"ANATOMY OF A MURDER" (1959. NOT RATED. THE CRITERION COLLECTION. BLU-RAY, $39.95; DVD, $29.95.)
Another first-rate release by the Criterion Collection, this 1959 Otto Preminger courtroom drama, based on a novel, which was, in turn, based on a real-life story, chronicles a murder case from the standpoint of the defense attorney, played by James Stewart in one of his canniest performances.
This is the legal movie that lawyers most often praise for its realism, in terms of not only story but also tone and atmosphere.
It's full of great scenes. Note particularly two subtle scenes toward the beginning, in which Stewart's character suggests-without-ever-suggesting-it that the defendant (Ben Gazzara), who is as sane as he is, plead temporary insanity.
Also note that the movie has very little to do with getting at the truth. It's not the lawyer's concern, and it's not the film's concern. That whole aspect is left in a zone of ambiguity. The movie is really about the mechanism of the trial, about what a defense lawyer does, and somehow that's fascinating -- and for 161 minutes.
The film co-stars a young and gorgeous Lee Remick as the defendant's hard-partying wife.
Among the special features: a 1967 conversation about censorship between Preminger and William F. Buckley, a conversation with Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch, and excerpts from a "making of" film about the movie.
By the way, the judge in the film is played by Joseph Welch, in his only acting role. Welch was the legal counsel for the Army in the Army-McCarthy hearings: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?"
(Contact Mick LaSalle at msalle(at)sfgate.com)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)
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