The following is an essay written for my American Film History 1 class.
Genres are the labels we give to a film to describe the type of film it is. When a person is asked to describe what a film is, they will most likely begin by stating its genre. When a film is labeled as a comedy, or a thriller, or a horror, there are certain tropes and elements that are associated with that genre. This makes film genres different from other systems of classification. In order to properly examine just how different film genres are from other genre classification systems, and why it’s different, one must first define what a genre is and what it does. Once that is done it is important to look at the recurring settings, character types, and plots that appear within that genre. Another important element to look at to properly understand genres is the conflict going on in the story. Lastly it is important to understand how genres evolve in order to properly understand why things are done in the way they are. Using Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, we will examine the effects genre has on film.
Defining a films genre, “scarcely involves the subjective, interpretive effort that it does” in other systems of genre classification such as literature genre (Schatz 16). Film genres are less a classification of story type and are more of an outline of which characters types, plots, and settings that the public responds too. Unlike other genre types, film genres are based upon the box office success with different character types and plot lines. The ones that are successful are rehashed, slightly varied, and repeated until the public associates with them so much they become a genre. As such what a genre means for a film evolves as the society evolves. If genres are based on box office success, then when society changes, what it responds to in a film will change, and thus the film genre will change. The example Thomas Schatz uses is the Western hero going from a man of the law in early Western films, to an outlaw in later films. It is important to note that films repeat themselves until the audience becomes familiar with the tropes of those types of films, and thus a genre is born. It is also important to note that there is no organization that develops film genres; they simply are born out of repeated box office success.
Genres are convenient for telling a friend what to expect in a film, but they are even more convenient for filmmakers as a formula. Thomas Schatz says that all genre films “celebrate the most fundamental of ideological precepts-they examine and affirm ‘Americanism’…the genre film celebrates certain inviolate cultural attributes.” Anatomy of a Murder is a courtroom crime drama film that came out in 1959 and was directed by Austro-Hungarian filmmaker Otto Preminger. Being a courtroom drama, the main character is bound to be a lawyer, more than likely one who is either down on his luck or lazy, and unwittingly brought into a high profile case. The film starts off with Paul Biegler, a defense lawyer and our protagonist, coming back from fishing when he receives a phone call from a woman asking him to defend her husband in court. Her husband Manion, a Lieutenant in the United States army, shot and killed a man after he learned that man raped his wife. Manion admits to the murder, but beliefs it was excusable because the man had raped his wife. Biegler only takes the case because his alcoholic friend Parnell McCarthy and his overbearing secretary Maida encourage him to. He would rather just take enough divorce cases to get by, so he can spend more time fishing, but he gets talked into the case anyway. Once he is filled in on the details he tells Manion that he can’t argue that the murder was excused, and that their only chance is to argue temporary insanity. Biegler takes the case that everyone assumes he cannot win, because the defendant admits to the murder. From there on out it becomes the classic underdog tale. Biegler manages to find enough evidence to convince the jury that Manion was temporarily insane, and Manion is found not guilty. What aspects of Americanism does Anatomy of a Murder celebrate? It celebrates the idea of American righteousness. It celebrates the fact that the winner is right, and the winner in Anatomy of a Murder is certainly Manion.
The film is set in a small town in Michigan, but the actual location isn’t as important as the fact that it is a small town. The setting, while a very important aspect of the film, is not as important as the idea of the location where the film takes place. For example, Anatomy of a Murder takes place in a small town, but which small town doesn’t particularly matter because we as the audience know the typical elements to expect from a small town. This is because the audience is clings onto the tropes that are associated with the location and not the location itself. This is why Thomas Schatz says that once the characters and the conflicts they are challenged with are established “the setting might as well be Paris or New York City or even Oz.” This is important because in the film Biegler makes a point of letting the jury know that he is ‘just a humble country lawyer’ trying his best against a big time city prosecutor. Another instance of a location not mattering so much as the idea of a location is that the big city that the prosecutor is from is never named. The audience simply knows what big city implies when the good guy is from the country. However, is Paul Biegler actually the good guy?
Paul Biegler is laid back and confident in his beliefs. He never questions whether Manion is lying or should get off; he simply does his job and accepts the moral grey area he stands in. Throughout the run of the film Biegler never once seems interested in whether Manion actually was temporarily insane. Instead he goes around town, as relaxed as can be, and tries to gather enough evidence to get his client found not guilty. He never goes out of his way or seems concerned about not winning the case, in fact most of the time in the courtroom he seems almost bored. When the prosecution is speaking he spends his time making traps and other feathery contraptions to ‘help him think.’ Then, towards the end of the film, Manion skips town after winning the case without paying Biegler. He leaves a note for his lawyer that jokes that he had a ‘temporarily irresistible urge’ to run. Around his home are beer bottles, which are meant to imply that Manion might have just been a jealous, angry, and drunk when he killed the man who raped his wife, and not temporarily insane. However, Biegler doesn’t even care. Instead he tells McCarthy that they already have a new client, and not to worry about the missed payment. He is so set in his worldview that fact that he got a murder out of jail does not bother him at all. Paul Biegler matches what Thomas Schatz calls the ‘generic hero’ in his article ‘Film Genres and the Genre Film. He says “the generic character is psychologically static-he or she is the physical embodiment of an attitude, a style, a world view, a predetermined and essentially unchanging cultural posture.” This is a perfect description of our protagonist, Paul Biegler.
In Anatomy of a Murder, the central conflict is Biegler’s attempt to have the jury find Manion not guilty by temporary insanity. Conflict is essential to the narrative of a film. Without conflict the film would have no purpose. In Anatomy of a Murder, the town is reeling from Manion’s murder of the man who raped his wife, and the story cannot end unless he is found either guilty or not guilty. As Thomas Schatz says, “If there is anything escapist about these narratives, it is their repeated assertion that these conflicts can be solved, that seemingly timeless cultural oppositions can be resolved favorably for the larger community.” When watching Anatomy of a Murder, the audience should feel happy about Manion being found not guilty, because that means the Biegler, the man they’ve been rooting for the past two hours, was successful. However, at the end the question about whether Biegler was right in getting Manion off still remains. According to Schatz, this type of epilogue that throws the meaning or worth of the protagonist into question “implicitly accepts the contradictory values of its genre, all of which seem to center around the conflict between individualism and the common good.” This can clearly be seen at play in this film. Biegler is a defense attorney; his job is to defend people accused of criminal offenses. It is not his job to assess whether his clients are guilty or not, which can be seen by the simply fact that he never tries to determine whether what Manion says is true or not. He simply does his job no matter what the case, and is then up to the justice system to determine whether his client should be found guilty or not. This is the same faith that most have in the justice system. The guilty are always found guilty. However the end of the film throws that into question, acknowledging the contradictory values of not just the genre, but of the justice system and perhaps society as well.
While many may think that genres provide films with a label, genres actually provide filmmakers with a formula. Genre films are the same characters and plot arcs, varied just enough so that it can be sold as a new film. They do this because nobody wants to see the same film over and over. It would get boring. However genres have narrowed down what kinds of films resonate with the audience. This goes back to the evolution of genres. When the genre is first being established, it is said to be in its experimental stage. During this stage the genre’s “conventions are isolated and established” (Schatz 37). This is when the public votes one what it wants to see and does not want to see in the upcoming genre by buying tickets. The tropes that audiences approve of will stay with the genre through to its classical stage. This is the highpoint of the genre, where audiences known what to expect and the artists know how to give them what they want. The classical stage is where Anatomy of a Murder and other such classic films of their genre are going to be made. These films meet audience’s expectations for the types of characters and plot to expect, but because the filmmakers know the genre so well at this point, the film is able to deliver more than other similar films and thus become known as classics. It is also during this stage when the audience is going to start getting tired of the tropes it once loved so much. This pushes the genre into the next stage, the refinement stage where “certain formal and stylistic details embellish the form” (Schatz 38). After this the genre enters into the self-reflexive stage, where the tropes and the genre elements of the film become what the film is about. This is when films emerge that make fun of the formula that the genre sues, while still using that formula. The evolution of genres plays a very important part in what kind of films get delivered to the audience.
Film genres are clearly not as simply as the way they are used in popular culture. Genres are more formulas for filmmaking rather than a description of the film itself. Their classification relies more on box office success rather than an analysis of the film itself. Genres also evolve as the society that first made them by voting on characters, plots, and other tropes with the purchase of tickets to the cinema change. When one takes all of this into consideration it can be mind-boggling. To properly understand genres it is important to first define them and what they do. Then you can look at the reoccurring plots, character types, and settings. Then, examining the conflict in the story will help to understand the development of familiar plot arcs in genre films. After all of that it is then important to look at how genres evolve. In doing all of this one can fully understand how genres affect filmmaking.
Schatz, Thomas. “Film Genres and the Genre Film.” 2012. Hollywood Genres: Formulas,
Filmmaking, and the Studio System. New York: McGraw Hill, 1981. 15-41. Print.
A PDF version of the essay is available here.