Sunday, 3 June 2012

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Dir. Otto Preminger
Starring: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell

The legal thriller did not begin with John Grisham. Before Grisham there was John D. Voelker. A retired Michigan Supreme Court judge, Voelker started a new career as a novelist under the name of Robert Travers. In 1952 he had been the defence attorney in a murder trial up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This trial formed the basis of a book. The resultant book became the film Anatomy of a Murder, the “probably the finest pure trial movie ever” according to at least one law professor. 

In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Jimmy Stewart was the folksy hero protesting his innocence before his peers in the United States Congress. Twenty years later and James Stewart is Attorney Paul Biegler protesting the innocence of his client before a murder jury in court. The folksiness remains, but this time it is just a ploy to further his case. 

Biegler has a small practice out in the back-of-beyond (where bears scavenge on the edge of town and he can slope off for fishing trips at will). He does not even have the income to pay his secretary’s wages. But then he is asked to defend Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), an army lieutenant charged with shooting a bar landlord dead. His motive? Said landlord raped his wife. But murder is murder. Biegler’s only shot is to convince a jury that Manion was insane. But this is not plain sailing. 

Paul’s opponent, his replacement as DA, is Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West), a man more concerned with redecorating his office than being on top of his brief. While he might not be a first class lawyer he is smart enough to recognise when he is out of his depth. He brings in the State Assistant District Attorney, Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) to help prosecute the case. Dancer is as clever, calm and cunning as Biegler. Both of them know what ‘tricks’ to pull to help influence a jury. The trial becomes a battle of wits between them, with the most used phrases being “Objection!” and “Objection over-ruled!” I don’t know how often objections are really raised in American courtrooms, but they seem to come along like buses in legal thrillers, and Anatomy really sets the standard. Biegler brings in a psychiatrist to swear that Manion was acting under “irresistible impulse”; the prosecution bring in their own to disagree. Each have witnesses of their own to bolster their case, and the other’s to destroy.

Disorder in court:
Judge Weaver says pants to Biegler, Lodwick & Dancer

The audience, like the jury, never actually get the objective truth of the matter. We see more than they, but yet we cannot say for certain what the true course of events is. Is Frederick violently jealous? Probably. Is Laura a flirt? Certainly. Did she have sexual relations with Quill in his car on the night in question? Possibly. Was it rape? Maybe. Does that matter to our hero? No.  

Biegler has a job to do. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t get paid. He is, in this matter, mercenary. He warns his clients to tell the truth upon the stand, but it is he who casually drops the ideas in Manion’s head that lead him to make the statements he wants to hear: I must have been mad… I was crazy… I was insane…” By threatening to walk out he essentially coaches Manion to enter an insanity defence (what Parnell refers to as “The Well-Known Lecture”). It is only once he has said this that Paul can put together a defence for him. And he is willing to employ all the aforementioned tricks to help that defence. When he goes too far the judge over-rules him; his questions are stricken from the record and the jury are asked to disregard the previous comments. Manion asks how they can disregard something they have already heard. Paul’s smiling answer? “They can’t.” He employs his humour and charm to win over the jury – as well as just a liberal sprinkling of folksy corn, implying that “I’m just a humble country lawyer trying to do the best I can against this brilliant prosecutor from the big city of Lansing. There are manoeuvrings: Paul accuses Dancer of deliberately blocking his line of sight to Laura when she is on the stand; Dancer bites back that he is sorry if the witness is unable to see his gestured instructions. Whether Dancer was deliberately blocking line of sight or whether Biegler was making signals to Laura are neither here nor there; they combine to give the impression to the jury that the opposing counsel was acting deviously. Then of course there is the matter of appearance. Paul tells Laura to keep out of trouble and dress down very severely for her court appearance. His friend Parnell (Arthur O’Connell) is disappointed that the army psychiatrist looks so young; he is only partly mollified when the man produces a pair of spectacles. The theory is that an elderly German with a beard would be more convincing even if he were saying exactly the same thing.

The tricks are fun and entertaining, but what really counts is research. Lawyers have to put the leg-work in. We see Paul and Parnell poring over tome after tome in the library. This finds them the precedent that they can hang their defence upon. Without this they had nothing. It is clear that this precedent is new to Lodwick. Dancer states that he is aware of it. Is this just bravado or insouciance? Or does he actually know of its existence but hoped that Biegler wouldn’t? And finally the prosecution case is brought crashing down at the last resort due to one simple issue: the defence knew one fact more about a witness than they did. What becomes clear is that the law is not even; a favourable verdict relies to a great extent upon quite how smart one’s lawyer is, how skilled they are in the courtroom, and how much legwork they are willing to put in. 

Tricks and research and all the other attributes of a lawyer aside however, at the end of the day the result of any trial is out of their hands: it is in the hands of the jury. Parnell waxes lyrical on this theme:

“Twelve people go off into a room: twelve different minds, twelve different hearts, from twelve different walks of life; twelve sets of eyes, ears, shapes, and sizes. And these twelve people are asked to judge another human being as different from them as they are from each other. And in their judgment, they must become of one mind - unanimous. It's one of the miracles of Man's disorganized soul that they can do it, and in most instances, do it right well. God bless juries.”
But people are subjective creatures. Hence the requirement to influence them to look at the evidence in certain ways. 

This film is not a grim portrayal of crime and justice; there is plenty of humour along the way. As Judge Weaver comments, “The attorneys will provide the wisecracks.” But not just the attorneys – everyone adds something whether it comes from the booze-addled Parnell, Paul’s sassy and long-suffering secretary (Eve Arden), or Judge Weaver himself (Joseph Welsh, a real-life lawyer who represented the army during the McCarthyite anti-Communist witch-hunts, famously crying out “Have you no sense of decency sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” ) as he struggles to keep control over the lawyers. When the matter of Laura Manion’s missing underwear is raised he is concerned that there is “a certain light connotation attached to the word ‘panties’. Can we find another name for them?” Dancer hesitates and replies that “When I was overseas during the war, Your Honour, I learned a French word. I’m afraid that might be slightly suggestive.” Judge Weaver sighs and comments that “Most French words usually are.” 

And so the word “panties”  is used in court. And the jury and the public fall about with laughter. And the judge has to caution them to restrain their laughs as they are hearing a case which concerns the death of one man and the possible incarceration of another. Oh – and a rape. Laura Manion has to sit there while the crowd behind her snicker about her panties, allegedly lost during her ordeal. But the judge never mentions that in his warning. In fact, the prosecution try to keep the rape out of the case altogether and focus just on the matter of Frederick Manion shooting Quill dead (as Biegler complains, trying to “separate the motive from the act” is “like trying to take the core from an apple without breaking the skin”). Throughout the issue of rape is treated pretty dismissively. The all-male legal establishment can see why a fellow would be pretty upset about another man raping his wife, but the issue of rape is a side-show to them. Plus, in modern day parlance, one could argue that Laura Manion was “asking for it”. A horrific notion, but this is a 1950s film based upon a 1950s novel that was itself based upon a 1950s crime. A woman dressing in flattering clothing and being sociable with other men is seen, by and large, as evidence of consent. Even if she was openly looking to commit adultery the prevailing view is that she is to blame should a man get the wrong idea. There is an entire etiquette of clothing that was alien to me. She was not wearing a girdle – shock horror! Going out bare-legged carries all sorts of connotations. Dancer puts it to her on the stand that if she was not wearing a girdle, then maybe she was not wearing panties either, that maybe she habitually went out panty-less when she was looking to pick up men. It is a brutal cross-examination of someone who alleges that they were raped. One would hope that this sort of thing does not occur in court these days! It might seem dated by today’s standards, but in its day it totally challenged the Hays Code; the film was even banned in Chicago. Talk of rape, penetration, sperm, panties and contraception could be heard in a courtroom, but hearing them in a cinema challenged public decency.

What have I learnt about Michigan?
If I’m thinking of Michigan I think of Detroit. But Michigan is obviously so much more than that. Here we are in an isolated part of the state – quite literally as the bulk of the state is away across the other side of Lake Michigan. We are in an area of wilderness where men can go fishing for days and bears scavenge on the edge of town. Yet it is a tourist area – hard to imagine as the images we see are of industrial areas. With the main town being called Iron City and with Quill being a former lumberjack one might assume that this is an area colonised for its natural resources, which are then extracted and transported elsewhere. One can drive to Canada from there. 

Yet for all of its rugged outdoorsiness it has the trappings of American civilisation such as the rule of law, courthouses and smart lawyers. 

In comparison, Lansing is the “big city”. No, I’d never heard of it before this week either, but it serves as the state capital rather than the relative new-comer of Detroit. 

Can we go there?
The film was set in the locations where the original crime did – up on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (sandwiched between Lakes Michigan and Superior). The original 1952 murder occurred in the Lumberjack Tavern, Big Bay. Quill’s bar was actually shot just one block away, in the Thunder Bay Inn. The Thunder Bay was once owned by Henry Ford, and favoured workers were treated to vacations here as rewards; even this far away from Detroit Ford still shaped Michigan. The community of Big Bay was itself renamed Thunder Bay for the purposes of the film. Visitors to the Lumberjack Tavern can still see the body outline on the floor (the one that was so iconically stylized in Saul Bass’s poster for Anatomy). The Perkins Park Campground just outside of town was the location of the Manions’ trailer.  

As Big Bay had been renamed, so too was the county town of Marquette – this became Iron City. Filming the courtroom scenes did take place in the actual first floor courtroom of the Marquette County Courthouse. However the door off the staircase so prominently marked ‘Library’ in the film actually leads to the gents’ toilets; the scenes in the library were actually shot at the Carnegie Public Library in Ishpeming. Also in Ishpeming can be found a wall autographed by all the stars – it is located downstairs at Globe Printing (which, during shooting, had been the Roosevelt Supper Club).

The scene where Laura is dancing – and Paul is playing piano alongside the jazz band of ‘Pie-Eye’ (actually the great Duke Ellington, who composed the music for the film) – was shot at the Mt. Shasta Lodge in Michigamme.  

Overall Rating: 4/5

No comments:

Post a Comment