Monday, February 27, 2012

An irresistible impulse to play it again and again: Anatomy of a Murder, which just got Criterion-ized, featured the first Hollywood film score by a black composer

Lee can feel it all oooover.
Anatomy of a Murder star Lee Remick, Duke Ellington and bassist Jimmy Woode
Otto Preminger's 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder, which finally received the Criterion Collection treatment last week, is a classic of the courtroom genre. Every time Anatomy of a Murder turns up on TCM, I get an irresistible impulse a la the late Ben Gazzara's hotheaded soldier client character to stop whatever I'm doing and revisit the entire (and rather lengthy) film or at least a chunk of it.

Criterion posted three reasons why AOAM continues to shine, especially in a bothersome age of right-leaning, constantly-parodied-during-NTSF:SD:SUV:: procedurals, or as I like to call them, "Dad shows."

I second those reasons, but I'd combine reasons #1 and #3 so that it's "It gets the law right and it's not all black and white" and give the reason #3 slot to Duke Ellington's sensational, Grammy-winning score. It captures well both the tranquil Sunday-morning-stroll-through-the-town-square side (like in "Sunswept Sunday" and "Low Key Lightly") and the seamy white-trash side of the film's small-town Michigan backdrop (some, like Wynton Marsalis, think that the score is poorly edited into the film, a gripe that Marsalis expressed while discussing Ellington's score in the liner notes of Sony Legacy's 1999 AOAM CD reissue, which can be heard during the "AFOS Prime" block on A Fistful of Soundtracks).

Lee Remick lets loose her hair in my favorite Lee Remick scene from Anatomy of a Boner, er, I mean, Murder.
Besides introducing then-controversial words like "intercourse," "contraceptive," "spermatogenesis" and "panties" into movie houses where conservatives reacted to hearing those words by crapping said panties, AOAM is notable for containing the first original score for a Hollywood film written by an African American composer. (A year before Ellington's effort, Miles Davis contributed a score to a French film, Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows, a.k.a. Ascenseur pour l'├ęchafaud.) It's fitting that Criterion drops the AOAM Blu-ray during Black History Month because of that milestone.

The first Hollywood score by an African American is distinguished by a catchy theme Ellington described as "gutbucket." Written for the bass and first known as "Pie Eye's Blues," the composition wasn't originally intended to be the film's main theme. It was supposed to represent Pie Eye, the roadhouse bandleader character played by Ellington during his cameo in AOAM (in South Africa, Ellington's scene with Jimmy Stewart was banned from the film because interracial two-man piano playing was apparently too disturbing for them). But then someone in the AOAM crew changed the order of the cues ("Was this Duke's idea?," wondered CD reissue producer Phil Schaap in the reissue liner notes) and must have found "Pie Eye's Blues" to be the perfect fit with those jazzy and striking Saul Bass opening titles, and the rest is history.

Then Sir Duke handed AOAM's main theme over to Peggy Lee, who added lyrics to the melody in her cover version, which was titled "I'm Gonna Go Fishin'," a nice reference to the film it originated from and its main character's love of fishing.

After Ellington's AOAM score, in walked Quincy Jones (who had an impressive hot streak of crime or comedy film and TV series scores from the '60s to the '70s) and then the slightly less prolific blaxploitation-era likes of Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Johnny Pate and J.J. Johnson (while over on the Asian American side, Japanese American composer Paul Chihara contributed scores to Death Race 2000 and Prince of the City). Then in the '90s, Stanley Clarke, the still-active Terence Blanchard (who did a cover of the AOAM main title theme for his 1999 Jazz in Film album) and even RZA followed in Ellington and Jones' footsteps. They all penned great original scores, but there needs to be more film and TV composers of color besides those maestros.

Court's adjourned.

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