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Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Disc review by Barrie Maxwell of The Digital Bits

Anatomy of a Murder (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)

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Anatomy of a Murder
1959 (2012) - Columbia (Criterion)
Released on Blu-ray Disc on February 21st, 2012
Also available on DVD


Film Rating: A+
Video (1-20): 20
Audio (1-20): 18
Extras: A+

Anatomy of a Murder focuses on the trial of Frederick Manion (played by Ben Gazzara), an army lieutenant accused of killing a bartender who allegedly raped his wife, Laura (Lee Remick). Manion is defended by small-town Michigan lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart). The prosecution is handled by local attorney Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West) and an assistant D.A. from Lansing, Claude Dancer (George C. Scott).

The case seems to be fairly open-and-shut since there is no doubt that Manion did the killing. At issue, however, is the question of what defense there might be for his having done it. Lawyer Biegler decides to take the tack of "irresistible impulse" as rationale for the killing. Complicating the situation is Laura's rather loose reputation coupled with Manion's penchant for violence and possessiveness.

Almost everything about Anatomy of a Murder is right - from the direction to the cast to the music to the location work. The film is a long one at almost 2 3/4 hours with much of it set in a courtroom, but one is virtually unaware of time passing as the battle of wits between Stewart and Scott proceeds. Director Otto Preminger (one of the first notable independent producer-directors) chose to film entirely on location in northern Michigan, using the Marquette courtroom as his principal set and many local people to fill the courtroom as spectators and as jury members. Preminger completed shooting in two months and the finished product was fully characteristic of the Preminger style: direction unobtrusive in nature, long takes, simple and fluid camera movements, and natural yet careful camera framings.

James Stewart is the main star of Anatomy of a Murder and the part of the small-town lawyer fits him like a glove. He brings passion and forcefulness to his playing of Paul Biegler, while his characteristic everyman persona worked perfectly with Biegler's idiosyncrasies - such as fishing instead of looking for clients and noodling on the piano. Stewart's performance was a fitting conclusion to a decade that had seen him grow substantially as an actor, with acclaimed work with Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock. He received Best Actor honours from both the New York Film Critics and Venice Film Festival for Anatomy of a Murder, as well as an Academy Award nomination. Stewart's Biegler character has sometimes been cited as the inspiration for his casting as small-town, West Virginia lawyer Billy Jim Hawkins in the 1973-74 TV series Hawkins.

The other real joy of Anatomy of a Murder is George C. Scott's performance. Just watching his facial reactions as he listens to Stewart questioning witnesses provides a lesson in acting in itself. The exchanges between Scott and Stewart are mesmerizing; such is the intensity of the interchanges between their characters and the skill with which they are portrayed. Scott was still early in his career at this point, but one can already see the mannerisms and experience the flashing, commanding eyes that would be such a part of Scott's crowning achievement in Patton 11 years later, the finest acting achievement that I have seen in films.

Another aspect of Anatomy of a Murder that bears special mention is the jazz score by Duke Ellington. It provides a wonderful counterpoint to the film, both in tempo and in sense of location. We first experience it during the opening credits and initial scenes and it immediately dates the film for us. You could start to watch the film for the first time with your eyes closed and the music would tell you right away that you were watching something from the '50s. There is also a very welcome appearance of Ellington in a short musical sequence about a third of the way into the film in which Ellington and Stewart are sitting at the same piano playing together. (In South Africa, the film was actually banned because of the inclusion of this scene.)

Criterion has brought this Columbia release to Blu-ray with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio that provides a pleasing view though one different from Sony's initial DVD release in full screen open matte many years ago. Restored and remastered under the supervision of Sony's Grover Crisp, one wonders why Sony didn't release the Blu-ray version itself, but whatever. Criterion's effort is superb. The image has an almost 3D-like feel of depth and projection to it. The black and white reproduction is excellent, offering a vividly lustrous combination of deep blacks and clean whites that's very appealing to these eyes. Image detail throughout is about the best I've seen. A modest level of grain has been retained and there's absolutely no evidence of untoward digital manipulation.

Criterion provides two lossless tracks - an LPCM mono one that is clean and very spry sounding on both dialogue and music, and a DTS-HD 5.1 track that is a model in terms of improved dynamic heft for such reconstructed efforts. English SDH subtitling is also provided.

The very comprehensive supplement package, virtually all in HD, includes interviews with Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch, Gary Giddins on Ellington's score, and Saul Bass biographer Pat Kirkham on the relationship between Bass and Preminger. There are also excerpts from an as-yet uncompleted but very promising making-of documentary on the film (Anatomy of "Anatomy"), an excerpt from a 1967 episode of Firing Line featuring Preminger in conversation with William F. Buckley Jr., newsreel footage from the set and behind-the-scenes photographs, a theatrical trailer, and a booklet containing an essay by film critic Nick Pinkerton and a 1959 "Life" magazine article on real-life lawyer Joseph Welsh who plays Judge Weaver in the film.

Criterion's Blu-ray release of Anatomy of a Murder is very highly recommended indeed.

Barrie Maxwell
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