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Duke Ellington and ‘Anatomy of a Murder’

Anatomy Of A Murder’ Score

‘Anatomy Of A Murder’ – Music By Duke Wellington

By Carl Weinschenk

Duke Ellington and the jazz he created may not fit the common definition of Americana or roots music. In reality, however, there is no musician who fits the description better than he does (though of course there are some equals).

His involvement in the film “Anatomy of a Murder” illustrates how central Ellington is to the American experience.

The classic film stars Jimmy Stewart. The high profile supporting cast includes Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott, Arthur O’Connell and Eve Arden. Many folks who know (including my father, who was an attorney) say it is the most realistic courtroom drama on film.

The plot revolves around Gazzara’s character, who is accused of murdering the man he believes raped his wife, played as a flirtatious party girl by Remick. Stewart is the defense attorney. Scott plays the prosecutor and Arden and O’Connell supply some laughs.

The movie is remarkable in the way in which it treats sex crimes. It features dialog that is frank and for the time it was made – 1959 – nothing short of stunning.

The film also acknowledges a hero of a dark period in American history. The judge is played by non-actor Joseph Nye Welch. In 1954, Welch was counsel to the Army during the Army–McCarthy hearings, part of a broader cynical attempt to gain power by suggesting the U.S. government was rife with Communists. Welch famously deflated McCarthy – more or less permanently – by addressing his efforts to ruin the career of a young attorney: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

So it’s a movie that navigates rough terrain in a couple of ways. The folks who made it of course knew that it had an edge. In an interesting piece at Jazz History Online, Thomas Cunniffe writes that Ellington was approached by producer Otto Preminger’s brother Ingo about working on the film. He read the script, agreed — and became the first African-American to score a Hollywood film.

The Preminger brothers were looking for something different for their film’s soundtrack and Ellington delivered. The recorded score featured his full big band (and a small group culled from the band), and it was a jazz score throughout, even though jazz only played a tangential role in the film’s storyline. Many jazz critics panned the score at the time, but now it is considered to be one of Ellington’s greatest works.

Writes Cunniffe

Not everyone disliked the score. It won three Grammys. In an astute appraisal at Little White Lies, Adam Scovell offers another reason that Ellington and film, which is set in rural Michigan, is deeply American:

The score works on several levels within the film, not simply in the more typical Hollywood fashion of being placed over the narrative. Considering the world of the film – law courts, country fishing haunts and trailer parks – there’s a refreshing contrast to using such urban-infused music, building unusual juxtapositions to the people and places on display.

This is a very important point. Bringing something more or less associated with urban life to the country — and having an African-American do it — was a subtle but bold step. Combined with the treatment of its subject matter and the nod to a man who stood up to a demagogue makes “Anatomy of a Murder” a very important film – with one of the great American musical figures in its core.

The movie was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1960. ‘Ben Hur’ won the award.

Carl Weinschenk is a freelancer in the New York City area who writes about telecommunications, information technology and music. He publishes The Daily Music Break and runs The Internet Music Mapping Project, a constantly growing listing of music-related websites.

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Anatomy Of A Murder’ Score

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2 Comments

    • Add one of my favourite actors of all time – Jimmy Stewart. What a combo!

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