Anatomy of a Murder | Columbia Pictures | Otto Preminger | 1959
Over at Illusion Travels By Streetcar, I have had the pleasure of participating in a ramshackle audio commentary track for what is, to my mind, Otto Preminger’s greatest film. I am joined by Premiere Preminger Professional Tom Sutpen, Jeremiah McNiel — who always gives the ol’ heave-ho to heteronormativity — Brian ‘actually read the damn novel’ Risselada, and Dan Patterson on bass.
After the false starts of The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) and Saint Joan (1957), before the all-star extravaganzas of institutional deconstruction that he routinely churned out during the 1960s (at least up until Skidoo swallowed him whole), Otto Preminger crested this parabolic career trajectory with his most expertly proportioned film, overfilling as it is with enough humdrum world-building realism to counter-weigh any of his showier instincts (here either muted or gloriously delayed until optimized moments of heart-quickening cine-drenaline).
James Stewart is the perfect star whose lifelong screen persona to flatten, for Stewart, unlike the bulk of his contemporaries, savored any acting challenge no matter how damaging to whatever manufactured ‘image’ the studio marketing outfits were then overselling to the public. He was a Pennsylvanian Presbyterian Princetonian Professional who was in it to Act goddammit!, not to lazily model a pre-digested ‘type’ (well, unless coasting by on his aw-shucksness was the best way to shill for family values or the FBI…but the less said about that the better). Now, of course, Stewart had already been doing a bang-up job in this respect through his work with Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann, but with Anatomy of a Murder he adopts a ruthless calculation that had never before factored into his acting. Whether martyring himself for America’s youth in Mr. Smith or ramming Dan Duryea’s oily face (alternate: snugly smug mug) against the bar counter in Winchester ’73, Stewart always landed somewhere along a spectrum of vulnerability, of raw emotional exposure. But in Anatomy of a Murder, we have Stewart at an unprecedented remove, as a lawyer who sublimates his actual feelings (which the audience is hopeless to successfully extract) to the tactical necessities of his profession; who can turn on ‘small-town charm’ like a faucet, as little more than legal artillery. In other words, layers within layers of Stewart-ness, a performance that etches a z-axis away from the vulnerability graph and into a cerebral meta-performative vortex!
Oh but I should say no more. Listen to this commentary folks! It’s a good one!