Anatomy of a Murder

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Synopsis

A virtuoso James Stewart plays a small-town Michigan lawyer who takes on a difficult case: the defense of a young army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) accused of murdering a local tavern owner who he believes raped his wife (Lee Remick). This gripping envelope-pusher, the most popular film by Hollywood provocateur Otto Preminger, was groundbreaking for the frankness of its discussion of sex—but more than anything else, it is a striking depiction of the power of words. Featuring an outstanding supporting cast—with a young George C. Scott as a fiery prosecutor and the legendary attorney Joseph N. Welch as the judge—and an influential score by Duke Ellington, Anatomy of a Murder is an American movie landmark, nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture.

Picture 8/10

Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder comes to Blu-ray from Criterion and is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc in a new 1080p/24hz transfer. The big difference between this new Blu-ray and the previous Sony DVD, of course, is the aspect ratio: the original DVD presented the film open matte in the ratio of 1.33:1 while the Criterion Blu-ray (and DVD) presents it as it was originally presented in theaters (or one would hope at least.) After having the old DVD it was odd at first seeing the film in widescreen but the tighter framing does work quite a bit better I felt.

As to the actual image presentation there should be no worry as well; the transfer, done by Sony, delivers a stunning, near-perfect image. The only issues present have to do with the source, which presents some minor marks and scratches, and some pulsating, but nothing heavy or distracting. The rest of the image is clean and stable, sharp and crisp. The level of detail is extraordinary throughout, whether it be the patterns in the tweed jackets that are common place, hair stubble on faces, or even the hairs out of place on the performers’ heads. Film grain is also nicely rendered, looking mostly natural if a bit noisy in places, movement is smooth and natural, and I couldn’t detect any motion artifacts.

Overall a sharp, more film-like presentation in comparison to the DVD and is certainly the best I’ve yet seen the film.

Audio 7/10

Criterion’s Blu-ray presents two audio tracks: a lossless Linear PCM mono and a remixed DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track.

Of the two I preferred the original mono presentation even if it is flatter than the 5.1 track. But dialogue is clear and articulate, Duke Ellington’s score is clean if lacking fidelity, and overall audio quality is excellent, without any noise or distortion.

The 5.1 track does technically sound better in some areas yet it isn’t one I’ll probably listen to again. Basically the track showcases Ellington’s score and has been remixed and remastered here from original stereo recordings. The score, which sounds absolutely beautiful here with an incredible amount of life and far more fidelity than the mono track, fills out the environment from front to back, almost like you have the band surrounding you. This aspect of it sounds fantastic, almost sounding as through it was recorded recently, and it’s so crisp and clean, but dialogue and sound effects still come off flat and this area sounds about the same mono track presents them. This made the whole experience a little too odd for me and I found it far more distracting than I should have. It just sounds bizarre having the weak dialogue and effects mixed in with the crisper, rather stunning score presentation. It’s great that those involved went to the extra effort but I honestly would have preferred an isolated score track presented in 5.1.

Ultimately it will come down to preference and even if I didn’t care much for the 5.1 mix we at least get the option.

Extras 7/10

The release feels surprisingly light considering that this is a fairly big title for Criterion to release, one I’m surprised they were able to get away from Sony. But, even if it feels a little lighter than I may have expected Criterion has still put some great material together.

First is an interview with Foster Hirsch, author of Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King and for approximately 30-minutes he talks about Preminger’s early life, his move to the States and his work at Fox, his early independent work and his stand against the Production Code (which built up controversy and free press for his films) until finally coming to Anatomy of a Murder. Once he reaches this point he talks about Preminger’s insistence on location shooting, how he worked with the actors and the actual casting process (surprisingly, for me, George C. Scott was originally considered for the role of the bartender, which just seems to bizarre now in retrospect.) He talks about the casting of Welch and the eventual issues the film faced with the Production Code. I’m still a little stunned we didn’t get a commentary with this edition but this feature offers a decent alternative.

Criterion next includes 10-minutes worth of material from a 1967 episode of Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr. interviewing Otto Preminger. The clips shown focus mostly on Preminger’s thoughts on censorship and the two get into a bit of a fight as they seem to have differing opinions on what censorship is, with Preminger not willing to wiggle from a pretty set legal definition, and it’s probably the lawyer/law student in him that makes him hard to budge from his definition. Even if I’m not entirely sure where Preminger stood on the subject (he doesn’t like the idea of someone telling him to trim certain things before a film’s release but doesn’t seem to mind the idea of the government basically banning a film) it’s a fascinating interview, especially the last few minutes where we see a somewhat hot-headed Preminger go off on his host while still keeping it fairly civil.

Critic Gary Giddens next talks about Duke Ellington, the Jazz musician recruited by Preminger to compose a score for the film. Giddens talks about Ellington’s early days, and then how he went about creating the score for the film. He gives some historical context explaining how unorthodox a Jazz score was for a feature film when Jazz was looked down upon in Hollywood (usually the scores were used for seedy B-pictures.) He then breaks down some of his cues and how they fit into the film and then talks a little about Ellington’s quick appearance in the film. It’s a nice little tribute to the artist and also offers an insightful look into how the film’s score came about.

Author Pat Kirkham next talks about Saul Bass and his work, primarily what he did for Preminger, and talks about his style and impact on marketing and title design. She covers the various designs he did for Preminger’s films, with plenty of examples, and talks about his desire to ultimately get the studios away from the boring advertising they typically did, usually involving slapping the stars’ faces on a one-sheet. A decent look at the man’s work, though I wish we actually got a gallery to accompany it.

5-minutes of newsreel footage is also included, which covers the arrival of the cast and crew by train to Marquette county and then offers footage of Preminger directing a scene within the county courthouse, focusing primarily on the non-professionals. There’s also footage of Welch delivering his lines in one scene.

We next get a gallery ofphotos by Gjon Mili, totaling a little over 50, featuring a number of production stills, costume tests, and general photos of the cast and crew off the set, including a couple of nice colour ones of Lee Remick. Like most galleries you navigate through the photos using the arrows on your remote.

Criterion then includes segments from a documentary (still in process of being made) by David C. Jones, Claire Wiley, and John O’Grady called Anatomy of “Anatomy”, which is based on a first-hand account by Joan C. Hansen, an extra in the film. With narration that I would guess comes from Hansen’s account we meet some of the various townspeople who participated in some way in the making of the film or were around during the filming (or simply passing on stories they’ve heard.) They talk about the other performers, with most men seeming to be a little gaga over Lee Remick, and some women acting the same way about Ben Gazzara, described as a “flirt.” There’s a little bit of information about attorney John Voelker, the author of the book and whom the character played by James Stewart is based on, and a little about the actual case on which the book and film are based. There are also some interesting anecdotes including one about the actors hired to be the jury within the film. I’m not sure how much more material there would have been but the sample we get here is strong enough on its own.

The disc then closes with a 5-minute theatrical trailer for the film, which features Preminger “swearing in” his cast.

The booklet includes an essay by Nick Pinkerton about the film and Preminger’s work in general, and then includes a great article about Joseph N. Welch’s participation in the film that first appeared in an issue of Life magazine in 1959. It’s an excellent article about Welch’s uneasiness about the film and also includes some great correspondence letters between him and John Voelker.

I’m surprised by the lack of a commentary and also a bit surprised Criterion didn’t include anything about the book or actual crime, or even more about Voelker. I’m also stunned they didn’t take the opportunity to offer some material about James Stewart since this is the first release featuring the popular actor (not counting their LaserDisc days of course.) But despite these little shortcomings the supplements add some definite value to the release.

Closing

As I mentioned I’m a little surprised that it does feel a little slim in the supplement department considering it’s a fairly high profile title but the transfer is a stunner and makes this edition an easy recommendation.

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Directed by: Otto Preminger
Year: 1959
Time: 161 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 600
Licensor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Release Date: February 21 2012
MSRP: $39.95
 
Blu-ray
1 Disc | BD-50
1.85:1 ratio
English 1.0 PCM Mono
English 5.1 DTS-HD MA Surround
Subtitles: English
Region A
 
 New interview with Otto Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch   Critic Gary Giddens explores Duke Ellington’s score in a new interview   A look at the relationship between graphic designer Saul Bass and Preminger with Bass biographer Pat Kirkham   Newsreel footage from the set   Excerpts from a 1967 episode of Firing Line, featuring Otto Preminger in discussion with William F. Buckley, Jr.   Excerpts from the work in progress Anatomy of “Anatomy”   Behind-the-scenes photographs by Life magazine’s Gjon Mili   Trailer, featuring on-set footage   A booklet featuring a new essay by critic Nick Pinkerton and a 1959 Life magazine article on real-life lawyer Joseph N. Welch, who plays Judge Weaver in the film