Release Date(s)1959 (October 12, 2010)
Studio(s)Carlyle Productions/Columbia Pictures (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
[Editor’s Note: The film review is by Barrie Maxwell, from his look at the 2012 Criterion Blu-ray. The 4K video, audio, and extras portions are by Bill Hunt. Note that though we’re reviewing the films in this set one by one, Anatomy of a Murder is currently only available on physical 4K disc in Sony’s Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection: Volume 2 box set. It’s available on Amazon by clicking here, or on any of the artwork pictured in this review.]
Anatomy of a Murder focuses on the trial of Frederick Manion (played by Ben Gazzara), an army lieutenant accused of killing a bartender who allegedly raped his wife, Laura (Lee Remick). Manion is defended by small-town Michigan lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart). The prosecution is handled by local attorney Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West) and an assistant D.A. from Lansing, Claude Dancer (George C. Scott).
The case seems to be fairly open-and-shut since there is no doubt that Manion did the killing. At issue, however, is the question of what defense there might be for his having done it. Lawyer Biegler decides to take the tack of “irresistible impulse” as rationale for the killing. Complicating the situation is Laura’s rather loose reputation coupled with Manion’s penchant for violence and possessiveness.
Almost everything about Anatomy of a Murder is right—from the direction to the cast to the music to the location work. The film is a long one at almost 2 3/4 hours with much of it set in a courtroom, but one is virtually unaware of time passing as the battle of wits between Stewart and Scott proceeds. Director Otto Preminger (one of the first notable independent producer-directors) chose to film entirely on location in northern Michigan, using the Marquette courtroom as his principal set and many local people to fill the courtroom as spectators and as jury members. Preminger completed shooting in two months and the finished product was fully characteristic of the Preminger style: direction unobtrusive in nature, long takes, simple and fluid camera movements, and natural yet careful camera framings.
James Stewart is the main star of Anatomy of a Murder and the part of the small-town lawyer fits him like a glove. He brings passion and forcefulness to his playing of Paul Biegler, while his characteristic everyman persona worked perfectly with Biegler’s idiosyncrasies—such as fishing instead of looking for clients and noodling on the piano. Stewart’s performance was a fitting conclusion to a decade that had seen him grow substantially as an actor, with acclaimed work with Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock. He received Best Actor honours from both the New York Film Critics and Venice Film Festival for Anatomy of a Murder, as well as an Academy Award nomination. Stewart’s Biegler character has sometimes been cited as the inspiration for his casting as small-town, West Virginia lawyer Billy Jim Hawkins in the 1973-74 TV series Hawkins.
The other real joy of Anatomy of a Murder is George C. Scott’s performance. Just watching his facial reactions as he listens to Stewart questioning witnesses provides a lesson in acting in itself. The exchanges between Scott and Stewart are mesmerizing; such is the intensity of the interchanges between their characters and the skill with which they are portrayed. Scott was still early in his career at this point, but one can already see the mannerisms and experience the flashing, commanding eyes that would be such a part of Scott’s crowning achievement in Patton eleven years later, the finest acting achievement that I have seen in films.
Another aspect of Anatomy of a Murder that bears special mention is the jazz score by Duke Ellington. It provides a wonderful counterpoint to the film, both in tempo and in sense of location. We first experience it during the opening credits and initial scenes and it immediately dates the film for us. You could start to watch the film for the first time with your eyes closed and the music would tell you right away that you were watching something from the ’50s. There is also a very welcome appearance of Ellington in a short musical sequence about a third of the way into the film in which Ellington and Stewart are sitting at the same piano playing together. (In South Africa, the film was actually banned because of the inclusion of this scene.)
Anatomy of a Murder was shot on 35 mm photochemical film using spherical lenses and was finished photochemically at the 1.85:1 “flat” aspect ratio for its theatrical release. The original camera negative was the subject of a physical restoration in the 1990s to repair wear and tear, including sections made from poor quality dupe negatives. For this Ultra HD release, the original camera negative was scanned in 4K, as was a third-generation dupe negative (the best available non-OCN image source, as no master positive has been found). This material was conformed and digitally restored to create a new 4K Digital Intermediate, which was then graded for high dynamic range (only HDR10 is available on this disc). The result is mostly excellent, with a vast improvement in resolution, fine detail, and texturing over the 2002 DVD release. Textiles, skin, and hair all exhibit lovely refinement. Grain is light to moderate, but organic. Shadows are deeply black, if a little bit lacking in detail (not uncommon for films of this vintage), but the highlights are bold indeed. Footage sourced from the dupe negative exhibits an obvious loss in quality, but it’s not dramatic. And while this is essentially the same source that was used to create Criterion’s 2012 Blu-ray release, the new 4K presentation offers dramatic gains in resolution and precision. The HDR grade makes a big difference too. This is far and away the best that Anatomy of a Murder has looked on any screen since its original release.
Primary audio on Sony’s 4K disc is a new object-based English Dolby Atmos mix that offers a bigger, broader, and more immersive soundstage—with clean dialogue and a higher reference volume level—than the previous Criterion Blu-ray. While this film originally had mono audio in theaters, and it’s an almost entirely-dialogue driven experience, the Atmos mix creates highly effective and unique sonic ambience for each location—the courtroom, the jailhouse, etc. What’s more, a stereo recording of the film’s magnificent Duke Ellington score was used to stage it naturally in the mix. The fidelity of the recording is superb, rendering the music in lush, velvety tones, with rich bass, and a crisp clarity that allows the percussion to linger in the air before it decays. Yet remarkably, for all of this, the original sonic character of the film has somehow been preserved—a damn neat trick. (This disc is a master class on how to mix Atmos for a film of this type and vintage.) And for purists, that original English 2.0 mono track is still available here in DTS-HD Master Audio format, as is the previous English 5.1 mix (also in DTS-HD MA). Additional audio options include French, German, Italian, and Castilian Spanish 2.0 mono in DTS-HD MA format, along with Portuguese and Latin Spanish in 2.0 mono Dolby Digital. Subtitles are available in English, English SDH, Arabic, Bulgarian, Traditional Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Brazilian Portuguese, Portuguese, Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, Swedish, and Turkish.
Sony’s 4K disc includes no special features, however the package also includes the film in 1080p HD on Blu-ray, sourced from the new 4K master. That disc adds the following special features:
- Audio Commentary with Forster Hirsch
- Garry Giddins Interview (HD – 21:45)
- Pat Kirkham Interview (HD – 14:52)
- Foster Hirsch Interview (HD – 29:43)
- Excerpt from Firing Line Featuring Otto Preminger (SD – 10:22)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 4:49)
The audio commentary with film historian Forster Hirsch is new for this release. The author of Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King, Hirsh has extensive knowledge of both the filmmaker and this production, making the track an engaging listening experience. In terms of the interview segments, Giddins discusses Duke Ellington and the film’s score, Kirkham addresses the Saul Bass title sequence, and Hirsch talks generally about Preminger and this production. These, the trailer, and the excerpt from Firing Line with William F. Buckley, Jr. are carried over from the Criterion Blu-ray. Missing from that edition are the vintage newsreel footage, the Gjon Mili photos, and the excepts from the in-progress Anatomy of Anatomy documentary.
It should also be noted that the Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection: Volume 2 box includes Movies Anywhere Digital codes for all of the films in the set, including this one. It also offers a beautiful 80-page hardcover book with liner notes (including Dissecting Anatomy of a Murder by Julie Kirgo), as well as a bonus Blu-ray that features 20 short films from the Columbia Pictures library. For the record, that bonus disc includes the following, all on HD:
- Umpa (1933 – 16:32)
- The Three Stooges: Disorder in the Court (1936 – 16:38)
- Charley Chase: Man Bites Lovebug (1937 – 17:50)
- >Color Rhapsodies: Little Match Girl (1937 – 8:17)
- Charley Chase: The Sap Takes a Wrap (1939 – 16:16)
- Color Rhapsodies: Dog, Cat and Canary (1945 – 6:10)
- Jolly Frolics: The Ragtime Bear (1949 – 7:14)
- Jolly Frolics: The Wonder Gloves (1951 – 6:50)
- Jolly Frolics: Georgie and the Dragon (1951 – 6:43)
- Jolly Frolics: Madeline (1952 – 6:40)
- Jolly Frolics: Pete Hothead (1952 – 6:52)
- The Tell-Tale Heart (1953 – 7:45)
- When Magoo Flew (1954 – 6:31)
- The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1954 – 6:49)
- Christopher Crumpet’s Playmate (1955 – 6:30)
- Stage Door Magoo (1955 – 6:28)
- April in Portugal (1956 – 20:14)
- The ChubbChubbs! (2002 – 5:40)
- The Early Hatchling Gets the Worm (2016 – 2:06)
- Puppy! A Hotel Transylvania Short (2017 – 4:53)
And while the discs come packaged in a traditional 2-disc keepcase (with a cardboard slipcover), the insert artwork is based on the film’s original theatrical poster (you can see both pictured below).
Anatomy of a Murder is another terrific film classic from the Columbia catalog that’s never sounded better and certainly hasn’t looked this good in many years. This 4K Ultra HD release is very highly recommended (and the remastered Blu-ray is fantastic too).
- Barrie Maxwell and Bill Hunt