In THE SEVEN FACES OF DR LAO, a rather beautiful movie and the best thing George Pal ever did, Arthur O’Connell has a conversation with an animated snake which is one of the most moving and remarkable conversations with animated snakes I’ve ever seen, and yes I do include Sterling Holloway in THE JUNGLE BOOK. So I’m always glad to see Arthur O’Connell in a movie, although I’m quite glad I don’t have to smell him in ANATOMY OF A MURDER, where I’d have whisky, cigarettes, and in one scene beer and hard boiled eggs to contend with. But fortunately, Otto Preminger, despite his modernist fondness for jazz soundtracks, Saul Bass credits, filming on location, defying censorship restrictions and using every inch of his wide screen, never made a movie in Odorama. Although if anybody had offered him Ottorama it’s unlikely his ego, as vast and shiny as his big bald head, would have allowed him to resist.
Maybe we should stop calling this Film Club and just call it John Qualen Club, since that lovely character actor, Miser Stevens in our first Film Club, is here again as the jailor. Or “yailor,” since he plays it with a Yumping Yiminy kind of accent.
Yes, I’m starting with the “little people” and working my way up. Will I even talk about the plot? Not sure yet.
Eve Arden, as Jimmy Stewart’s legal secretary, very cool and appealing, one of the great secretaries, I’d say — she gets to do a little unpaid detective work on the side. Maybe because secretaries don’t have much to do in most films where they feature, I often wonder if they should be used more or if I like them because they’re effective in small doses? Like Sam Spade’s secretary, the marvellous Effie (Lee Patrick, in Huston’s film of THE MALTESE FALCON) is so capable — has nobody considered giving her a book of her own? Of course, a sequel to Dashiell Hammett would be blasphemous. But I do like Effie. Wait, Lee Patrick’s in DR LAO too? That’s just weird.
Joseph N Welch, of “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” fame — an attorney playing a judge, and such a fair and mild and pleasant judge. In many ways ANATOMY OF A MURDER paints a rather unappealing portrait of the justice system — how do we read that last shot of a brimming garbage can? — but Welch does rather make me feel warmly towards the idea of human justice. Is it odd that an attorney would play a judge as such a charming and human fellow? At any rate, I’d want a judge like that if I ever put five bullets in anybody.
Good oily work from Murray Hamilton. Kathryn Grant, the future Mrs Bing Crosby, is stunningly beautiful and very good — and I’m delighted to see she’s got a substantial role in a new Henry Jaglom film. Anybody know anything about this?
The first name in the list of minor players is George C. Scott, who really has a major featured role but wasn’t a big name yet. Nobody seems to get famous playing prosecutors, maybe because prosecutors in trial movies always seem dislikable — even though they’re just doing their jobs. Maybe that’s why Scott spent the next few years in TV, despite being sensational here.
“My God, George is sexy… even though he’s… practically deformed,” gasped Fiona when she first saw this, some years back. And it’s true. His nose, sculpted by boxing gloves, forms a sort of pincer with his chin. His hooded eyes have a lizardly coldness. He makes little, tight smiles that admit no pleasure. And yet, sexy and dangerous. Given the character name, Clause Dancer, and his status as fancy city lawyer, you expect some kind of effeminacy, but George doesn’t deliver (might not be within his range, actually) except for the elegance of his movement, his immaculate appearance, and a slight fussiness (Brooks West, in real life the producer of Eve Arden’s TV show, does bring a little Franklin Pangborn to the role of DA).
Moving on up…
Ben Gazzara carries a lot of the film’s ambiguity — one unstated theme is the uncertainty of anything we don’t personally see or hear, and how the courts try to stamp a mark of certainty upon past events but this has only a social meaning. So we don’t know quite what’s going on with Gazzara, though it’s fair to say we don’t like him. An unsympathetic client is pretty unusual in a courtroom drama. The fact that Gazzara seems guilty doesn’t mean he might not be innocent, but I think it’s pretty clear that the insanity defense is an act cooked up with some hints from Jimmy Stewart, who’s very scrupulous about not telling Gazzara what to say, but certainly points him in the right direction.
There’s one particular gesture where it looks like Lt. Frederick Manion is giving a performance for Stewart’s benefit… His description of his “irresistable impulse” is a lot like Ginger Rogers talking to Adolph Menjou in ROXY HART ~
“…and then everything went purple!”
“Mmm, purple’s good… it’s new.”
Lee Remick (replacing Lana Turner after an argument about costuming) — “That’s a very odd way to portray a rape victim,” said Fiona, and I once more agree. Again, part of the film’s deliberate neutrality on the question of guilt/innocence. Was Laura Manion raped? She doesn’t act like it. The only time she acts particularly upset is when Dancer challenges her story. Her flighty, flirtiness seems out of keeping, and I suspect Preminger has Remick her overstress it just to sew doubt in our minds. It certainly appears, from all outward evidence, that the rape took place.
Given her airhead detachment, Laura shouldn’t be that appealing but somehow Remick makes her winning. Star charisma I guess. And the way she’s surprising, inappropriate, off — something that we tend to welcome more in films than in life because it makes things interesting. Although I did worry about her leaving her terrier, Muffy, balanced on a narrow wall. That’s no place for a dog!
James Stewart as Paul Biegler. Fond of fishing and jazz (and that preference serves as the perfect alibi to allow a superb score credited to Duke Ellington but in reality a collaboration with Billy Strayhorn, the first major movie score by African-American artists). A bachelor. Drifting along, skirting bankruptcy, dispirited, Biegler gets a new lease of life from the case and manages to turn around his friend Parnell (O’Connell) too. Like William Wyler’s COUNSELLOR-AT-LAW, this movie is a hymn to the restorative power of work. This positive side compensates for the film’s rather skeptical view of the legal system, and the sordid nature of the case itself.
And of course, Stewart’s presence lightens things, making the most of Wendell Mayes’ witty lines, and also creating quite a bit of humour just from facial reactions. It’s a very funny film, in fact — the sparring is consistently witty and Stewart makes it seem even wittier. He’s so good that I wish he didn’t blow up quite so often, because it makes his character look unprofessional. Lawyers seem to agree this is one of the most realistic courtroom dramas, but they couldn’t resist spicing up the emotions a bit — at least the judge rightly tells Stewart to get a grip on himself whenever he’s out of line.
With that long, slow opening, Preminger prepares you for a movie about process, not a thriller at all (although the trial is exciting — like a good chess game). And that’s perfectly suited to the style he’s been developing. This is far less showy than FALLEN ANGEL, a movie I love, a firecracker of dynamic long takes and unpredictably choreographed shots. Here, the fluidity of the Preminger frame conceals its own artifice, so it doesn’t announce itself as either snappy and bold or economical and sleek, although all of those qualities appear. It’s a very nice approximation of a documentary feel, without using any documentary techniques except real locations and naturalistic lighting.
“Music can’t help a realistic story, it just makes it less realistic,” my friend Lawrie used to say, and while that’s no hard-and-fast rile, it’s a useful principle. The music works here beautifully, perhaps because it’s frequently woven into the story. I think Duke Ellington’s guest appearance maybe works against the overall tone, but it’s not a crazy gesture like the moment in BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING where the film stops for a whole Zombies song to play out on a pub TV. The music allows Preminger to protract scenes to an extraordinary degree (especially that opening), so it calmly makes itself necessary, and I can’t question it after that. Also, the Mr. Magoo crime-scene credits by Saul Bass, combined with that score, and leading into the shot of Stewart really driving a real car (nicely mirrored at the end) must have been like ice-water in the audience’s face, but prepares for the shocking modernity of all that talk about panties and intercourse without completion.