The Rear-View Mirror: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

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Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Imagine you could create any movie. Any movie at all. A drama perhaps. It might star the inimitable James Stewart, it might have music by the masterful, the truly incredible Duke Ellington. That, to me, is Anatomy of a Murder. It happens to be a courtroom drama in the truest sense of the word. What we learn about the case (a murder and a rape), we learn through the court procedure only.

Paul Biegler (James Stewart) used to be a top DA, until he was beaten out of the office by a lesser man. Lately he has been spending his time fishing, playing jazz, and debating finer points of law with his soused friend Parnell Emmet McCarthy (Arthur O’Connor), who was once one of the greats, before the alcohol took over. What is left of Paul’s law practice is presided over by his secretary Maida Rutledge (Eve Arden), who tries to remind him that he needs to put food on the table (and perhaps, you know, pay her wage).

This life, skint but semi-contented, is overturned by a call about a complex murder case which has hit the papers. A Lieutenant Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) is accused of murdering a man, allegedly because the victim had raped his wife Laura Manion (Lee Remick). Paul tells an almost hostile Lt. Manion: “There are four ways I can defend murder. Number one, it wasn’t murder. It was suicide or accidental. Number two, you didn’t do it. Number three, you were legally justified, like the protection of your home or self-defence. Number four, the killing was excusable.” As Manion shot the man a full hour after the wife’s confession of the alleged rape, his defence cannot fall under the first three. He is told to think hard about this fact. When Paul later interviews Laura, she is nothing at all like he may have expected. Lively, very flirtatious and aware of her assets, she is described by Maida as “soft, easy. The kind that men like to take advantage of, and do”. An observation which proves to be entirely on point. Paul asks Parnell to support him with the case (if he can stay sober during it) and decides to take it on.

And so the case commences. For readers who have not yet seen this film (it is from 1959 after all), it would be detrimental to the many joys the film has to offer, to go into the detail any further. The many plot twists. The use of language, the humour and the savvy of how a real life crime, and real life tragedy are distorted grotesquely in a case like this. So much so that nothing of the truth really matters, and only words remain. And such words. However, there is one aspect to the case and the film, the elephant in the room, which should be addressed.

I am acutely aware that the handling of matters like rape and domestic violence in this film may be jarring to modern audiences. The woman in the case is portrayed as flirtatious, wearing tight fitting – though not revealing – outfits. Halfway through the film, a pair of torn panties are referenced in the fictional court case. The spectators giggle at the word ‘panties’. The judge states: “There isn’t anything comic about a pair of panties which figure in the violent death of one man, and the possible incarceration of another.” The fact that they might also figure in a violent crime against a woman is omitted. Later in the film she will be put through the wringer. What was she wearing. Why was she alone. Did she come on to the murder victim. In short: the usual. As the film refuses to give us a definitive answer to what actually happened on that fateful night, this might be read as crass misogyny. I do not think it is. Her identity, her story, her appearance and her personality are certainly used and distorted in the courtroom to elicit an effect solely to benefit her husband. She is constantly required to change her personality, appearance and behaviour for no reason other than what others might demand of her, in order to further their own agenda, or to rationalise their own baser impulses. By the time she takes her fate in her own hands, for good or ill, I feel Remick’s performance has given Laura Manion agency beyond what the character has been used for.

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In modern times we are still far from beyond slut-shaming and victim-blaming. And we still hold women responsible for men’s and society’s responses to them, even if these responses are abhorrent. In this sense the movie may have even gained some currency in how it treats someone like Laura Manion. Not as seductress-slash-victim, but as someone whose wishes and identity are constantly under attack. Had the actress been Lana Turner (who was cast for the role before Remick took over), it might have been a different matter, we will never know.

But I digress. Humanity, in all its unknowability, is important in the film. Preminger also loves the law, its language, its grandstanding and its jurisprudence. He has stated in his interview with Bogdanovich* that his interest in the law was kindled by his father, himself a DA. In that same interview, Preminger professes an interest in the ideal of the presumption of innocence. This is an intelligent film. The language and dialogue are stunning. Funny, profound, sentimental. But one of the main delights of the film is its score. Ellington’s beautiful music underscores those moments outside the court, when our characters can be themselves. If one of the themes of the movie can be summarised by a quote from Paul, “As a lawyer, I’ve had to learn that people aren’t just good or just bad. People are many things”, its nostalgia and the humanising of the characters involved is formulated by the music.

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In the end, as it is with many real-life criminal cases, we never learn what actually happens. But we learn something about the people and the time in which they lived. Something about the unattainability of truth, and possibly something about the way we look at bad deeds and how we treat their many victims.

*Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It, (Ballantine Books, 1997).

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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