26/03/2011

Anatomy Of A Murder (1959)



Jimmy Stewart and Duke Ellington rocking out in a scene from Otto Preminger's ace courtroom slanging match Anatomy Of A Murder, for which Ellington supplied the snappy jazz score.

Notorious for the controversy it stirred up on release over the use of such shocking words as "rape", "panties" and "spermatogenesis", Preminger's film tells of former district attorney Paul Biegler (Stewart), a small-town lawyer happily spending his twilight years in Michigan's scenic Upper Peninsula fly-fishing, playing bebop records and drinking away the long summer evenings with his alcoholic partner Parnell McCarthy (Arthur Connell) and wry secretary Maida (Eve Arden). Biegler's sleepy, Rockwellian idyll is interrupted, however, when he is contacted by trailer park femme fatale Laura Mannion (Lee Remick, perhaps best known for her performance as Katherine Thorn in The Omen, 1976), who asks him to defend her soldier husband, Lieutenant Frederick Mannion (Ben Gazzara), accused of murdering the local bartender who raped her, Barney Quill. Biegler is tempted by the high-profile nature of the case and the chance to run up against the man who succeeded him in office, Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West, Arden's real husband), but has doubts about both Mannions: the overtly promiscuous Laura and her shifty, aggressive spouse, clearly prone to outbursts of rage. Eventually Biegler agrees to take the case on the understanding that Mannion will enter a temporary insanity plea. Matters soon heat up at the trial when Lodwick brings in a ringer, Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), an assistant to the state's attorney general and a formidable opponent with more than a few tricks nestling up his immaculately-tailored sleeve.


A class act all the way, from its Saul Bass opening credits onwards, Preminger's Anatomy Of A Murder is as good a legal drama as you'll see and gives 1957's earnest 12 Angry Men a run for its money. There's not a bad performance in its entire 160 minute running time - from Stewart, Scott and Gazzara to Murray Hamilton as unfriendly witness Alphonse Paquette - but special mention has to go to Joseph N. Welch as the infinitely patient and delightfully droll Judge Weaver. Welch really was a judge, rather than an actor, and had come to the world's attention following his heroic performance representing the US army against Senator Joseph McCarthy in a series of 1954 hearings conducted by the US Senate's Subcommittee on Investigations, in which Welch famously asked McCarthy, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" a fruitful line of inquiry that was greeted with wild applause from the gallery. As a thespian, Welch beat Burl Ives and Spencer Tracy to the role of Judge Weaver and makes it his own. Lee Remick is also wonderfully slutty in a part she only won after Lana Turner refused to appear in tight slacks and slapped Preminger for the suggestion. Laura's first meeting with Biegler is underscored by a knowing alto sax riff from Ellington's main man Johnny Hodges while the film's closing shot, of her abandoned shoe hanging out of a garbage can, says it all.

Wendell Mayes's screenplay was based on a best-selling 1958 novel of the same name by Robert Traver, the pen name of Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker, who in turn had taken inspiration from a real-life homicide that took place at the Lumberjack Tavern in Big Bay, Michigan, in 1952 and the subsequent legal fallout in which Voelker became professionally embroiled.

The script and source are both sharp and coolly cynical about the realities of major court cases, arguing that they rely too heavily on subjective human judgement and interpretation and can easily descend into personality contests. Biegler and Dancer both understand that the whole shooting match is vulnerable to manipulation, that attorneys can sway jurors with showbiz pizazz, wisecracks and rhetoric and that a well constructed argument is only one aspect of the game. The former is deliberately provocative throughout the film's lengthy trial scenes, making inflammatory statements, histrionic gestures and asking questions he knows will be objected to by the prosecution because he understands that winning Mannion's case is really a matter of performance, of battling for the hearts and minds of an audience, much like an actor. "How can a jury disregard what it's already heard?" asks the defendant of his counsel. "They can't", Biegler replies with a smile. Similarly, he wryly paints himself as, "just a humble country lawyer doing the best I can against the brilliant prosecutor from the big city of Lansing", much to the chagrin of his city slicker opponent, who is equally not above physically standing between a witness and their counsel in order to stifle communication. As Biegler's boozy colleague Parnell puts it:

"Twelve people go off into a room: twelve different minds, twelve different hearts, from twelve different walks of life; twelve sets of eyes, ears, shapes, and sizes. And these twelve people are asked to judge another human being as different from them as they are from each other. And in their judgment, they must become of one mind - unanimous. It's one of the miracles of Man's disorganised soul that they can do it, and in most instances, do it right well. God bless juries."


Ultimately, we are left unsure of whether Barney Quill's rape of Laura was really just that, a non-consensual violation, the circumstances surrounding his violent death having occurred some time before the events of Preminger's film. At its close, Biegler has argued the facts available to him logically and to the best of his ability and won the case but since the Mannions have skipped town without paying their bill it looks like they had something to hide after all. Maybe some people are just trash.

Duke Ellington - Theme From Anatomy Of A Murder

19/03/2011

The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)


I don't know if the term "Swingin' Gothic" has been coined yet but that's about the best I can come up with to describe this self-consciously ridiculous, pre-slasher seventies horror comedy starring Vincent Price. Set in mid-1920's London, the eponymous evil genius (Price) is out to avenge the death of his wife on the poor surgeons who were unable to save her life following a bad car wreck. Seizing upon a second auto accident (yep) to fake his own death, Phibes, a famous organist and theological scholar now badly scarred beneath a rubber mask and unable to talk, holes himself away in a bizarre art deco mansion and contrives to murder the doctors involved one by one in the style of the Old Testament's ten plagues of Egypt - bees, bats, rats, locusts, darkness etc. Comic relief Detective Inspector Trout (Peter Jeffrey) of Scotland Yard is on the case but can he stop the madman before he slays a good portion of England's jobbing character actors?

The opening credits of this enjoyably silly Phantom Of The Opera variation from director Robert Fuest (who went on to shoot episodes of TV's The New Avengers, 1976-77) and shlock producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson tell you all you need to know. The scene opens on a hooded Price hammering and flailing away at some Mendelssohn on a levitating, neon red grand organ in suitably tormented fashion while an aviary of stuffed birds and a mechanical orchestra ('Dr Phibes' Clockwork Wizards') look on blankly. The more we see of Phibes' lair the more alarming things get - decked out in lavender and rose drapes with gold trimmings, all ugly statuary and floor-lit faux-marble staircases, the place seems to have been designed not so much by Phibes but someone even more ghastly and demented: Laurence Llewellyn Bowen. It later transpires that Phibes' idiosyncratic tastes extend to being chauffeured around in a jalopy that has his face sketched onto its blacked-out windows by a mute chick in knee high boots and furs who insists on playing a mournful violin whenever anyone gets murdered. Okaaay... By the time you see this kooky pair carting around golden wheelbarrows full of sprouts and cabbages with which to concoct their latest ludicrously convoluted homicide (no, really), you've probably just about given up on questioning the logic of this daftest of films entirely.


However, the forced eccentricity and plodding surrealism of the execution aside, The Abominable Dr Phibes actually has plenty to recommend it. There are good turns from Jeffrey and Hugh Griffith as a suspiciously Welsh rabbi in a cobwebbed synagogue, plus an all-too-brief cameo from Terry-Thomas as a leching physician who can't wait for his housekeeper to take the night off so that he can get back to swilling brandy and cranking his projector (ahem) over some saucy belly-dancing films before Phibes breaks in and drains his body entirely of blood. The great Joseph Cotten looks more than a little tired in a supporting role but it's nice to see him all the same. There's also some well observed British class satire on show, as when an elderly aristocrat in a gentleman's club complains irritably about the noise, before bristling his moustache and returning to his newspaper, as two policeman try to quietly aid a man impaled through the chest with a brass unicorn bust.

As a horror film, Phibes acts as a homage to some of the krazier excesses of the genre from its 1930's heyday (when films like Karl Freund's Mad Love were doing the rounds) but it also anticipates the Biblically-inspired ritual killing of David Fincher's Se7en (1995) and the ingeniously gory death traps of the more recent Saw franchise (2003-10), mostly obviously in the scene where Cotten must perform emergency heart surgery on his son to retrieve a key but also in the head-crushing frog mask donned by an unsuspecting psychiatrist  at Phibes' gala ball. A cruel joke on a self-proclaimed "head shrinker". Meanwhile Phibes' grand unveiling at the film's conclusion, where we are finally treated to the full extent of his horrific deformity, also reveals an obvious inspiration for Wes Craven's Freddie Krueger from A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984).

Price is clearly having fun with a character that almost serves as an amalgam of his many great horror roles - think of his Prince Prospero in Roger Corman's The Masque Of The Red Death (1964) and Matthew Hopkins in Michael Reeves's Witchfinder General (1968) - though the premise squanders the actor's usual expressive style and plummy voice, which is only ever heard via a tinny gramophone recording. Price would return to the role a year later in a sequel, Dr Phibes Rises Again!, and also appeared in another rather similar British production in 1973, Theatre Of Blood, in which he played a stage actor who assassinates his critics in increasingly elaborate ways borrowed from Shakespeare plays. Phibes meanwhile lives on through various punk tributes by bands such as The Misfits and The Damned and indirectly via recent interpretations of the Batman villain Victor Freeze, whose tragic wife-on-ice backstory can be traced back to poor old Anton Phibes and his embalmed other half.

12/03/2011

The Outlaw (1943)



The late Jane Russell, who passed away last month aged 89, got her big break in this weird RKO Western produced and directed by mad aviation tycoon Howard Hughes, with a little help from an uncredited Howard Hawks. The famously buxom Russell was featured prominently on the film's poster artwork (above) and in its publicity campaign but, in truth, her role as a feisty Mexican love interest is fairly minor and doesn't stand up well in comparison with Linda Darnell's similar Chihuahua in the John Ford classic My Darling Clementine (1946). However, Russell's bountiful rack is showcased at every possible opportunity by Hughes and was the cause of a two-year delay in The Outlaw's release, as censors objected to the sheer amount of screen time devoted to the Russell assets, leading to much wrangling and re-cutting. The controversy was in turn put to good use by the studio PR department, however, and, eventually, a star was born.

The film itself is really a bizarro, oddly gay, male relationship melodrama about the burgeoning friendship between ageing bandit Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) and hip young gunslinger Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel, a dead ringer for narcissistic Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo), the cause of no little frustration to Doc's oldest pal, the jealous lawman of Lincoln, New Mexico, Pat Garrett (professional Irishman and fan favourite Thomas Mitchell). The story itself is pretty slight - Doc and Billy bond over a stolen horse, bicker with a local deputy, hide out when the Kid takes a bullet from Garrett and then feud over Russell with the sheriff on their tail. Er, that's it.


Gregg Toland's cinematography is attractive and the direction by Hughes is accomplished enough, even if there is the occasional strange moment - as when we are presented with an empty shot of a door frame while Victor Young's score swells bombastically or shown a slow-motion close-up of Russell's chin for no apparent reason - but quite what screenwriters Jules Furthman and Ben Hecht (again, uncredited) were getting at is anyone's guess. The less-than-subtle Freudian subtexts are too half-arsed to have much bearing. Nevertheless, Walter Huston, father of legendary director John, is fun as an older, wiser Doc Holliday than Victor Mature played in Clementine, Mitchell gets to be a little more menacing than usual and Buetel is surprisingly good in the lead, portraying the legendary outlaw as a preternaturally self-possessed young man all too used to relying on his own wits and trigger finger.


The Outlaw is ultimately an interesting failure (even the date on Doc's grave is wrong) but worth a punt anyway to see what all the fuss was about back in 1943. I'd rate it narrowly ahead of the disappointing Sam Peckinpah take on the same characters, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973), starring James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan, but perhaps that's not saying much.