1959’s Anatomy of a Murder and historical fiction (#SFWApro)

Although a little dated, ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959) — all rights to image remain with current holder — is an excellent film. And it’s a good example of what a gold mine movies can be for writers.

Taking the film first: based on a roman a clef novel, this stars Jimmy Stewart as Biegler, a prosecutor now listlessly running a private practice since his Michigan county voted him out of office. He becomes less listless when Laura Manion (Lee Remick) recruits him to represent her husband, an Army lieutenant charged with gunning down a local man. Lt. Manion claims the man raped Laura, but Biegler explains to him that avenging her isn’t a defense (it was well after the crime took place). Instead, he goes with an “irresistible impulse” defense — that Manion lost control of himself in the heat of learning what happened. Prosecutor Dancer (George C. Scott) will try to prove Mannion was completely rational, and that maybe he killed the man because Laura was sleeping with him.

It’s a great cast (also including Arthur O’Connell as Biegler’s sidekick and Eve Arden as his long-suffering secretary), a well-done film (for an analysis of its legal weaknesses, check out the book Reel Justice). What was once shocking — a discussion in court about Laura’s underwear — now seems tame, but that’s not the movie’s selling point. And I wasn’t as bothered as usual by the “was she really raped?” aspect as the issue isn’t “did she falsely accuse a guy?” as much as “is she giving her husband a phony alibi?” (though Reel Justice points out that even if she hooked up voluntarily with the victim, irresistible impulse could still apply). Though the ending has overtones (involving Manion’s alleged spousal abuse) that make me a little queasy. Still, even at 2hrs 40 minutes, it never felt slow to me.

Now, back to the gold mine. In his Hollywood History of the World, novelist George MacDonald Fraser said he would give his eyeteeth to have a visual record of the Victorian age equivalent to 1930s Hollywood films: the way people dress, the way the streets and fire escapes look, the way a man holds a cigarette or clasps a woman. And that’s pretty much true of Anatomy of a Murder. Shot on location, it gives us a view of a small Upper Peninsula town, a cluttered law library, a trailer park. Manion smoking a fancy cigarette holder. Descriptions of women’s underwear (even as someone born in 1958, it’s startling to realize how many underwear items a woman might be wearing). The streets. A small bar. Cars. Men’s clothes. Men’s hats. Women’s clothes. Of course, it’s fiction and can’t sum up the entire era or even the year (the book Hatless Jack points out that a lot of younger men in this period went hatless), but it brings to life what books about past fashions or styles can only describe.

And it’s a heck of a good movie.

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Filed under Movies, Writing

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