Anatomy of a Murder: The Criterion Collection [DVD]

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Synopsis: A virtuoso James Stewart plays a small-town Michigan lawyer who takes on a difficult case: the defense of a young army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) accused of murdering a local tavern owner who he believes raped his wife (Lee Remick). This gripping envelope-pusher, the most popular film by Hollywood provocateur Otto Preminger, was groundbreaking for the frankness of its discussion of sex—but more than anything else, it is a striking depiction of the power of words. Featuring an outstanding supporting cast—with a young George C. Scott as a fiery prosecutor and the legendary attorney Joseph N. Welch as the judge—and an influential score by Duke Ellington, Anatomy of a Murder is an American movie landmark, nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture.

Main Features: The new Criterion Collection edition of "Anatomy of A Murder" is my grand introduction to two things: Criterion and the work of Otto Preminger. Having been aware of his film "The Man With the Golden Arm," I was intrigued by the synopsis of "Anatomy of a Murder" and it's cast, led by Stewart. I was very much not let down. "Anatomy of a Murder" plays out like the greatest "Law & Order" episode, one filled with many complex pieces and rising tension and suspense, multiplied by ten. The curious and frank nature of the story filled with intense dialogue peppered with light wit keeps the 161 minute running time brisk and engaging. I've read that original issues of the film in the home entertainment market were in full screen presentation. I am pleased to be able to experience this film for the first time in a fantastic 1:85:1 aspect ratio widescreen format. What strikes me is the black-and-white presentation, vivid and real, complimenting the guilty/not guilty realism of our justice system that the film documents greatly. The performances, led by Stewart, Scott and Gazzara, the latter who died last month before this fine release was available. The score, composed by jazz legend Duke Ellington, infuses itself within the threads of the film's plot, latching onto scenes, words and characters like no other composition could. And one can not ignore the true grit honesty of critical, specific details of rape and murder that "Anatomy of a Murder" tackles, so shocking these were in 1959 that the film was officially banned in the city of Chicago. Nowadays, we hear worse on network television. But with this risque dialogue, for it's time, is coupled by an innate sense of superior quality. Too bad the film was part of long history of works nominated for multiple Academy Awards, walking away grasping little-to-nothing: "Anatomy of a Murder" was trampled on by the "Ben-Hur" roller-coaster. That notwithstanding, "Anatomy of a Murder" is still a recognized film among filmmakers, audiences and members of the law community as an astounding achievement.

Menus: The key part of Saul Bass' classic poster--the broken pieces of a human body outline--are front and center with menu selections around the body's pieces as Ellington's lovely music plays over.

Bonus Features: As with previous Criterion Collection releases (obviously that I've read about and not experienced until now), "Anatomy of a Murder" has a great batch of special features on the second disc. A half-hour interview with Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch is thorough and informative. A set of excerpts from a 1967 episode of the TV show "Firing Line" in which Preminger defends his staunch stance against censorship show's the filmmaker's passion for free speech in all forms of media. Follow that up with a look at Ellington's memorable score and the relationship of Bass and Preminger, and you have one fully-formed set, compliments of Criterion.

Final Call: "Anatomy of a Murder" has been given a fantastic treatment by the folks at Criterion, adjudicating a polished DVD set worthy of first-time or reminiscent viewings.

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