BEST ENSEMBLE MOVIES
The other night I watched for the second time the superb 1959 Otto Preminger film, Anatomy of a Murder. I saw more in it than caught my eye the first go-round.
For one, I was struck by the way the attorney characters, and the society they represent, attempt to impose a semblance of order upon chaotic events and people.
At the beginning of the movie, the life of lead character James Stewart, a former district attorney in Michigan;s Upper Peninsula, is one of listless chaos. Fishing and drinking. This is manifested by a refrigerator overflowing with freshly caught fish. Stewart is becoming like his alcoholic friend Arthur O’Connell. That Stewart is given the opportunity to represent the defendant in a murder trial becomes a way for him to impose order upon his life.
We soon see that the defendant and his wife, Ben Gazzara and Lee Remick respectively, are embodiments of chaos. Neither properly fits the narrative which Stewart will need to create in the courtroom in order to win the trial.
This is as realistic a movie about the justice system as has ever been made. Shadings and uncertainties are everyplace. The verdict is acceptable because the formalities have been maintained. Stewart himself only appears to be an island of integrity—he uses his homespun facade to get what he wants. The integrity in the process comes from the process itself; giving justice its proper tribute in the form of an imperfect trial. Trials are often imperfect. Their deeper purpose isn’t to achieve justice so much as maintain order. This, at least, is the message of the film.
This is an ensemble movie, depending on the effectiveness of its array of characters to be effective. The acting is perfection itself—keeping us unable to pull away from what at its core is a simple story. Once the players take the stage we’re absorbed in them. The simple framework of the trial creates countless complexities. Black-and-white photography adds to the movie’s documentary feel.
The back-and-forth trial fireworks between James Stewart and prosecutor George C. Scott dominate the surface proceedings. Both men are terrific. Both do more with their roles than is written. Yet the greater acting honors go to the many-layered couple, Gazzara and Remick, and their love-hate relationship.
Lee Remick portrays white-trash sexuality with naked reality. Gazzara nails his character’s surliness, shrewdness, anger, and rough integrity. They’re not likeable but they’re recognizable and understandable, pushing the envelope of their relationship in the same way Stewart pushes the acceptable bounds on lawyer machinations in order to achieve his end. His lawyer performs for the jury, as James Stewart performs for we the movie audience.
Stewart and O’Connell, with help from sarcastic secretary Eve Arden triumph not because they’ve won the trial—a questionable verdict—but because they’ve restored meaning and purpose to themselves. For them, nothing else matters.
Setting, atmosphere, performance, seriousness, theme—all as believable as if the events happened today.