Anatomy of a Murder

Dir: Otto Preminger, 1959. Starring: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazarra. Classics.
Anatomy of a Murder

Director Otto Preminger seemed to look for controversial subjects all through his career but with his two hour and forty minute courtroom masterpiece Anatomy of a Murder, he might’ve gone farther than 1959 audiences could handle. The film is about a lawyer defending a man who’s accused of killing a guy who possibly raped his wife. If that wasn’t lurid enough for audiences, they especially got all angsty over a word that was repeated in the trial, that horrific word…. “panties” (you know, women’s underwear). For anyone who can get past such a lewd word, Anatomy of a Murder is very dense in detail, almost an epic in just exploring the small details of a legal case. And it’s still one of the best lawyer flicks ever.

The film is loaded with talent on both sides of the camera including a famous title sequence by Saul Bass (Psycho) and a catchy score by Duke Ellington (strange since the film takes place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—not exactly a “jazzy” part of the country. Also, Duke appears in a cameo as well.) Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker wrote the book based on a real life case; the script was shrewdly adapted by Wendell Mayes (The Poseidon AdventureDeath Wish). It’s also shot in cool black & white by the dependable cinematographer Sam Leavitt (A Star Is BornExodusMajor Dundee) and it was edited by another pro, Louis R. Loeffler (LauraThe Long Hot Summer). And of course director/producer, the Hungarian-born Preminger himself, was one of the big guns of his era, with a directing career going back to the Noir period (LauraWhirlpool). Anatomy of a Murder was easily his best film but everything he did, no matter the overall quality, was always interesting. 

Though he’d rather be fishing or playing the piano, everyman small-town lawyer, Paul Biegler (quintessential everyman James Stewart), aided by his drunk-but-wise sidekick, (Arthur O’Connell) and his go-getter-gal-Friday (Eve Arden), takes on a high profile murder case that might be a little out of his depth. Hot-tempered army lieutenant “Manny" Manion (Ben Gazzara) has been accused of killing a popular bar owner named Barney Quill. His defense: Quill had raped and beaten his sexy little flirt of a wife, Laura (Lee Remick). It looks like an open and shut case: murder. Biegler is hoping to plead temporary insanity (or irresistible impulse), but with down home Judge Weaver (played well by real-life lawyer Joseph N. Welch, famous for taking on the evil Senator Joseph McCarthy in the Army-McCarthy Hearings) and a powerhouse big city prosecutor, Claude Dancer (the great George C. Scott in his first film), the cards are obviously stacked against him.

Manion and his wife are almost 1959 versions of Jerry Springer characters; they are partiers who hang around bars and dancehalls, they drink and they argue. Laura is accused of being a slut; she loves attention from men and Manion is the kind of guy who wants to sock anyone who ogles her. These are not the kinds of characters that heroic movie lawyers usually defend. In its day the script must’ve really pushed the censor to its limit. By the time “panties” becomes the center of the trial, all kinds of words mainstream American audiences were not use to confronting like “rape” and “sperm” had already been uttered. The lawyers discuss the word “panties,” and wonder how it can be said aloud without offending the courtroom. Is there another word they can use? Scott’s prosecutor says, “I learned a French word  though it might be slightly suggestive,” the judge adds, “most French words are.” This is the kind of smart dialogue the film is full of. The banter and dueling between Scott and Stewart is exhilarating and when Scott, at his most pompous and intimidating, finally gets to go after Remick when she takes the stand, it’s like watching a hungry jungle lion stalk its prey.

Even long before John Grisham’s pop legal thrillers started getting turned into tent pole pictures, court room movies have been a reliable mini-genre and Anatomy of a Murder (joined perhaps by CompulsionWitness for the ProsecutionTo Kill a Mockingbird, and The Verdict) is in the top tier and still the gold standard. One thing it so gets right (and it’s so surprising for a film from its era) is the ambiguity. Unlike, say, Grisham’s work, a lot isn’t answered for us; with no flashbacks all we know about the case is what people tell us, and there are a lot of conflicting versions of the truth. Though a surprise witness at the end shines some light on the panties controversy, much else including questions of guilt and innocence are never actually answered. Preminger was the rare filmmaker who trusted his audience and instead of spelling out the answers he leaves it to us to fill it in for ourselves, like any good lawyer would.


Anatomy of a Murder was nominated for seven Oscars including: Best Actor (James Stewart), Best Supporting Actor (Arthur O'Connell), Best Supporting Actor (George C. Scott), Best Cinematography (Sam Leavitt), Best Editing (Louis R. Loeffler), Best Adapted Screenplay (Wendell Mayes), and Best Picture.  

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Oct 5, 2011 6:31pm
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