In honor of ‘Anatomy of a Fall’: Revisiting 2 classic courtroom thrillers

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What makes a great courtroom thriller?  A mesmerizing and clever plot that draws viewers in immediately. Three-dimensional characters that keep you guessing if they are the guilty party and twists and turns that leave audiences gasping and gob smacked.

Justine Triet’s dazzling French thriller “Anatomy of a Fall” has all the qualities and then some that make it a classic of the genre. Since winning the Palme D’or last May, “Anatomy of a Fall” has continued its winning ways receiving several critics’ honors, as well as two Golden Globes, a Critics Choice honor and seven BAFTA nominations including best film, best director, screenplay and best actress for Sandra Huller’s powerhouse performance. One can’t forget that Messi, the border collie ,who plays the family pet Snoop, received the Palm Dog at Cannes.

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Huller plays a bisexual woman with a troubled marriage and a young blind son. When her husband falls to his death, the authorities believe it wasn’t a suicide but a murder. Huller’s Sandra is considered the prime suspect and goes on trial. “Anatomy of a Murder” isn’t just a courtroom mystery, but an intimate looked at the couple’s often toxic relationship as well as dilemma their son faces as the main witness.

Forbes’ Scott Phillips opined: “The film is more about the secrets we keep from the ones we have than an edge-of-your seat murder inquiry. It’s less concerned about whodunit and more interested in examining how well we know the people who rest their heads on the pillows beside ours.”

Over the years, there have been numerous courtroom thrillers including two of my faves from the 1950s: Billy Wilder’s 1957 “The Witness for the Prosecution” and Otto Preminger’s 1959 “Anatomy of a Murder.”

“The Witness for the Prosecution” began its life as a 1925 short story by Agatha Christie called “Traitor’s Hands” that was initially published in a weekly pulp magazine. Christie eventually transformed it into a hit London play; two months later the court was in session on Broadway where it ran for 2 ½ years and won two Tonys.

Wilder gathered a delicious cast for “Witness.” Charles Laughton plays an ailing barrister who agrees to defend a charming man (Tyrone Power in his last film) accused of murdering an elderly childless widow obsessed with him. Marlene Dietrich plays Leonard’s wife. And Elsa Lanchester, the wife of Laughton, plays his nagging nurse. Their bickering is a highlight of the movie.

Initially, Wilder wasn’t interested in doing an adaptation of a Christie play, but Dietrich, who had been friends with Wilder for years and worked with him in 1948’s “A Foreign Affair,” convinced him to do it. According to TCM.com, Dietrich knew if Wilder was the director, she had a good chance playing Christine. “Eventually, Wilder agreed to take the job with the assurance he could adapt the film in his own style…imbuing it with his playfully cynical sense of humor…”

Reviews were strong especially for Mr. and Mrs. Laughton. The New York Times wrote:” It’s Mr. Laughton who runs away with the show-he and his wife, Elsa Lanchester in an added role. Mr. Laughton adds a wealth of comical by-play to his bag of courtroom tricks. And Miss Lanchester is delicious as that maidenly hen-pecking nurse. The added dimensions of Mr. Laughton bulge this black-and-white drama into a hit.” The legal thriller received six Oscar nominations including Best Picture, director, actor Laughton and supporting for Lanchester but was shut out. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was the big winner that year with seven Oscars.

Preminger always loved to push the cinematic envelope. His 1953 romantic comedy “The Moon is Blue” was released without a Production Code seal because the heroine mentioned she was a virgin! And two years later, “The Man with the Golden Arm,” his harrowing look at drug addiction with Frank Sinatra, was denied a seal. That didn’t happen with his superb “Anatomy of a Murder” even though it didn’t follow all the Production Code rules like not having “any inference of sex perversion” or “any lecherous or licentious notice.”

Perhaps it was released with the seal because the film stars Jimmy Stewart though even 65 years after it was released it’s kind of cringy to hear George Bailey and Elwood P. Dowd talk about panties, rape, sexual climax and contraception. In this smart, compelling legal eagle thriller, he plays a wily good old boy small town lawyer who takes on the case of a hot-headed Army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) who allegedly shot and killed a tavern owner. The lieutenant confessed his flirty, low-rent wife (Lee Remick) said had raped his wife.

“Anatomy of a Murder’” just bristles with Saul Bass’ evocative title design and Duke Ellington’s smokey jazz score-he also had a cameo. The cast also features a young George C. Scott, Eve Arden, Arthur O’Connell and Kathryn Grant. The judge was played by the famous Joseph M. Welch, the attorney who was the chief counsel for the U.S. Army when it was being investigated by the infamous Joe McCarthy for communist activities. Welch made headlines when he asked McCarthy “Have you no sense of decency sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?’

The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther was excited about the film he said it was “the best courtroom melodrama” he had ever seen, adding that Stewart gave one of his finest performances. “Slowly and subtle, he presents us with a warm, clever, adroit and complex man.”

“Anatomy” was nominated for seven Oscars including best picture, actor and supporting actor for Scott and Arthur O’Connell. It was shut out of any awards by “Ben-Hur.”

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