In the Catbird Seat/Joe Kirkish
There is one film genre that has lasting audience appeal: the courtroom drama.
Look back over the decades to find films that will outlive all the blockbusters and chase flicks of the present, all the way back to 1928 for Carl Dreyer’s memorable silent “Passion of Joan of Arc”?shot almost entirely in extreme close-ups, with a “dialog” taken from the actual heresy trial.
Then there’s Kubrick’s 1957 “Paths of Glory” with Kirk Douglas as a French officer who must defend three poor grunts during WWI. And the 1961 “Judgment at Nuremberg” recreation with Spencer Tracy presiding over a distillation of the post WWII trials of alleged Nazi war criminals.
Tracy returns in the controversial 1960 “Inherit the Wind” as Clarence Darrow in the Scopes Monkey Trial, arguing against Fredric March as William Jennings Bryan. Continuing with southern trials is the 1962 Harper Lee’s masterpiece “To Kill a Mockingbird,
with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch defending a framed black man.
In 1957, Sidney Lumet brought an explosive movie that takes place almost entirely in the jury room with “12 Angry Men” with Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb heading an excellent cast.
Oh, and so many other fine courtroom films including Paul Newman in “The Verdict,” Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible,” and William Faulkner’s tense “Intruder in the Dust.” But if there is one film that should need little introduction it is the 1959 classic, “Anatomy of a Murder,” which is tomorrow’s Club Indigo at The Calumet Theatre.
The last time it was shown there, about eight years ago, it topped all other Club Indigo showings, with at least a third of the audience, to relive their 15-minutes of fame, recalling their roles as extras in the courtroom scenes.
Of added interest, in the Rotten Tomatoes listing (a rare 100 percent approval) was the statement: “One of cinema’s greatest courtroom dramas was filmed on location in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It is tense, thought-provoking, and brilliantly acted, with great performances down to the least roles.”
Based on the best-selling novel by Robert Traver (pen name for Michigan Supreme Court justice John D. Voelker), the movie features James Stewart as a seat-of-the-pants lawyer, Paul Biegler. Through the intervention of his mentor, Biegler accepts the case of one Lt. Manion (Ben Gazzara), an unlovable lout who has admitted murdering a local bar owner, citing as his motive the victim’s rape of his alluring wife (Lee Remick).
Faced with formidable opposition of big-city prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), Biegler hopes to win freedom for his client by using as his defense the argument of “irresistible impulse.”
Also featured in the cast is Eve Arden as Biegler’s sardonic secretary, Katharine Grant as the woman who inherits the dead man’s business, and Joseph N. Welch -who in real life was the defense attorney in the Army-McCarthy hearings – as the ever patient judge. A progressive jazz score is provided by Duke Ellington, who also appears in one scene.
The movie made history when producer/director Otto Preminger – famous for pushing envelopes – once again does so by utilizing technical terminology referring to sexual penetration, which up until 1959 was a cinematic no-no. Contrary to popular belief, the clever producer was not merely being faithful to the novel since most of the banter about “panties” and “semen,” not to mention the 11th-hour courtroom surprise revelation, were invented for the film.
Reviews were collectively exuberant, with the NY Times critic Bosley Crowther heading the list, writing: “After watching an endless succession of courtroom melodramas that push the bounds of human reason and the rules of advocacy, it is cheering and fascinating to see one that hews magnificently to a line of dramatic but reasonable behavior and proper procedure in a court. Such a one is ‘Anatomy of a Murder,’ which is the best courtroom melodrama this old critic has ever seen.”
He continues: “Most brilliantly revealed is the character of the lawyer for the defense, a part that is played by “aw shucks” James Stewart in one of the finest performances of his career. Slowly and subtly, he presents us a warm, clever, adroit and complex man – and, most particularly, a portrait of a trial lawyer in action that will be difficult for anyone to surpass.
“Outside of the fact that this drama is long – well over two hours, most of which is spent splendidly in court – it is flawless as a picture of an American court at work, of small-town American characters and of the average sordidness of crime.”
This unforgettable courtroom drama will be shown tomorrow the 9th at 7:15 p.m., preceded at 6 p.m. by a large buffet of miscellaneous U.P. ethnic samples from Cormac at Laurium’s Irish Times. Cost is $19 for both food and film; $5 for film alone. Reductions for kids ten and younger. For seating at the buffet, a call to the theater is urged by 5 p.m. today: 337-2610.
The Copper Harbor Village Stores sponsor the film.
Rotten Tomatoes average: “Elysium,” D+