Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959)

What's it about? Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is an easy-going, but shrewd lawyer who agrees to defend an army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) who has killed the man who allegedly raped his wife (Lee Remick). It’s not going to be easy, though - up against him in court is the hotshot prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott).

Is it any good? Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, consider the following. It is customary for courtroom dramas to rely heavily on one or both of the following things in telling their story. (1) the hero of the film will have a strong personal and/or emotional investment in the case (2) there will be a heavy emphasis on justice being done (or not). Anatomy of a Murder, however, cares little for either of these. Biegler has his professional pride, but this is no do-or-die case for him. As for justice, not only is it debatable whether the right or wrong verdict is delivered, but there is little focus on the eventual outcome. So the question instead is this. How can Anatomy of a Murder dispense with these two apparently essential elements of the trial drama and still be excellent? Let’s look at the evidence.

Ladies and gentlemen, the answer lies in two other elements; words and performances. The splendidly structured screenplay provides the words, including some rather controversial ones for the time. Nowadays, you'll hear words like 'panties', 'intercourse', 'climax' and 'spermatogenesis' at any kindergarten playground, but back in 1959 audiences were not used to hearing such frank sexual terms, leading to outraged finger-wagging, threatened bans and, naturally, huge box-office. These shocking words surface during the courtroom scenes, which give an enthralling lesson in how the particular use of language can manipulate the judge and jury in a case. And us, the viewers, for that matter, since the facts of this crime are only ever presented to us by the lawyers and their witnesses, so we never know exactly what happened. It’s a clever approach, since we, like the jury, are equally susceptible to the silver-tongued arguments of each side as they attempt to prove the defendant’s guilt, or not.

Words still have to be delivered effectively, though, and both Stewart and Scott give outstanding performances here. Stewart subtly subverts that charming ‘aw shucks’ persona of his, exaggerating it in the courtroom to make himself more appealing to the jury. It's all an act, of course, and it hides a not-so-wholesome streak – watch how slyly he nudges his client toward an excuse for his actions. Opposite him, Scott is a magnetic presence as Dancer, masterfully cross-examining witnesses and controlling the arena of the courtroom with his physique – there’s a great moment as he accidentally-on-purpose blocks Biegler’s view of the witness. Together, their verbal sparring and manipulation of those around them makes for gripping viewing - I bet every law student aspires to these sort of performances in court. Of course, this wouldn’t count for much if it was a straightforward case, but a lot of the reason it isn't is due to the performance of Remick as the flirtatious and seductive wife, whose behaviour throughout does not seem to be that of a rape victim, thereby throwing doubt on the entire motive for the crime. (She sure was pretty, but I’m not sure her hair was really all that impressive, though, even in 1959). So plenty to enjoy, and I haven’t even mentioned the striking Saul Bass credits and Duke Ellington score yet.

All in all, we have an outstanding courtroom drama here, but one that is more concerned with how the law processes such a case, than in the outcome or subsequent repercussions. And it may be in black-and-white, but it tackles some very grey areas in the process. In summary, ladies and gentlemen, see it.

Anything else I should know? Considered one of the great courtroom dramas and loved by legal types for the accurate depiction of their profession. It's Number 4 on the American Bar Association list of Great Legal Movies. Although My CousinVinny is Number 3, so that might not be the best indicator. Not surprising it appeals to lawyers, perhaps, given the amount of legal input into it. It was based on a real-life case which was recorded in a novel by former Supreme Court judge John D. Voelker (writing as Robert Traver), who was recruited to act as consultant on the film. Preminger himself had secured a law doctorate before turning to film-making. But the real legal high was in getting Joseph N. Welch to play the judge. Welch shot to fame for his role as Army counsel in the nationally televised Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, tackling Senator McCarthy head-on and asking the immortal line “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” He mightn’t be too far out of his comfort zone here, but he holds his own in the acting stakes. Perhaps this only emphasises that similarity in the theatrical nature of the two professions.

What does the Fonz think? Verdict: Guilty of being excellent.

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