Tonight: James Stewart, with Lee Remick and Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant and George C. Scott in Otto Preminger’s crime classic Anatomy of a Murder.
Austrian-born Preminger established his reputation as a producer-director with the film-noir mystery Laura (1944).
In the 1950s, he played a major role in putting an end to film censorship in Hollywood by releasing his first independent picture, The Moon Is Blue, in 1953, without Production Code approval.
Six years later, he courted the censors’ wrath again with The Man With the Golden Arm—dealing with the previously taboo subject of drug addiction.
But it was Anatomy of a Murder in 1959 that caused the greatest controversy. It was a true story that dealt with adultery, revenge, rape and murder in a manner not seen on screen before.
Explicit references to “panties,” “intercourse,” “birth control,” “contraception” and “rape” made the movie unacceptable in Mayor Richard Daley’s Catholic Chicago.
And when Preminger refused to delete these references, the Chicago Censor Board—one of the last local censor boards in America—refused to give the film a permit required for exhibition in my hometown.
Luckily, a federal judge ruled in favor of the film and it was shown uncut.
Anatomy of a Murder was written by Robert Traver—a pen name for John D. Voelker, a Michigan Supreme Court Justice.
The only fictional character in the film is James Stewart’s sidekick, played by O’Connell.
Producers Eliot Hyman and Ray Stark bought the screen rights for $150,000 in October 1957.
The book was a best seller—having sold three million copies at the time.
Stewart made Anatomy of a Murder immediately after completing Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Bell, Book and Candle—both with Kim Novak.
Lana Turner was supposed to play the female lead—the wife of Ben Gazzara. But she proved too difficult to work with and Preminger replaced her with Lee Remick.
Remick had already been cast in another role in the picture—and that part was given to Kathryn Grant.
Grant had just married Bing Crosby and she would retire from films to raise a family after just one more picture.
This was George C. Scott’s second film, made immediately after The Hanging Tree with Gary Cooper the same year. He followed his performance in Anatomy with his most memorable role in The Hustler.
Spencer Tracy and Burl Ives both turned down the judge’s role that went to real judge Joseph N. Welch, famous for having destroyed the credibility of Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Army—McCarthy Hearings in 1954 by simply saying, “At last, sir, have you no decency?”
Duke Ellington has a small part in the film and provided the musical score.
The film deserves high marks for authenticity. Real locations were used, and we see the actual crime site. Further: The bullet hole in the bar came from the real murder. And: The actual courtroom was used in Marquette, Michigan.
The film began shooting on March 23 and wrapped May 15, 1959.
It premiered just six weeks later—on July 1, at the United Artists Theater in Detroit. The Hollywood Reporter stated: “Surefire entertainment. Tops the novel. The public seems sure to bring in a triumphant box office verdict in favor of Anatomy. Dialogue is frankly more graphic than any the screen has hitherto recorded.”
Variety agreed: “Beguiling, forceful, enthralling, adult, complex, confounding, laced with humor and human touches.” Scenes contain language never before heard in an American film with the Code seal.”
The film was nominated for seven Oscars—Best Picture, Best Actor for Jimmy Stewart, Best Supporting Actor for Arthur O’Connell and George C. Scott, Best Screenplay, Best Editing and Best Cinematography.
Unfortunately, Ben Hur swept the Oscars that year, including an Academy Award to Charlton Heston for Best Actor. Go figure!
And now, from 1959, Anatomy of a Murder.