Monday, July 15, 2024

The All-American and Yankee Pasha

Publicity still with Mamie Van Doren & Tony Curtis.
All American
(1953). Tony Curtis headlines as Nick Bonelli, a star quarterback who transfers to a different university to pursue his interest in architecture after his parents die in a car crash. He faces various challenges and conflicts at his new school, both academically and romantically, and eventually decides to play football again--much to the delight of his new school. All American (aka The Winning Way) is a typical 1950s sports drama, with a predictable plot and stereotypical characters. That doesn't mean it's not an entertaining way to spend 83 minutes. It was clearly intended to provide acting experience for its young cast. Although Tony Curtis is the only one that became a big star, his fellow players include such familiar faces as Lori Nelson (Revenge of the Creature), Mamie Van Doren, Stuart Whitman, and Richard Long (who comes as close to playing an unlikable character as he ever did). Van Doren fares best as a bar waitress who is secretly involved with rich college student Long. It's nice to see her in an appealing role, as opposed to the sexpot types she later played (she also appeared with Tony Curtis in the earlier Forbidden). Sports fans may also spot cameos from real-life football stars Frank Gifford, Tom Harmon (Marks' father), and Jim Sears.

Yankee Pasha
 (1954). Set in New England in 1800, Yankee Pasha stars Jeff Chandler as Jason Starbuck, a fur trapper who falls in love with the beautiful Roxana (Rhonda Fleming). When Roxana sails to France to escape an unwanted marriage to another man, her ship is captured by pirates and she is sold as a slave in Morocco. Jason follows her across the ocean and infiltrates the royal palace, where he becomes a valued advisor to the sultan--all the while plotting to rescue Roxana. Based on Edison Marshall's 1947 novel, Yankee Pasha is a colorful, if modestly budgeted, adventure with a dash of humor. Chandler and Fleming are agreeable, photogenic leads who let their supporting stars deliver all the good lines. Lee J. Cobb seems to be having fun as the sultan, while Mamie Van Doren shows off her comedic skills as the only member of Starbuck's harem. The film's first two-thirds zip along nicely, but then it inexplicitly lumbers to its conclusion with a conventional, boring rescue. By then, though, Yankee Pasha has built enough goodwill so that you'll overlook its ending and remember it fondly.

Monday, July 1, 2024

The Case for Anatomy of a Murder

Stewart as Biegler pleads his case.
Anatomy of a Murder is the best courtroom drama ever made.

Otto Preminger’s enthralling motion picture requires multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. When I first saw it, I focused on the riveting story, which treats the viewer much like the jury. We listen to testimonies, watch the lawyers try to manipulate our emotions, and struggle to make sense of the evidence. When I saw Anatomy of a Murder a second time, I knew the case’s outcome and was to able to concentrate on the splendid performances. James Stewart, Arthur O’Connell, and George C. Scott earned Oscar nominations, but the rest of the cast is also exceptionally strong. In subsequent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate the film’s well-preserved details, from the small town upper-Michigan atmosphere to Preminger’s brilliant direction (e.g., in one shot, as Scott's prosecutor cross-examines a witness in close-up, Stewart—the defending lawyer—is framed between them in the background).

Lee Remick and George C. Scott.
The opening scenes quickly establish Stewart’s shrewd lawyer. After ten years as Iron City’s public prosecutor, Paul Biegler has lost his office and gone into private practice. He’s also lost his passion for the law—he spends most of his time fishing, playing the piano, smoking Italian cigars, and reading old cases with his elderly, alcoholic friend Parnell Emmett McCarthy (O’Connell). His life takes a dramatic turn when he eventually agrees to defend Lieutenant Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who is being tried for the murder of a man who may have raped Manion’s wife Laura (Lee Remick). Manion doesn’t deny killing the man, whom he shot five times. His lack of remorse, his wife Laura’s open sexuality, and the couple’s coldness toward one another tip the scales against them from the start.

Perhaps, it’s those very drawbacks that attract Biegler to the case. With a newly sober McCarthy assisting him, Biegler builds his defense around an old Michigan case in which a man was acquitted of murder because he acted out of “irresistible impulse.” As a psychiatrist (Orson Bean in a great bit part )  explains on the stand, it didn’t matter if Manion knew the difference between right and wrong. He was compelled to act (in the words of another witness, he was a “like a mailman delivering the mail”).

Saul Bass's opening credits as justly famous.
Once the drama shifts to the courtroom, an already-engrossing story seems to shift into a higher gear. The sparring between Stewart and Scott, as an ambitious assistant state attorney, is played to perfection. Remick has a splendid scene as Scott interrogates her on the witness stand. Joseph Welch provides welcome dry humor as the judge, who seems more like a referee trying to keep two fighters from killing each other. Interestingly, Welch was a former Army lawyer who participated in the McCarthy hearings; his real-life wife also appears in Anatomy as one of the jurors.

At the time of its release, Anatomy of a Murder was quite controversial, much of it stemming from the frank discussion of the crime. Preminger seemed to relish in breaking barriers on film content. His sex comedy The Moon Is Blue (1953) shocked audiences with its plot about older men (David Niven and William Holden) pursuing a young virgin. Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) was one of the first mainstream films about drug addiction.

Our favorite Preminger works are the film noir classic Laura (1944), Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), and, of course, this one. You may disagree with me on whether it's the finest courtroom drama, but I'm not alone in my assessment. Back in 2021, I interviewed Michael Asimow, a professor at the Santa Clara Law School and co-author of Real to Reel: Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies. When I asked him what film did the best job of presenting a case realistically, he replied: "Our all-time favorite is Anatomy of a Murder. Almost all of it is a gripping murder trial, with two great lawyers going after each other, full of twists and turns and with an ambiguous ending. Watch this movie—you’ll be amazed at how good it is."