Chuck Ross

TVWeek Says Time to Set Your DVRs Again for a Wonderfully Entertaining Courtroom Drama, Made By Otto Preminger. Why Moviegoers, Music Lovers and Design Freaks All Owe A Debt of Gratitude to Preminger

Dec 22, 2012

There was a time, when I was in college, when I flirted with the idea of becoming a lawyer. As far back as I can remember I’ve been a person who asks question and more questions and then even more questions, leading or not. And trying to figure out the logic of a line of questions, or of an argument, has always thrilled me.

Thus I’ve always loved a good legal thriller. There has never been a time when I’m channel surfing and I happen across “The Firm” that I don’t stop and watch it from that moment on until its conclusion. Love that movie. Love the performances, love the script, love the Dave Grusin jazz-tinged score.

But the first legal thriller I fell in love with was Otto Preminger’s 1959 classic “Anatomy of a Murder.” Like “The Firm,” which was based on a best seller by John Grisham, “Anatomy of a Murder” was based on a best seller by Robert Traver. Traver was the pen name of a Michigan Supreme Court Justice named John D. Voelker. Like Grisham, Voelker had previously been a defense attorney, and based “Anatomy” on a real case of his.

When “Anatomy” came out – and I believe this is true even today – after seeing the movie real lawyers say it’s far more authentic in its legal detail than most courtroom dramas we see on TV or on stage or in the movies.

The performances in “Anatomy” are top notch. James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott, Murray Hamilton, Eve Arden – I could go on and on.

The movie is in glorious black & white. That the production looks so good is because of Sam Leavitt’s Oscar-nominated cinematography in this film, and the production design by Boris Leven.

“Anatomy” checks in at 2 hour and 41 minutes, but it’s superbly paced, so don’t let its running time put you off. If you get TCM, “Anatomy” is on at 11:15 p.m. tonight, Pacific Time Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012, which is actually 2:15 a.m. tomorrow morning Eastern Time. "Anatomy" is also available on iTunes and Amazon’s streaming service. If you’re an Amazon Prime customer, it’s free to stream. On Netflix "Anatomy" is available as a DVD, but not to stream.

I don’t want to say too much more about the movie, but I think the subject matter will surprise you, especially considering it was dealt with so frankly on screen more than 50 years ago.

I do want to say more about the film’s director, Otto Preminger. Preminger made some remarkably engaging movies, such as “Anatomy” and “Laura.” And he made his share of clunkers.

But what was really important about Preminger is that he was the first person to hire Saul Bass to do title sequences for the movies. It was a collaboration that lasted through 13 movies, starting in 1954 with “Carman Jones” and ending in 1979 with “The Human Factor.”

Here’s what Bass, who died in 1996, once said about Preminger: “He is a man noted for his willingness to blaze trails. Perhaps his most notable act of courage was to have the vision, or the temerity, depending on how you look at it, to pick a young designer who had never worked in film before and launch him on a second career. He’s a man who taught me that temperament and talent are not mutually exclusive. A man who I worked and fought with over the years and learned to love and appreciate.” This quote and the others below come from the exquisite biography of Bass published last year, "Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design," by Jennifer Bass (one of Saul’s daughters) and Pat Kirkham.

Specifically about the work Saul Bass did on the poster and title sequence of “Anatomy of a Murder” the great director and film historian Martin Scorsese has said, “Here’s another emblematic image, instantly recognizable and intimately tied to the film. There’s something lurid and garish about the black on red, which is perfectly keyed to the subject matter, then risqué, of ‘Anatomy of a Murder,’ one of Preminger’s best. And since the film is all about moral ambiguity and different points of view that never converge, it was brilliant to separate the [image of] the corpse in seven pieces.”

So for the movie sequences and the iconic posters Bass designed for Preminger’s films, we are eternally grateful.

And if, like me, you love a good movie score, you should also be singing Preminger’s praises. He was insistent – and remarkably consistent – in hiring composers who were beginning their film music careers or who rarely worked on films, to score his movies.

For example, the pulsating, throbbing score of “Anatomy of a Murder” was by Duke Ellington. On “Man with a Golden Arm,” Preminger hired Elmer Bernstein fairly near the start of Bernstein’s career. I would say that the music from that film is better-known than the movie itself.

Other outstanding composers Preminger hired include Jerry Fielding, David Raksin, Jerome Moross, Jerry Goldsmith, Mischa Spoilansky and Georges Auric, to name but a few.

The last word about Preminger I’ll give to Bass: “Otto had a vision. A true, artistic visual vision. He believed that what he knew…together with what would come out of our work, was worth defending to the death…I discovered that what we wound up with together was better than what I started with on my own. It was stimulating to me as a designer to have such strong opinions from someone who knew what he was talking about in terms of design.”


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