A couple of months back, I was invited to an interesting series of sessions focusing on building creativity. This was part of a venture by an organization where I once worked, and the creativity-building exercises take unconventional routes to help employees think out of the box: by watching films and analyzing them, for instance. One of the sessions I attended was presented by a team which used the theme of ‘multiple narratives’ to examine four films. The classic Kurosawa film Rashomon was (of course) on the list; so was the excellent South Korean film, Memories of Murder. The other two films—which I hadn’t seen, though I’d heard of them—were Talwar and Anatomy of a Murder.
The description and brief discussion of Anatomy of a Murder that followed got me interested, and I made a mental note to get the DVD. Then, a week or so back, friend and ex-fellow blogger Harvey recommended the film to me, too, so I decided it was high time I watched it. And what a film it turned out to be.
Anatomy of a Murder isn’t a film that lends itself well to a scene-by-scene synopsis (especially given that I don’t want this to be a very long synopsis; I have plenty of things to say about the film besides its story). Suffice to say that the story is set in Iron City, where the main character is an attorney named Paul Biegler (James Stewart). Biegler has been, several years earlier, the District Attorney, but his lack of ambition (he would rather spend most of his time fishing or listening to jazz) means that his career’s now pretty much on the back burner. The occasional divorce case, and that’s about it.
Biegler’s longsuffering secretary Maida (Eve Arden) and his wino pal Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell) are his two main friends, and both try to encourage him to take on some more lucrative cases.
… and it is thanks to McCarthy’s urging that Biegler, returning from yet another fishing trip, accepts a phone call from a Mrs Laura Manion. Laura (Lee Remick) wants Biegler to represent her husband, Lieutenant Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzarra), who has been arrested for murder.
Through various meetings with Manion (who is lodged in the local police station), Biegler discovers more about who was murdered, and why. The victim was a bartender named Bernard ‘Barney’ Quill, who ran the bar at a resort named Thunder Bay. Thunder Bay is where Manion and his wife live in a trailer at the trailer park.
It turns out that Barney Quill raped Laura Manion, and in retaliation, Lt Manion shot Quill dead.
Manion is initially abrupt with Biegler and Beigler gets the impression that Manion has no confidence in Biegler’s ability to handle his case. Biegler, however, in his own way—half-joking, half-confrontational, and with a unique style all his own—manages to convince Manion to confide in him.
It emerges that this is a second marriage for both Manion and his wife. Manion’s first wife ran off with another man; Laura married him after divorcing her first husband.
Biegler meets Laura Manion soon after: she comes to his office-cum-home and makes herself comfortable there with her dog Muff. Biegler, who’s been out, comes in and finds her lounging about, listening to his jazz records. There is about this woman an unmistakably bold openness: she’s smiling, effervescent—everything about her body language, and what she says, seems to indicate an almost unconscious seductiveness. As if Laura Manion instinctively reaches for men, is interested in them and wants them.
After Laura Manion and Biegler introduce themselves, he asks her to take off her sun glasses, and she does so—to reveal some bad bruises.
This, she tells Biegler, is the result of Barney Quill’s attack on her the night he was murdered. On Biegler’s questioning her, she tells him all that happened. Her husband came home tired that night, and because he wanted to sleep while she—bored of sitting at home all day long—wanted to go out, she went on her own to the Thunder Bay bar, at the Thunder Bay Inn. She played pin ball with Barney Quill, had a few drinks, and then, because it was late and Barney Quill offered her a lift “because there were bears around”, she accepted.
… only to have Quill attack her. He hit her a good deal, and having torn off her panties and tossed them away, raped her.
Laura Manion says she might have passed out sometime in the process; when she came to, Barney Quill had driven the car up to the fence of the trailer park. He tried to attack her again, but she managed to escape, and ran to the Manions’ trailer.
The rest of this story—how Lt Manion reacted to his wife’s rape—emerges when Biegler goes to the scene of the crime, the Thunder Bay bar where Manion killed Quill. Biegler, looking around the walls of the barroom, sees one shooting trophy after another; Barney Quill was obviously a very good shot.
The bartender, Alphonse Paquette (Murray Hamilton) isn’t very forthcoming; he’s not outright hostile, but he makes it clear that he does not welcome Biegler’s questioning. He admits that yes, Quill was an ace shooter. Biegler, snooping around behind the bar counter while Paquette’s back is turned, sees no less than three slots in which guns could be hidden away. Then how come Quill was so easily killed by Lt Manion?
Paquette rather reluctantly reveals the story: that Manion had come in, looking calm and collected but carrying his service automatic. He had shot Quill straight in the heart, and when Paquette tried to stop him from leaving, Manion turned around and asked him if he wanted some of the same.
It is, as the Prosecutor tells Biegler before they actually begin sessions in court, an open and shut case. Barney Quill raped Laura Manion; Lt Manion cold-bloodedly killed Quill. It was not self-defence; it was not done in the heat of the moment; Manion prepared for it, planned to do it: why, otherwise, did he actually (by Manion’s own admission) load his gun and take it with him to the bar?
And, even before they go to court, Biegler is realizing that there may be more to this. Laura Manion, for instance, seems to be least bothered by what happened. He finds her dancing, definitely tipsy, in the bar one evening. She candidly confesses that she likes men, she likes the attention men give her.
Biegler realizes, too, that Manion is furiously possessive about his wife and does not like her free and flirtatious attitude towards men. It’s obvious—even from a very brief, completely professional meeting in the car, within sight of Manion’s cell window—that Manion even gets jealous seeing Laura talking to Biegler. And Laura, when Biegler draws her attention to her husband’s jealousy, immediately backs off, unnerved. This is a woman, it seems, who may be scared of getting her husband riled up.
There may, too, be other aspects to this story. Why, for instance, did Barney Quill go all the way to Ontario, Canada, to find a young woman named Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant), whom he appointed manager of the Thunder Bay Inn? Was Mary Pilant Quill’s mistress? And what makes her so certain that Barney Quill could not have raped Laura Manion?
What is the truth behind all of this? As they go into court, the Prosecutor introduces someone else to handle the court: the suave and successful attorney, Claude Dancer (George C Scott), who quickly reveals himself as a worthy opponent to Biegler. With Dancer trying to suppress the motive behind Manion’s killing of Quill, with Biegler trying to bring that fact—that Laura Manion was raped by the man her husband subsequently killed—to the forefront, this becomes a gripping cat-and-mouse game.
What I liked about this film, and what I didn’t like:
The scripting of it, the many layers that peel away, sometimes very unexpectedly, to reveal what lies beneath. One interesting fact is that nothing of the purported rape and the murder of Quill is shown. All that we, or Biegler, Dancer, the judge and the jury know of it is what the witnesses reveal. Otto Preminger (who directed the film) and Wendell Mayes (who wrote the screenplay) make this therefore a film that at no point lays out the facts. Getting to the truth becomes difficult, because it is not—as the Prosecutor had so breezily decreed it at the beginning—an open and shut case. Even as other witnesses are brought in, even as more questions are asked, more and more confusing facts come to light. Facts that blur the topic, make one wonder what is the truth.
That is the crux of Anatomy of a Murder: what is the truth? That Manion shot Quill cannot be disputed, since there were people who clearly saw him do so. But did he have just cause? Was he suffering from temporary insanity, as the army psychiatrist rules? Is this all a useless farce, and was Laura Manion not even raped? After all, everybody at Thunder Bay seems to know that Laura is free with her favours…
… and that brings me to another, disconcertingly familiar, aspect of this film: the rape victim. I found it sadly ironic that even though nearly 60 years have passed since this film was made, it echoed statements we still hear: “She was asking for it,”, “The way she dressed and the way she behaved—she invited it.” Yes, Laura Manion does dress and behave in a way that’s bold for a married woman in the 50s (Biegler, telling her how she should appear in court, advises her to wear a girdle and a hat, to keep away from the tight skirts and high heels)… but does that ‘free’ spirit imply that she’s asking to be raped? Rape is lack of consent, assault—it can never be wanted. Nothing can justify rape. Not that the woman was drunk, not that she seemed friendly, not that she was dressed to kill (or lure, or whatever).
What I found unsettling about this in Anatomy of a Murder was that the rape was not treated as a major crime. True, this particular trial is for Manion’s killing of Quill; but the gravity of the rape, whether it even happened or not, is for a large part of the film, treated with an astonishing levity. Jokes are made about Laura Manion’s panties; Laura Manion herself, for a large part of the film, seems to take it pretty much in her stride…
… or is that only to make us wonder what really happened? Was it never rape after all, but consensual sex?
Based on Robert Traver’s novel Anatomy of a Murder (1958), which in turn was based on a real-life case, this film turned out to be not so much a story of multiple narratives in the style of Rashomon or Andha Naal, but one where different facts enter the story at different points, blurring the lines between fact and perception, truth and belief. It makes for a gripping, intense film, a brilliant courtroom drama as well as somewhat of a whodunit.
And yes, if for nothing else, watch it for the acting of James Stewart and George C Scott. The others are good too: Lee Remick as the brassy, bold Laura; Ben Gazzarra as the vaguely slimy Frederick Manion; Eve Arden as the hardworking Maida, who goes labouring on even though she hasn’t been paid, and manages to crack jokes despite that—but the two actors who take centrestage, and do justice to it, are Stewart and Scott. Both playing lawyers, but lawyers very different from each other: one suave, very urbane, sarcastic; the other hot-headed, as quick to jump up and start shouting as he is to make jokes in court. They’re like chalk and cheese, but then, sometimes not. Deep down, perhaps these two men are more alike than they appear at first glance. They’re both not above a little deception, both willing to do whatever it takes to get their point across, both great lawyers.
No wonder both Stewart and Scott for Oscar nominations for the 1960 Academy Awards. Both lost out to actors from Ben Hur, which swept the Awards that year, but they’re still worth watching.