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Anatomy of a Murder (1959) March 28th, 2020

We strayed from The List today. See, Criterion.com had a 50% off 24 hour flash sale a couple of weeks ago, or months ago, who can tell when sheltering in place. Over time, time itself just seems to meld. During that sale I bought six or so Blu-Rays, Anatomy of a Murder being one. Like most of the movies in that order it was a ‘blind buy’. Just going to get this out of the way, a ‘blind buy’ is exactly what it sounds like, buying a Blu-Ray without having seen the movie. I knew nothing about this film before we watched it this morning. Well… that’s mostly true.

See, there was this small theater in Anchorage 20 years ago called the Capri Cinema. It was a small theater in a strip mall. It’s a laundromat or a Subway or something now. When they shut down they had a sale on a bunch of old movie posters that had stacked up over the years and my Dad was there to buy some. The posters he got that day still hang in our garage. I don’t remember them all as some have been covered and blocked by shelves and other garage stuff. I am however, confidant that one of them is Anatomy of a Murder. I don’t know why he bought that poster, presumably he wasn’t just grabbing handfuls of posters but specifically choosing films of significance. That assumption leads me to believe he endorses the films in our garage and that was enough for me to buy it blind.

Now on to the issue at hand. We skipped around on The List. We spent the last few nights watching Tiger King and season 2 of Fargo on Hulu this week and didn’t watch any new movies for the last couple days. The List and sheltering in place can get a little boring. Tiresome. This morning I thought I had an antidote to the boredom. What if we used the long stretches of time we have in isolation to watch really long movies? Bump them up the list because we know we have the time right now. That sounds like the opposite of boring right? I presented my wife with the following options. Roman Polanski’s The Scottish Film (sorry… it’s MacBeth) at 2 hours and 20 minutes, Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder clocking in at 2 hours and 41 minutes or Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace at 7 hours and 2 minutes. She decided the James Stewart film about a rape and murder trial was the least violent so we went with that.

Anatomy of a Murder is brilliant. It’s got all the courtroom drama of Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird while somehow magically transporting you into the position of being one of the jurors in 12 Angry Men. I found myself trying to suss out what really happened in the case before the eureka moment when I realized that my experience as the audience was designed to feel like what it should’ve felt like for one of the fictional jurors. Never knowing who’s lying, trying to keep track of motives and sequence of events and not being able to forget arguments officially struck from the record. It’s just masterful.

It’s also a product of its time. An alleged rape is the inciting incident for a subsequent murder yet the rape victim is painted as reflexively flirtatious and a suspected serial adulteress. She dresses in suggestive clothing and makes passes at men days after her husband murdered her alleged rapist. This is how they chose to cast doubt about the validity of her rape allegations in the minds of the audience. I can see the reasons behind these narrative choices but they feel problematic 60 years later.

When we started this movie I had no idea I’d be watching another George C. Scott film. His name isn’t even on the cover of the Blu-Ray! It was a delightful surprise to see him exchange jabs with James Stewart like two acting giants fighting over the juiciest lines. I can’t even get into why Joesph Welch’s performance is so incredible because I’m already rambling too much. But he steals the show and clearly elevates the performances of his costars who, unlike him, are all professional actors. What a performance!

This movie has kept me guessing, I still don’t really know what happened in the end, but I have a better idea why the poster is up in the garage.

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