“I beg the Court to let me cut into the apple”
Paul Biegler (James Stewart), Anatomy of a Murder (dir. Preminger, 1959)

“What started as a competitor for the Queer Palm at the most recent Cannes Film Festival ended up winning the top prize, the Palme d’Or,” says Redy Jones in a round-up of this fall’s LGBTQ+ films. He is talking about Anatomy of a Fall (dir. Justine Triet, 2023), which anatomizes a fall taken by a male character, Samuel (Samuel Thies) who may or may not have been pushed by his wife, Sandra (Sandra Hüller), out of a high window in a family home near Grenoble, France. But there are other falls in play, too, like the Biblical fall from Eden, and there is also Sandra’s fall: once a celebrated novelist, she becomes a defendant charged with murder, fighting for her life.

Sandra is also bisexual and it looks like progress when “the film doesn’t vilify her for her orientation, while still leaving room for criticisms of infidelity to swirl around her,” as Jones says. But things look different if we compare Fall with its 1959 namesake, Anatomy of a Murder (dir. Otto Preminger). The title of Fall suggests the film is in dialogue with Murder, which it seems to want to remediate. Murder’s battered, abused Laura Manion (Lee Remick), whose infidelities are conventional and the consequences brutal, is replaced in Fall by an independent, accomplished Sandra who, until the trial, anyway, lives impervious to patriarchal expectations. With its modern, liberated heroine, Fall in 2023 seems a long way from 1959, as far as the politics of gender and sexuality are concerned. But is it progress if Murder’s queer worlding becomes bisexual identity in Fall?

Sandra’s bisexuality in Fall can be seen to answer to Murder’s Maida Rutledge (Eve Arden), who has the stocky archness of mid-century cinema’s solidly single woman, though she is hardly “out.” Maida (punning for M’aidez or May Day, so that when her name is called it seems help is needed) mentions in passing that she was once married. But the fact that she is now married to the job and, without pay or judgment, caretakes two men joined by their love of law, tees up this legal ensemble for a queer reading, like the one of A Christmas Carol that Lee Edelman sketches in No Future out but then declines to offer. Others may be drawn to “Scrooge’s choice not to marry in favor of a partnership with Jacob Marley (like himself, a bachelor businessman) whose name [on their business sign] he declines to paint over even after his partner’s death and to which he continues to answer just as if it were his own: ‘it was all the same to him.’” But Edelman focuses on how Scrooge is recruited to reproductive futurism: he must give up Marley (no more ghosts!) and become “second father” to Tiny Tim (No Future, 42-50).

No such recruiting occurs in Murder and, with no Tiny Tim to ruin things, I compare Murder with Fall by way of a queer reading of the former, which offers plenty to work with. There are no children in Murder and, except for the local prosecutor (Brooks West) who has a wife (she has re-decorated the office), all the living men in Murder seem to be bachelors, widowers, or sterile. The only one who is specified to be fertile — the murder victim — is dead. He has a daughter, but he has not acknowledged her. The locals seem to think she is his mistress, an intimation of incest that is just one of the film’s several dead ends. But it also promises new beginnings.

Murder begins and ends with Paul (Polly) Biegler (James Stewart), who has recently lost his bid for re-election after 10 years in the D.A’s office. Polly now spends his days alone fishing and his evenings with his buddy, a no-longer practicing lawyer named Parnell Emmet McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell), who empathizes with Polly: a man who loses re-election, Parnell says, “feels his community has deserted him. The finger of scorn is pointed at him.” Since Polly lost the election to the only married man in the film, we sense we know what scorn Parnell refers to and Laura Manion will confirm it later when she drunkenly mocks Biegler’s somewhat effeminate nickname (which is not spelled Paulie but Polly): “Heeeyyy what a crazy lawyer we got. Hi’ya Polly. That’s what they call you, isn’t it? Polly? Crazy name for a crazy lawyer!” At night, Polly and Parnell drink bourbon at Polly’s home/office while Polly plays piano, then the men turn to read together weighty law tomes from Polly’s library. Parnell urges Polly to take a case defending a man so manly his name is Manion (Ben Gazzara) and his nickname Manny. An army lieutenant, Manion is accused of murdering a bar owner who raped his wife. Polly asks Parnell to quit drinking in order to work with him on the case. Together, late in the Courthouse library, they find the obscure precedent on which the defense will depend, providing a legal let-out for those gripped by “irresistible impulse.”

The hetero-tragedy becomes the lawyers’ saving grace. The film ends with the husband and wife gone, Parnell cured of his addiction to alcohol, and Polly no longer obsessively fishing so uselessly that his fridge is stocked full of fish no one eats. It is Maida Rutledge who, risking association with frigidity, cracks a joke about reproduction that requires no coupling: “If this refrigerator gets any more fish in it, it will swim upstream and spawn all by itself.” The only partnership on offer is the one proposed by Polly to Parnell, a law partnership that Parnell accepts, saying he’d be “mighty proud to have his name on a shingle with yours.” The film jokes about the supposed dead end of such a same-sex partnership, though: when Polly visits Parnell in the hospital where he is recovering from a car accident, Parnell hears the Sheriff call him an “old fool,” and Parnell interrupts with a bon mot: “Speak kindly of the dead.” Then Polly asks the Sheriff: “Mind if I have a minute with the corpse?” But Parnell, alive and well, is no Jacob Marley, so the joke is not on the men but on those who cast queer love in necrophilic terms.

But the law is just one of Polly’s two passions. Jazz is the other, this one not shared by Parnell, who calls it “rooty tooty” music.” Perhaps Parnell senses a rival. In one scene — this is in Michigan in the 1950’s — Polly sits at a piano in a jazz club, playing music with Duke Ellington (who scored the film and plays Pie-Eye, the jazz club’s owner), their black and white hands appearing first in close-up on the black and white keys; then the camera draws back to show their faces as they play, easy in each other’s company. This is when Laura decides to mock Polly for his nickname. Earlier at the home/office, Parnell cautioned Polly about drinking alone, and Polly, at the piano, gently warns him off — “Drop the stone, counsellor, you live in a glass house” – but warm words ensue as Polly improvises a gentle soundtrack for their talk; it is as if he brings Ellington, too, into the room.

Writing is also an issue in both films, seemingly in a peripheral way in Murder and more centrally in Fall. Here again Fall’s Sandra seems to promise progress over Murder’s Maida. Sandra writes with apparent ease, which frustrates her husband, Samuel. He is recording their family life, often without consent, hoping to rake it for inspiration and, in one such recording, played at Sandra’s trial, we hear the couple fight. Samuel says he needs more time to write. He blames his parenting duties. He wants Sandra to do more so he can do less. They are unequal; it isn’t fair, he says. Their son, Daniel, is nearly blind due to an accident that occurred a few years before when the father, busy writing, sent someone else to get Daniel from school. Samuel has been paying for it ever since, putting the child first, homeschooling him. Why can’t Sandra, the child’s mother, help? But these are Samuel’s choices, Sandra says, why should she share the burden? The child, Daniel, can go to school full time. Sandra brushes off Samuel’s effort to maternalize her and she urges him to face his own guilt and complexity. He seems unable to this, though, and we are left to infer that this is why Samuel cannot write — because he cannot face the truth. Perhaps this is why he prioritizes his son? Because the child cannot see his father? But if that is Samuel’s comfort, he is wrong again. Daniel is a seer, as well as a forensic investigator and a storyteller.

In Murder, Eve Arden’s Maida is having trouble writing, too, but it is not a lack of time, truth, or material that is her problem, nor a lack of self-awareness. It is her typewriter, which keeps breaking down. She tells Polly she needs a new typewriter: “Half the time, the “P” and the “F” don’t strike on mine. “Party of the first part comes out: “arty of the irst art.’” Polly, at the piano in his home/office, finds the jazz in Maida’s words: “’arty of the irst art’. I kinda like that. Has a ring to it,” he muses at the keys, as if tuned in to what Jeffrey Masten calls “queer philology” or putting into practice Sara Ahmed’s claim that there are “queer possibilities not only in use…but also in being not of use.” The broken typewriter breaks down language, birthing art for art’s sake in a world of disrepair. This could be the beautiful fate of the fallen, were all the Eves ardent refusers of the binary’s mandates and all the Pollys able to make music of the wreckage.

If Fall means to remediate Murder, it falls short, because Fall is governed by use in a way that Murder is not. Fall is parsimonious, efficient, and tight, while Murder is extravagant, loose, and wayward. The contrast is illustrated by the difference between the two films’ dogs. Murder’s cute, talented Muff has no clear trial-related purpose. In Fall, Snoop is so necessary to the film that the relative frivolity of Muff in Murder is made obvious by comparison. Muff carried a torch to light the way for Laura’s escape from the scene of sexual assault. The trick is re-performed later as a cute demonstration in the courtroom, with no sign of the trauma that made it necessary. Snoop is needed to decide an issue central to the trial, but he does not appear there, and has no such carnie tricks to distract from the traumas that make him necessary. It is as if Fall is chiding Murder for flouting Chekhov’s law: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off.”

And yet, in Fall, Sandra’s bisexuality is only mentioned, never in play, while in Murder, guns are going off everywhere, as it were. The small-town prosecutor says Biegler is “going off in all directions.” The prosecutor’s big city co-counsel, Dancer (George C. Scott), tells the Court that his opponent is “the least disciplined and the most completely out-of-order attorney I’ve ever seen in a courtroom.” Dancer codes queer (“light on his feet” is a homophobic slur), evoking in the 21st century spectator thoughts of Perry Mason’s Hamilton Burger, as, indeed, does the prosecuting attorney in Fall, all carriers of a stereotyped fastidiousness said to give the game away. The prosecution also charges that Biegler introduces “sensational material” to obscure “the real issues.” Does “sensational material” obscure the “real issues” as the prosecutor charges? Or is such extravagance itself the issue? Preminger’s direction of Murder “go[es] off in all directions,” too, rejecting utility as an aesthetic ideal, while depicting futility in the trailer park setting, the overflowing garbage can, Parnell’s crash of Maida’s car — all postwar detritus in the midst of 1950’s much-vaunted American plenty. Excessive and theatrical, Murder finds art in futility and chides Fall in return.

The task in both films is for the principals to find their use outside use. In so doing, one subtracts from, while the other adds to, the couple form. Murder ends with the chosen kinship of Maida, Polly, and Parnell though, with Maida at the home/office (her car crashed by Parnell), and Polly and Parnell on the road, the trio still mimes the gendered division it seeks to replace. Fall ends with Sandra alone, or nearly so (fated to be an old Maid-a?). But it is Murder that offers the greater glimpse of a future in and out of reproductive futurism when Polly tells Parnell that their first case as a team will be to administer the estate of Barney Quill, the murder victim in the trial they just won. Quill’s name evokes both queerness and old-fashioned, pre-machinic writing, and so it seems extravagantly right that Parnell finds something important in this (queer?) bequest, declaring “Now that’s what I call poetic justice for everybody.”

There is also poetic justice for Fall in the outcome at Cannes. The film won the Palme d’Or trophy at Cannes, and not the LGBTQ+ award for which it had vied, suggesting that, at Cannes too, someone knows the difference between a film with a bisexual character and cinematic queerness. In both films, straight white life seems a living deadness, but only in Murder does the shelter of night offer the reliable escape of friendship, jazz, and the occasional court victory (the jury returns after 1 a.m.). The arc of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, absent from Murder, seems to reassert itself in Fall, when Sandra, a wayward, bisexual woman, lands in the comforting arms of her son, Daniel. Fall’s closing shot, however, arguably replaces the comforting son of reproductive futurism with the miraculous household soul that is Snoop, the dog, thus breaking the oedipal triangle that seemed inescapable just moments before. Nearly human, Snoop and Sandra both lie, side by side, on Samuel’s workbed, as if cheating on Daniel, who is sleeping upstairs in his room. Some commentators, attached to oedipality, insist on reading Snoop, in the final scene with Sandra, as Samuel’s stand-in. But there is no need to do that. Their pairing, which might risk animalizing what the film wants to humanize, recalls an Eden at peace with the animals before Adam was given the right to name them; that is to say, before the Fall that made anatomy into a divisive object of forensic science and reserved for heterosexuality the only future imaginable.

While Fall’s Sandra, with her imperviousness to the male guilt trip, feels like a feminist miracle, and she is, the film’s 1959 namesake resists its successor’s remediations to offer a miracle feminism still needs: poetic justice for everybody.