Currently streaming on Netflix
NR (Somewhere around PG-13 with its rape references and themes)
Review contains mild spoilers
This Catch Up is written by Telaina Eriksen
If you ask someone in Michigan why exactly our Upper Peninsula is a part of Michigan, chances are about 50-50 they won’t have a clue. If you look at a United States map, there is no doubt that logically, Michigan’s U.P. should be a part of Wisconsin. But thanks to the Michigan- Ohio War (it was a real thing), Michigan relinquished 400 miles of Ohio, and in exchange got its statehood and was ceded the iron-rich, copper-rich, woods, lakes and waterfalls paradise that is Michigan’s U.P. It is in this sparsely populated area that Anatomy of a Murder takes place. Filmed on location in Big Bay, Marquette, Ishpeming and Michigamme, (go ahead, East & West Coast folks, try to pronounce those town names correctly. I’ll wait), Otto Preminger (director) managed to recreate both the sense of scandal and gossip, but also the sense of quiet in a small town after a murder has occurred.
Based on a novel by Robert Traver (pen name for Michigan attorney John D. Voelker), Anatomy of a Murder (the book) spent 65 weeks (!!!) on the best-seller list and helped usher in the literary thriller genre. Traver based the novel loosely on a murder that happened in the Big Bay area. The movie has a great cast; James Stewart as Paul Biegler and a very young George C. Scott as the fancy prosecuting attorney from the big city of Lansing (hahaha). The movie received seven Academy Award nominations, including best picture, and the American Bar Association STILL ranks it as one of the best trial movies of all time.
The premise of the movie is that Lt. Manion (Ben Gazzara) has shot and killed a local bartender for raping his wife. His wife Laura (Lee Remick) appears battered. She wears tight pants and sweaters and she doesn’t wear a girdle (just panties!), and in the course of the movie, she is, as many rape victims still are, also put on trial in addition to her murderous husband. In addition to the great acting, one of the fascinating things about watching this movie is the social and cultural norms in portrays in 1959. The words “intercourse” “panties” and “contraception” are whispered and bring titillating murmurs and giggles to the court room. And, according to Reader’s Guide put out to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the movie, the movie was actually banned for a time in Chicago due to its obscenities.
One of the most painful scenes for a woman living in the 21st century to watch is when the prosecutor starts talking about Laura Manion’s morals, the way she dresses, her religious practices, her previous divorce and her sexual history. We of course pretend we don’t do this in courts of law anymore, but it is commonplace and still, 55 years after this movie is filmed, only three out of every 100 rapists will spend any time in prison.
Even with the outmoded gender roles and the depressing topic of how rape victims are treated, there is something refreshing about watching a movie where all the women characters are named, have speaking roles, and the opportunity to act and react to what’s going on around them. As strange as it may seem, women actresses in some ways had better parts in some of these old movies.
Another thing that is interesting about this film is what propels it. No one ever doubts that Manion has killed the bartender. What propels the movie is will Paul Biegler be able to defend him? Is Manion lying about why he killed the bartender? Is Manion the one who raped and beat his wife? Or is it just as Laura is saying? Even guilty, will Manion get off? Will Laura stay with her husband? Will Biegler refrain from flirting (or more) with Laura?
Oh, and the soundtrack is great. (Can you tell yet that I really like soundtracks?) It was composed and scored by Duke Ellington.
Even if you’re not a fan of “old” movies, go take a looksee at this one, especially if you like Stewart. Or Michigan. Or courtroom movies. Or stuff that’s free with your Netflix subscription.