Anatomy of a Murder: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)

February 17, 2012 9 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a small town lawyer who knows the courtroom like the back of his hand, but he doesn’t spend much time inside one anymore. Biegler used to be the prosecuting attorney for his small town, but after some time was voted out of office. Since then he has focused his attentions on his personal life and opts to spend his days with a fishing pole rather than law books and documents. But Biegler is about to return to his practice and take on a case that will have him and everyone else searching for answers in every possible place. His client Lt. Manion (Ben Gazzara) is accused of murder and he even admits guilt in the matter, but he claims he is innocent because the murder was a crime of passion. When Manion’s wife informed him she had been raped and who had raped her, Manion took the law into his own hands and killed the man. But Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) says that temporary insanity is not the cause for this crime, but that Manion premeditated the murder and then carried it through. When it comes to this case it seems like everyone has a different story, but we all know only one can be true.

If you consider yourself to be a film buff then I assume you’ve seen this movie. Fans of classic cinema herald this movie as one of the all-time best and a riveting courtroom drama, which holds your attention even after the final credits roll. Now imagine you haven’t seen this movie before, but you have heard all this talk about what a classic it is. I’ve seen this movie many times over the years and I do feel it is an excellent overall film with some outstanding performances, but I can see why some could let down upon their first viewing. I showed this movie to some friends a while back and they weren’t that impressed simply because they expected so much, due to all the praise they had heard about the movie. As such I will not tell you this movie is an all time great because I don’t think it is, but I do think it is a fantastic film in all regards. Is it the best courtroom drama of all time? No, but it is a very good one and worth watching and adding to your collection if you love classic cinema. I recommend this movie as a rental to those interested but I advise against buying this disc, since Columbia hasn’t even included the original widescreen version of the film.

This film was directed by Otto Preminger, who has directed several solid movies in his career. I think this movie was his finest work however as it has stood the test of time better than most of his films. The camera work in Anatomy Of A Murder is very good and always keeps us just the right distance from the events. The tension isn’t just built with dialogue in this movie, the camera also plays a role in setting the tone for the trial. If you want to see more of Preminger’s movies I recommend Centennial Summer, Advise And Consent, Forever Amber, and The Man With The Golden Arm. The screenplay was written by Wendell Mayes and was based on the novel by Robert Traver. I don’t usually discuss the musical score in this section, but Duke Ellington’s work on this film is superb and fits the movie to perfection. This film includes what I feel is James “Jimmy” Stewart’s finest performance, which is worth the price of admission alone. Stewart (Vertigo, It’s A Wonderful Life) plays the small town chum very well as usual, but expands the role in this movie. The supporting cast is also excellent and includes Ben Gazzara (The Big Lebowski, Summer of Sam), Kathryn Grant (The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad), Lee Remick (The Omen), and George C. Scott (Patton, Dr. Strangelove).

Video: How does it look?

Fans of this movie will realize that there’s been only one Region 1 offering and it’s a decade old. They’ll also know that the standard DVD was put out by Sony (then Columbia) and featured an open matte 1.33:1 version of the original 1.85:1 image. That didn’t go over too well. There was a Region 2 disc that contained a widescreen version of the film, so true devotees might have picked that one up. But that’s all in the past as Criterion has finally given this title the treatment it deserves. The newly-remastered 1.85:1 AVC HD image blows both previous versions out of the water. The black and white image features exceptional black levels and brings up the detail another notch or two. Obviously we get a “wider” picture on the sides due to the image, but we do lose a bit off top and bottom (no complaints I’m sure). There’s a fine layer of consistent grain throughout, but it’s to be expected. Contrast has been improved as well. Essentially anything and everything that could have been done to improve this picture is on this new version. Throw out your old DVD and replaced it with this Blu-ray.

Audio: How does it sound?

The original DVD contained a mono mix that was ample and adequate, but not really outstanding. Criterion has given us two soundtracks here, a newly-minted PCM Mono track and a more robust DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. Purists will want to go with the Mono, I’m sure but I’m a man of technology so I chose the 5.1 track. For those that haven’t ever seen this movie, I think you’re in for a nice surprise as Duke Ellington’s jazzy score sounds simply wonderful! There’s a bit of a limited range, even on the 5.1 mix, but it’s heads and tails over the original Mono mix (on the DVD). The new PCM Mono mix also sounds great, but decidedly a bit more suppressed than the 5.1 track. Dialogue sounds rich and full. No matter which way you go, Mono or DTS HD Master Audio – it’s the right choice.

Supplements: What are the extras?

The original DVD had a sparse selection of extras, but when Criterion gets their hands on something – you know you’re in for a real treat. First off is a newly-recorded interview with Otto Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch. This is jam-packed with little facts and tidbits about the man who knew Preminger probably better than he knew himself. Something I was drawn to was the segment focusing on the relationship between graphic designer Saul Bass and Preminger. This is an interview with Saul Bass biographer Pat Kirkham. There’s a ten minute excerpt from the television show Firing Line in which Preminger and William F. Buckley Jr. discuss censorship and the production code. Film critic Gary Giddins takes a look at Duke Ellington’s score in this new interview and we also get a five minute vintage newsreel promoting the film. More interesting is a 30 minute segment Anatomy of “Anatomy”. Also included are some photographs by Life Magazine’s Gjon Mili, the theatrical trailer and Criterion’s booklet featuring an essay by critic Nick Pinkerton.

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