Many reviewers considered Duke Ellington’s soundtrack an awkward fit for Otto Preminger’s courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder (trailer here). However, both film and music are of unusually high quality, and work together in ways not fully recognized by such critics.
Jimmy Stewart plays Paul Biegler, the former district attorney of Iron City, a small upper peninsular Michigan town, recently defeated in his bid for re-election. We quickly learn Biegler, in a departure from Robert Travers’s source novel, is also a jazz enthusiast, whose records collection goes “from Brubeck to Dixieland.”
Biegler accepts a difficult client in Lt. Manion, a hard case Army officer with anger management issues, accused of murdering the man who raped his flirtatious wife. His investigation takes him to an Upper Michigan roadhouse, where Duke Ellington appears as the bandleader Pie Eye. Biegler even sits in for some four-handed piano, clearly proving he is indeed a jazz kind of guy. Anatomy is a film that deftly handles some very delicate subject matter, with the help of powerful performances from Stewart, Ben Gazzara as Manion, and Lee Remick as his wife, Laura.
The majestic blues of Ellington’s soundtrack are completely at odds with our impressions of small town white America, but it is precisely this dissociative effect which serves the film so well. Viewers first meet Biegler driving home through his familiar town, returning late at night from a long fishing trip, as the Ellington Orchestra swings hard in the background. In effect, it sets Biegler apart from his community—an alienation any former DA reduced to scuffling for divorce cases is likely to share.
James Stewart is perfectly cast in a role that capitalizes on his everyman image, but gives it a twist. Though a decent person and an underdog, Biegler is no saint. We see him subtly lead Manion into adopting an insanity defense and watch as he navigates the grey areas of his legal defense. When his associate asks about the case, he frankly replies: “I’m making a lot of noise and Dancer [the prosecution] is racking all the points.’
After a grueling trial, we hear Biegler teasing out some blues on the piano as he waits for the jury to come in, courtesy of the off-screen Billy Strayhorn, Ellington's writing and arranging partner. According to Chris Fujiwara’s The World and It’s Double: the Life and Films of Otto Preminger Strayhorn made a characteristic effort to fit the music to Stewart’s personality. Fujiwara reports:
“‘He asked me to play something I liked,’ said Stewart, who had studied piano and played with a jazz band as an undergraduate at Princeton. ‘What I think he did, you see, was write something for me that I would have played myself.’” (p. 242)
The soundtrack for Anatomy of a Murder is an enduring classic of Ellingtonia. Whether it is Johnny Hodges’ sweet alto on the suggestive “Flirtbird” or Cat Anderson’s high notes on “Upper and Outest” heard over the film’s ironic closing scene, Ellington demonstrates his inspired ability to compose for particular sidemen that marked his remarkable career. Anatomy is arguably one the greatest soundtracks ever, and the rest of the film is also quite good. It screens tonight and the 26th at MoMA as part of the Jazz Score series.