Classic Review: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
“A man named Barney Quill, raped Mrs. Manion. Her Husband, he’s a Lieutenant in the army, goes to Quill’s place and plugs Mr. Quill about five times, which causes Mr. Quill to promptly die, of lead poisoning.”
Anatomy of a Murder certainly doesn’t mince it’s words. It’s based on the best selling novel of the same name, which was originally written by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker (AKA Robert Traver), who based the novel on a 1952 murder trial in which he was the defending attorney. Adapted for the screen by Wendell Mayes and directed by Otto Preminger, Anatomy of a Murder has become widely recognised as one of the best courtroom dramas of all time.
Paul ‘Polly’ Biegler (James Stewart) is a small town lawyer, who after being replaced as the District Attorney has occupied his time mostly with fishing and music. He is approached by Mrs. Laura Manion (Lee Remick) who asks him to represent her husband, Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), in a murder trial after he murdered the man who raped her. On Mr. Biegler’s side are his lovable but drunk legal counsel Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell), and his assistant Maida (Eve Arden). In the opposition are the new (and somewhat hapless) District Attorney (Brooks West), and the hot-shot State Attorney Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), brought in from the big smoke to even the odds.
Firstly, what instantly stands out in Anatomy of a Murder is the performances. O’Connell is charming as the reforming drunk taking on his first big murder trial, as is Arden playing the charismatic, ‘tough love’ assistant. Remick is flirtatious and sultry as the Lieutenant’s wife, and no doubt caused a stir when the film was released in 59’. Gazzara as the defendant is both strong and dignified, yet mysterious and arrogant. And not to be left out is West, who adds some nice moments of humour as the new D.A. trying his best to both impress and show up his predecessor (“How do you like this Polly? A genuine Picasso print”).
However the two performances that really make this film a classic are the two central performances in Stewart and Scott. As the film builds, it turns less into a trial, and more into a act off between the two attorney’s, each realising that the case will be won by the attorney that can best manipulate the jury.
Stewart is at his most charismatic in this film, constantly charming and full of extraordinary wit. In the courtroom he plays Biegler as a kind of bumbling genius, treating the jury as his audience. He seems to be doing things by mistake, speaking out of turn, unprofessionally interrupting the proceedings, but all the while we know it’s all deliberate, it’s all part of the show.
We then have the contrast in Scott’s character, the legal giant from the big smoke. He’s sharp as a tack, coolly spoken and yet instantly intimidating. He speaks deliberately and aims to kill, slowly undermining the stories of the witnesses he cross-examines. It is the battle between these two very different yet equally brilliant legal persona’s or ‘acts’ that grips you during the film, until you seem to forget about the trial altogether, and begin barracking for your favourite lawyer (Stewart of course).
There is however, a lot more to Anatomy of a Murder then simply the performances. What really makes it unique amongst courtroom dramas, is that it could be better described as a critique of the North American justice system. The fact of the matter is that Lt. Manion is guilty (the circumstances surrounding the crime is the contentious issue though), and Biegler has been set the challenge of making a guilty man innocent in the eyes of the law. As we are never shown any scenes from the night in question, we, like the jury, only have the testimonies and accounts given by the witnesses, leaving us in a position of constant agitation and curiosity. Are the Manion’s lying or is what they are claiming the truth?
Duke Ellington’s jazzy score is fantastic, making even a small town lawyer with a fridge filled with fish, cool as a cucumber. Ellington makes a nice cameo in the film playing a duet on the piano with Stewart in the local town bar. Another interesting guest star is that of real life legal giant Joseph N. Welch, who was counsel for the United States Army during the famous Army-McCarthy Hearings, playing Judge Weaver.
Anatomy of a Murder is a gripping look at the American justice system, yet manages to be humorous, cool, sexy and intriguing (as a narrative and a character exploration) at the same time. The two lead performances (both earning Oscar nominations) in Stewart and Scott are certainly a highlight, as both men are equally charismatic, and not only in front of the jury. The surrounding cast are just as engaging, especially the siren-esque Remick, and the enigmatic Gazzara. Its biggest plus however, is that 50 years later the film still certainly packs a punch in both its social commentary and theatrically. The ending is particularly memorable in its perfection.
Original Release Date: 1959
Directed by: Otto Preminger
Starring: James Stewart, George C. Scott, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, Lee Remick and Kathryn Grant.