Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Revisiting the 'Classics'

It's just under a year ago that I saw and reviewed "Bridesmaids" (see June 23 '11) which has just made it appearance on Sky Premiere. Since I keep seeing references to the film as 'a modern comedy classic', I thought I should have another look and did not read my blog in preparation.  I really didn't enjoy the re-visit, finding the overall tone bitter, managing only the occasional chuckle, subsequently reading that  I accused myself of having a "humour bypass" the first time 'round. In other words it seems to take very little to land the 'classic' mantle nowadays.  Yes, it was possibly the first time that a largely female cast proved that they could be as raunchy as the lads, and yes both Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy give memorable turns, and yes there is the odd smart line or situation, but on balance it remains an over-long, episodic, hit-or-miss production.  Sorry, fans!

On the other hand I have just watched "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959) for probably the fifth or sixth time and enjoyed all two and a half hours of this courtroom classic -- and I use the word 'classic' advisedly.  It is long because it remains possibly overly faithful to the original novel by John D. Volker, aka Robert Travers, based on an actual case and court records in his part of Northern Michigan where he was County Prosecutor, and little of the Court procedure is omitted in the telling.  The trial is that of a soldier (Ben Gazzara) who is accused of killing the man who purportedly raped his wife (Lee Remick).  For the defence is country lawyer James Stewart's Paul Biegler and for the prosecution is another local lawyer assisted by a hotshot mouthpiece from the State capitol (George C. Scott). Sitting on the bench is real-life lawyer Joseph N. Welch whose moment of glory occurred when he defended the Army in the McCarthy hearings.  Rounding out Stewart's team are his faithful, sardonic secretary Eve Arden, whose salary is well in arrears, and his somewhat drunken legal pal -- a brilliant Arthur O'Connell, one of several Academy nominees for this film and the second or third best thing in it (in a movie where even the minor cast members were excellent: John Qualen, Murray Hamilton, and Kathryn Grant -- later Mrs. Bing Crosby -- among others).  Finally add a fine jazz score for the jazz-loving Biegler from the great Duke Ellington, who appears in a brief cameo as 'Pie Eye', and all of the ingredients are in place for a viewing treat.

The film is probably director Otto Preminger's masterpiece (some people think it was Stewart's as well, although I maintain that he is nearly always marvellous in all of his roles.)  The film was infamous in its day for its frank discussion of rape, provocative behaviour, and whether it is right to wear 'panties' rather than a girdle. (The very young and extremely nubile Remick knows how to wiggle her wares here).  However controversy was nothing new for Preminger whose 1953 movie "The Moon is Blue" (not a film that has held up well) shocked the Censors' Office with its use of language like 'virgin' and 'mistress'.  It may take a lot less to shock the modern viewer, but this film remains something special because of its wonderful cast and extremely adept script. While a contemporary of two other courtroom dramas "12 Angry Men" and "Witness for the Prosecution", both masterly films and personal favourites, "Anatomy of a Murder" has the master mix of courtroom cleverness married to well-rounded and cleverly played characters.  In his traditionally laid-back style, Biegler is well aware that information and questions subsequently over-ruled by the Judge, can not really be forgotten by a jury who know what they have just heard.

Spoilers are probably less relevant when writing about older films (but look away now if you've never seen this beauty).  Having tutored his client in claiming his innocence by pleading temporary insanity -- a fleeting irresistible impulse -- Biegler is hoist with his own petard at the film's end when the cleared Gazzara and his sexy wife use the same excuse to decamp without paying their legal bills.  "Never mind" thinks the easy-going Stewart and his now more sober sidekick O'Connell, there's the dead man's estate to manage.  Now that's classic film-making however you slice it!
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