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The Night Of vs. Anatomy of a Murder

The Defense Never Rests 

August 15, 2017  |  by Alec Mouhibian

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THE NIGHT OF (2016, HBO limited series) by Steven Zaillian

ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959, feature film) by Otto Preminger

The American legal system is its oldest and strongest national theater. The names and stories change but the roles are ever the same: Defense, Prosecution, Detective, Witness, Judge, Jury, and of course The People, that audience who are sometimes so active in the case that the jury must be sequestered from their uproar. How often does the drama of these conflicting forces end in justice? Answer unavailable.

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Left: Steven Zaillian. Right: Otto Preminger

But Steven Zaillian’s The Night Of and Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, produced six decades apart, offer you a fair and balanced chance to reach your own verdict. Each explores the nature of the theater we know as due process with a clarity that is cathartic -- and that keeps your eyes open.

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The Night Of (2017)

Adapted from the British series Criminal Justice, the case in Night Of falls on Naz (Riz Ahmed), a young Pakistani American, who wakes up after a druggy one-night stand in Manhattan to find the strange white woman he has slept with dead, her blood on his hands. Anatomy of a Murder is set in the early 1950s in small-town Michigan and based on a real case: An Army lieutenant who killed an innkeeper but, like Naz, claims that he can’t remember. So far, so similar – and simple.

Enter the defense attorneys and complication begins. In Anatomy, it is James Stewart, who no longer wants to go to Washington. His character, Paul Biegler, would rather go fishing – and read old court cases with his alcoholic mentor. Asked by the judge to identify a pair of panties as panties, he refuses on the grounds of, “Oh, I’m a bachelor.” This is the American Dream gone silver, witty, and wise. Its soundtrack is jazz. Duke Ellington’s languid score provides its own sly cross-examination of the proceedings, and of the sensuous sparring (in and out of court) between Stewart and George C. Scott, who plays power prosecutor Claude Dancer. In the process we have the first movie that uses the words bitch, penetration, rape, slut, and sperm. And we have a case that turns on the discovery of precedent, which is a legal principle hard to distinguish from a theatrical plot device. 

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The Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Meanwhile, in the Night Of, we have John Stone (John Turturro), the shabby, low-rent lawyer who insists on representing Naz and begs his client repeatedly to stop telling him “the truth.” Stone does not care about the truth. His role is to win. And then pay his rent. And then maybe find a way to get rid of that inexplicable rash. John Stone, hopeless, pathetic, yet ceaselessly driven by something to stand for the defense. His soundtrack is a morbid one, sexless and diseased, itself in need of a cure. 

Neither film pretends that justice is possible. But that truism is far from the whole story. There is a dimension where each of these movies in their own dark colors – without the cheats of sentimentality or even (in Anatomy) a truthful verdict – quietly celebrates the theater, or if you prefer, the System of the law. That is the dimension where Paul Biegler and John Stone shake hands. For all their difference, are the two bachelors not equally possessed? Are they not both incurable? Are they not each performing the same national role – one of the best roles ever set to the letter, so long as there be characters fit to play it?


Alec Mouhibian is the co-writer/director of 1915 The Movie, and Creative Armenia's VP of Programs and Productions.

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