An Historical Look at Rape: Anatomy of a Murder

Anatomy of a Murder just popped up for viewing on Netflix Instant, and it’s a movie I’ve long wanted to see but never got around to, so it didn’t take me long before we watched it. Jimmy Stewart. 7 Oscar nominations. It’s pretty much a must watch in Bryce’s universe, just for the context.

What did I think about it?

I’m not sure it entirely “works” as a movie in today’s age. As far as being an important film, I definitely still think it is. It was one of the first “courtroom dramas,” and it blazed new ground for that. Of course, we’ve had a lot of courtroom dramas since, and they’ve evolved quite nicely, which means that it’s hard for this one to compete against the later evolutions.

But it isn’t just that.

The thing that really kept getting in the way of me enjoying the movie was the way it treated women and–specifically–rape. The plot set up is simple: a man’s wife is raped. He goes and finds the rapist and shoots him dead. Jimmy Stewart is his lawyer. Where things get tricky is when you start looking at the people involved. The wife who is raped is a coy little minx, even the day after being supposedly raped. The husband is a cold heartless jerk, and it seems quite clear that he’s totally aware of what he did. He’s a controlling husband, and quite possibly abusive.

I actually liked the film for this. We as viewers aren’t entirely sure what happened. Did the wife really get raped, or was she actually caught by her husband and beaten for running around behind his back? As the movie progresses, our opinions change based on the information available to us.

That’s a good thing. Complexity, yay.

But there were areas where the movie completely lost me. The wife loses her panties over the course of the rape, and when that fact is brought up at trial, the entire courtroom bursts out laughing. Really? Nothing about that was remotely amusing. It was just a non-sequitur that the audience would find it funny. That’s the best example of it, but the idea behind it kept coming back again and again.

Today, rape is taken extremely seriously. Back in 1959 when the film was made? It’s pretty clear that it wasn’t. Murder, yes. Rape? It’s sort of shrugged off like a thing that just happens sometimes. Not a good thing by any stretch, but far from the worst thing.

Because of that treatment, I kept getting jarred out of the film. Not really the film’s fault–it’s a product of its time–but it makes it hard to become engrossed as a viewer. I actually think things like this are really helpful in some ways. They let us see how society has changed over time, and that’s interesting from an academic standpoint alone.

In the end, I still think I liked the movie. The complexity saved it. I’d give it a 7.5/10. Maybe an 8, because it’s got a score by Duke Ellington (and a cameo by him), and that alone is worth some extra credit. I recommend the movie, but I’d really like to hear from some other people who have watched it recently. Was I off base? Let me know in the comments.

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