as he surely hoped it would be. Even Jimmy Stewart’s father hated it; he took out an ad in his local paper that urged his neighbors not to see the “dirty film.” Mayor Daley, opponent of the counter-culture, tried to ban the movie in Chicago.
But it didn’t matter. The movie did well it its initial run, earning $5.5 million in ticket sales. Critics liked it, too. The New York Times praised it by calling the film “uninhibited and uncensored. “For those who can stand straight talk,” said Time magazine. The Los Angeles Times was more direct: “One of the most extraordinary films ever made.
Its reputation has even improved with age; in 1989, the American Bar Associated rated it one of the 12 best trial movies of all time. More importantly, many credit it with instigating the end of the Production Code. It was 9 years later that the Code was officially replaced with the MPAA Ratings Board, which still exists today. Films such as Blow Up and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, released in the ‘60s, get much of the credit for building the movement for the dissolution of the Code, but Anatomy of a Murder fired the first shot over the bow by confronting Americans with their own sexual repression. Decades later, it’s a movie that still needs to be seen to be believed.