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  • Post last modified:June 2, 2021

Anatomy of a Murder: Admiring the Game

There’s an amusing sequence in the middle of this film where the judge (Joseph N. Welch) asks the counsels if there isn’t a better word to use instead of “panties”, which was considered somewhat indecent at the time. They’re unable to come up with an appropriate synonym. It’s a rather telling scene, considering the kind of uproar the film’s language caused at the time of the release. It is also typical that people would focus on details rather than the whole picture.

Anatomy of a Murder is a dark film, one of Otto Preminger’s finest, that portrays trials as nothing more than cynical games.

Shooting his victim in a fit of rage
Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a former district attorney who now works as a regular lawyer in Michigan. He takes a meeting with Army Lieutenant Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) who has killed a bartender who allegedly raped his wife, Laura (Lee Remick). There is little doubt that the Lieutenant is guilty of having shot his victim to death in a fit of rage, but Biegler won’t accept to represent him in the murder trial until Manion declares that he must have suffered from some kind of temporary insanity. Eventually, Biegler and his old friend Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell) come up with irresistible impulse as a key part of their defense. At the start of the trial, the new district attorney brings in the state assistant attorney general, Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), a predator who has no intention of letting Biegler win this case. As the court proceedings continue, Biegler realizes that both Frederick and Laura Manion could be to blame if he loses the case.

Inventing every piece of the defense
As you may have noticed after reading this plot summary, Biegler knows how to play the game. Attorneys are not allowed to coach their witnesses, but the film shows Biegler inventing every piece of the defense; irresistible impulse becomes just another stunt and the client is in a way an obstacle that has to be overcome. Neither does Scott’s character give any impression of caring about anything but scoring a victory. Lawyers love this movie; it is an opportunity for them to admire the game without having to invest emotionally in any real human beings.

Director Preminger, along with the actors, also make sure that the rape victim and the accused murderer come off as ambiguous as possible; there isn’t a scene in the movie where Laura gives the impression of actually having been raped, or where she shows a willingness to help her husband beat the charges… and Frederick appears to have no regrets at all. But the audience can’t be sure of anything. The film focuses on the technicalities and the court proceedings, not on sympathy for any victims. The script gives food for thought (not least the eternal question of why a woman’s choice of clothes should matter in rape trials), but the film does go on a bit too long even though the courtroom scenes have their spellbinding moments.

Excellent acting from everyone involved, including Stewart as the likeable but jaded attorney, O’Connell as his drunken pal, and Remick. Jazz aficionados will appreciate Duke Ellington’s score that gives the film a modern touch (even though Ellington himself had been around for a long time).

The movie’s title says something about the clinical attitude of the filmmakers. The legal system may not be perfect and Anatomy of a Murder shows it for what it is – cold and easy to manipulate. The scariest part perhaps is that we can’t come up with anything better.

Anatomy of a Murder 1959-U.S. 160 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Otto Preminger. Screenplay: Wendell Mayes. Novel: Robert Traver. Music: Duke Ellington. Cast: James Stewart (Paul Biegler), Lee Remick (Laura Manion), Ben Gazzara (Frederick Manion), Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant… George C. Scott. Cameo: Duke Ellington.

Trivia: Welch was a real-life judge. Spencer Tracy and Burl Ives were allegedly considered for the part of the judge; Lana Turner as Laura. The film was originally banned in Chicago due to the frank nature of the dialogue.

Venice: Best Actor (Stewart). 

Last word: “Our presence created great excitement in those little towns [where the film was shot]. The special train carrying cast, crew, and equipment arrived at six-thirty on a March day, but half the population was at the station to greet us. Duke Ellington arrived a few days after we had begun to shoot. Usually the producer waits until the filming and the first cut are completed, then he chooses the composer, who writes the score in about six weeks. I find it useful to have the composer with me on the set. By watching the progress of the shooting, seeing the dailies…. he becomes part of the film… Ellington was willing to sacrifice his valuable time and work according to my system.” (Preminger, “Preminger: An Autobiography”)



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