Tuesday, July 01, 2014

A Flawless Dramatization of a Murder Trial

"Twelve people go off into a room: 12 different minds, 12 different hearts, from 12 different walks of life; 12 sets of eyes, ears, shapes and sizes. And these 12 people are asked to judge another human being as different from them as they are from each other. And in their judgment, they must become of one mind — unanimous. It's one of the miracles of man's disorganized soul that they can do it, and in most instances, do it right well. God bless juries."

Parnell (Arthur O'Connell)

Jimmy Stewart is one of my favorite actors, and he gave many astonishing performances in his career.

One of my favorites was in Otto Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder," which premiered on this date in 1959. My personal opinion is that it was flawless.

In the movie, Ben Gazzara played a young soldier who killed a man for allegedly raping and beating his wife (Lee Remick). One small problem, though. No evidence of a rape could be found. Stewart, a small–town lawyer, was retained to defend him in court, and Stewart discovered via interviews and his own observations that the defendant was jealous and possessive and his wife apparently had been promiscuous.

That would be a hard sell in court.

The alternative theory of what happened went something like this: Remick and the man were lovers. Gazzara found out about it, killed the man and beat up Remick, then coerced her into backing up his version of events. That would sound more logical to a small–town jury, especially given Gazzara's defense.

Gazzara said he was not guilty because he had been in the grip of an irresistible impulse, a rather complicated mostly legal concept that seemed to offer a plausible explanation for what happened — but was seen as hard for juries to get their minds around.

And I speak from experience.

At one time, I covered the police beat in a rather modestly sized county in Arkansas, which also meant covering local trials from time to time. In that capacity, I observed the usual courtroom procedures, from selecting a jury to examining and cross–examining witnesses.

I witnessed attempts to explain complicated legal concepts to largely rural juries, and I have a great deal of respect for any lawyer who tries to do it. It's a lot more difficult than a casual observer might think.

I also got to observe judicial sidebars, in which the attorneys for both sides would approach the bench and confer on issues, usually out of earshot of those in the courtroom.

Such a conference in "Anatomy of a Murder" never fails to amuse me. It concerned the alleged rape of the defendant's wife and the panties she had worn that night, which were unaccounted for.

The rape had been mentioned in a witness' testimony, and the judge felt it was necessary, at that point, to fully address the subject of rape, and that meant introducing the topic of the panties.

"There's a certain light connotation attached to the word 'panties,'" the judge said. "Can we find another name for them?"

"I never heard my wife call 'em anything else," the local prosecuting attorney said.

The judge looked at Stewart. "Mr. Biegler?"

"I'm a bachelor, your honor," Stewart replied.

"That's a great help," the judge said and turned to the prosecuting attorney from the state capitol (George C. Scott). "Mr. Dancer?"

"When I was overseas during the war," he said, "I learned a French word. I'm afraid that might be slightly suggestive."

"Most French words are," said the judge.

Always makes me laugh. Never fails.

Then the judge announced to the court, "For the benefit of the jury, but more especially for the spectators, the garment mentioned in the testimony was, to be exact, Mrs. Manion's panties."

As one might expect, hoots of laughter greeted this announcement, and the judge continued.

"I wanted to get your snickering over and done with. This pair of panties will be mentioned again over the course of this trial, and when it is, there will not be one laughter, one snicker, one giggle or even one smirk in my courtroom. There is nothing comic about a pair of panties that resulted in the violent death of one man and the possible incarceration of another."

That is precisely the sort of thing that the judges I covered would have said, too.

The conclusion of a courtroom drama, like that of a murder mystery, should never be revealed to someone who has not yet seen (or read) it — so, to be on the safe side, I won't tell you what happened.

I will tell you it was a very realistic depiction of a trial. It even took on some legal subjects about which I often wondered when I was covering the police beat.

In particular, I wondered the same thing that Gazzara's character wondered when the judge instructed the jury to disregard a certain piece of testimony.

Gazzara leaned over to Stewart and whispered, "How can a jury disregard what it's already heard?"

And, in perhaps the most honest line in the movie, Stewart replied, "They can't, lieutenant. They can't."

"Anatomy of a Murder" received seven Oscar nominations, including two for Best Supporting Actor (Scott and O'Connell), but not one for the Duke Ellington jazz music that gave the movie such a distinctive flavor.

It probably wouldn't have mattered if the music had been nominated, though. It was the year of "Ben–Hur," and "Anatomy of a Murder" lost four Oscars to that movie alone.