Monday, 15 June 2009

"I'll be the judge of that..."

Ellington’s score stands in oblique relation to the film Anatomy of a Murder. What Ellington and Strayhorn wrote was not a conventional movie score in the usual sense. None of it could be said to underscore the characters or situations, to provide ‘stings’ or cues. No wonder it works so beautifully as a self-contained album. Had Ellington titled this a suite, one could hardly disagree, such is its cohesion, the pattern of repeating motifs and refrains. Some would argue that these repetitions are down to the fact that Ellington was stretching his music thinly; that the music is sketchy - although that is entirely the point.

Take the composition Happy Anatomy, for example, the first tune up on the recording session of 1 June, 1959. It begins like a sort of half baked riff number of the kind Count Basie was routinely knocking out about this time – except you feel someone like Neal Hefti could probably have made a better job of it. But then in the out choruses, suddenly there are these great stabbing chords thrown about like paint on a Jackson Pollock canvas and the whole thing suddenly turns through about a hundred and eighty degrees and takes off. Solos by Clark Terry and Paul Gonsalves lift it to a higher plane. But then for Ellington – who often in his concerts would speak of his men and their ‘solo responsibilities’, the whole thing was about creating space for these virtuosi to make their magic. And suddenly something is there totally beyond anything the Basie band could reach. Or any other aggregation come to that. That is the alchemy of Duke Ellington.

Was this free-standing suite what Otto Preminger had in mind for his movie? One can only assume so. One can assume further that it was a stroke of genius on the director’s part to commission Ellington in the first place. That jazz should be the music of choice for the soundtrack makes sense when Polly (as the Jimmy Stewart character is known) is a jazz fan. Music is used in the film pretty realistically – it is there in real time – as Polly noodles on the piano or in the roadhouse with Pie Eye. Long stretches of the film are without any music at all –it is set in a court room, after all – a place not usually noted for the evanescent strain of a string section in the air every few minutes, punctuating the discourse or telling the audience what to feel.

But I would argue further that it is not just jazz which is the perfect choice for this film but -specifically - Ellington’s jazz. For what other music besides Ellington’s own is so ambiguous – so lugubrious – so full of grace as Duke’s? For it is ambiguity, lugubriousness and grace which characterise the whole tone of the film.

This is a film for grown ups. There are no easy answers; no clear cut conclusions. Motives are mixed; morality is ambivalent.

Lieutenant Frederick Manion – who has served in Korea - is accused of the murder of bar tender Barney Quill who allegedly raped Manion’s wife, Laura. Whatever the provocation, there are no circumstances mitigating murder, however. Stewart’s lawyer coaches his client in pleading temporary insanity. But was his wife violated? Or did she encourage Barney Quill’s attentions, her husband assaulting her physically and then murdering Quill because of their dalliance down a local lover’s lane?

The case hangs on the whereabouts of Laura Manion’s ‘panties’ and one exchange in particular in court on this subject rather shows the film as a product of its time. Whilst the scene jars with modern sensibilities, nobody nowadays should be so complacent as to believe we’ve moved on, however. At the mention of the word ‘panties’, the courtroom descends into schoolboy sniggering. The Judge cautions them that there is nothing to laugh at when the offending article may be responsible for the death of one man and the possible incarceration of another. One might have thought that the judge might have thought fit to mention that the allegations of the woman in the case are not to be taken lightly either but she figures little in this battle over the fate of the men folk.

Whilst this is clearly a trial for murder and not rape (indeed prosecution and defence do not initially want to raise the question of whether Laura Manion was violated or not since it has no bearing on the charge of murder), nevertheless the woman’s own feelings seem to be of little consequence.

Was Ellington’s music colluding – by association – with such latent sexism? Flirtibird , for example, hardly seems a particularly sensitive title for a theme written for the alleged victim of assault. It’s not too far a distance from that title to the implied accusations at the trial that wearing figure-hugging sweaters or being ‘high’ on drink is just asking for trouble.

However, this is also borne out by Lee Remick’s performance in the film – the character seems rarely troubled by her experiences – and indeed is lectured at one point by James Stewart – in patrician mode – for continuing to hang out with the boys at the club house whilst her husband awaits trial.

Was the murder then committed simply out of jealous rage? Is Manion a sort of Bob Ewell figure from To Kill A Mockingbird – punishing his woman for her transgression and her putative lover in the process?

Ben Gazzara’s portrayal of the husband never canvases any sympathy. It is a performance totally free of any sentimentality – which only begs the question why Paul Biegler should want to represent him.

The lawyer makes no bones about his physical attraction to Mrs Manion and she candidly says she has always been aware of the effect she has on men. But did she encourage their attentions? And was it a criminal offence in any case if she did?

For the character of Laura Manion is damned if she did. Damned if she didn’t. Like the women of the seventeenth century condemned as witches (and Joseph N Welsh here playing the judge was a judge in real life who stood against the McCarthy witch hunts) and thrown into the river – if they floated they were burned at the stake, if they were innocent, they drowned.

She could wish her husband were found guilty, in which case she would be free, yet he must be found not guilty to exonerate herself. In fighting for such a verdict, Biegler is consigning her to a prison and himself, perhaps, to his lonely bachelorhood of fly fishing and jazz (though romance has as little place in this film as any other sentimentality).

But such is the verdict that Biegler fights for and obtains. James Stewart’s casting is inspired, simply because the actor carries with him such morality and integrity.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” his character remarks at one point. But this is a film which ultimately teaches us the value exactly of not judging. Stewart’s character moves in a man’s world; the trial is about two men. The woman is apparently a ‘flirtibird’ – and yet the film is all about Stewart reaching beyond the man’s world, behind the flirtatious surface – to reach the woman. Whilst a product of its time (and how I cherish those opening shots of Stewart’s automobile returning through the empty streets of Thunder Bay, his calling in at the local bar – the cars and bars of the fifties -saloons both – have such a style, such a nostalgia – but the fifties were also cruel times to be in if you were amongst the oppressed), the film does show that whatever Laura Manion may or may not have done – however she is a victim of the irresistible impulses which can drive us all –she does not deserve the castigation a guilty verdict for her husband may well trail in its wake. Despite the courtroom setting, the film is a plea not to judge.

Which brings me back to Duke Ellington’s music. In its ambivalence, its lugubrious undertow, its generosity and the capaciousness of its grace, it is the perfect expression of tolerance.

Ellington achieved huge success and as a result was often accused of a sort of complicity with the status quo on any number of fronts. But Ellington’s art does not make such judgements.

In its capacity for or the practice of recognizing and respecting the beliefs or practices of others, it is the epitome of tolerance.

Even if Anatomy of a Murder were the story of the woman taken in adultery, Ellington’s sublime soundtrack is saying Let he who is without sin…

It is music of understanding beyond not just words – to quote Steinbeck– but understanding beyond thought.

Whatever Ellington’s inspiration for the soundtrack – the novel, the script, Lee Remick herself – like the rest of Ellington’s oeuvre it came from a beautiful place– and Ellington – and his composing and arranging companion Billy Strayhorn – were the perfect choice for this movie.


  1. Excellent posts on subjects dear to my heart--Ellington, Jazz in the movies, the safe-but-dreary Fifties, Jimmy Stewart (and not to forget lovely Lee Remick), b&w photography, this particular book and film and album, and more. You have inspired me to write a different blog post regarding some aspects of those. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for the kind comments, Ed. Do please send a link when your own post is published. The more of us doing this sort of thing, the better!