The 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder is Otto Preminger’s most popular and well-regarded film of his career. It was a hit with critics and audiences at the time of its release and continues to be revered today. It’s especially praised by the professionals the film depicts: lawyers. While Hollywood has created many movies revolving around the action in the courtroom, few have looked so intensely at the work involved in developing a defense case, especially one as challenging as the one portrayed in the film.
The film follows Paul Biegler (James Stewart), a small-town Michigan lawyer and former district attorney who decides to take on a difficult defense case after a long hiatus. Lieutenant Frederick Manion has been accused of murdering a local tavern owner who he believes raped his wife, Laura (Lee Remick). With little to no evidence supporting the defense, Biegler and his colleague Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell) must find a way to convince the jury that Manion is not guilty, especially as they face a tough prosecution team in the form of local district attorney Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West) and Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), an out-of-town prosecutor from the Attorney General’s office.
Clocking in at two hours and forty minutes, Anatomy of a Murder spends much of its running time in the courtroom. But before we reach the courthouse, the film takes quite an extensive look at the process of building a case. While many courtroom films show lawyers at their liveliest, they don’t often delve deep into what lawyers spend most of their time doing, which is researching their case. After Biegler accepts the case, the film shows him looking through dozens of law books in the library and interviewing the people connected to the case. While Biegler has a seemingly weak case, he discovers through his research that Manion may be eligible for a defense of irresistible impulse, a version of temporary insanity. And it’s through his interviews with witnesses that Biegler gets a better picture of what he’s dealing with, though it’s still not quite clear what the truth is.
The case itself is filled with a lot of gray areas, mostly due to the Manions’ behaviors. Through interviews with both the husband and wife, Biegler sees that Manion is violently possessive and jealous, while his wife has a reputation for being promiscuous. The prosecution wants to convince the jury that Laura and the victim were lovers and that Manion killed him and beat her up when he discovered them together. As the film progresses, we as the audience can only rely on the testimonies from the witnesses for the truth, as director Otto Preminger chose not to utilize flashbacks for our benefit in deciphering the crime. Instead, we’re just like the judge and jury of the courtroom, as the director amusingly points out in the film’s trailer (which you can watch here).
Along with a deep look into the job of a defense lawyer, the film studies the fallibility of the human factor when it comes to the legal system. All of the human components — counsels for the defense and prosecution, the defendant, and witnesses — have their own positions on what’s right and wrong, and different perspectives of justice that affect the course of the case. One controversial legal issue in the film is possible witness coaching, which both the defense and prosecution take part in. While Biegler isn’t allowed to tell Manion what sort of legal position to take for the case, he practically spells out for him that there’s a possibility of winning the case with a temporary insanity defense. And in the courtroom, the prosecution calls in Manion’s jail inmates to testify against him, who are awaiting their own sentencing and is thus portrayed in the film as subornation of perjury.
Aside from its truthful portrayal of the legal process, Preminger also imbued other realistic aspects into the making Anatomy of a Murder. It was based on a book of the same name written by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker (under the pen name Robert Traver), who based his novel on a 1952 murder case in which he was the defense attorney. The film was shot on location in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, with some scenes filmed one block away from the site of the 1952 murder that inspired the story. And though Preminger offered the role of the judge to Spencer Tracy and Burl Ives, it ultimately went to Joseph N. Welch, a real-life lawyer who represented the U.S. Army during the McCarthy hearings. He’s famous for berating McCarthy, asking him, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
Speaking of decency, Preminger was known in Hollywood for pushing the boundaries of censorship, as his films often dealt with taboo topics. Anatomy of a Murder was one of the first mainstream films to address sex and rape in such a frank manner. Preminger knew that the film wouldn’t have been as nearly effective as it is if he softened the subject matter. While the film doesn’t show any graphic images, the film’s controversy concerned the language, which included then-scandalous words such as “rape”, “bitch”, “contraceptive”, “slut”, “penetration”, “sperm”, and “panties”. The film was temporarily banned in Chicago by the mayor for its explicit language, but Preminger filed a motion in federal court in Illinois to let the film play in the city, and the mayor’s decision was then overturned. The court determined that the clinical language used during the trial scenes was realistic and appropriate within the film’s context. You can get a taste of the film and its provocative language in Criterion’s Three Reasons video here.
Upon its release, the film went on to receive rave reviews and numerous accolades. The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther said, “It is cheering and fascinating to see [a courtroom melodrama] that hews magnificently to a line of dramatic but reasonable behavior and proper procedure in a court.” Anatomy of a Murder received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, though the film went home empty-handed. James Stewart received the last of his five nominations for Best Actor (he won previously for 1940’s The Philadelphia Story, his second nomination), while George C. Scott received the first of his eventual four Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor (he later won Best Actor for 1970’s Patton).
In 2008, the film was honored in one of AFI’s 10 Top 10 lists, which celebrates the ten greatest American films in ten classic film genres. Anatomy of a Murder was placed at #7 on the courtroom drama list, joining other great films of the genre such as To Kill a Mockingbird and 12 Angry Men. While the film is loved by many cineastes, it’s perhaps more appreciated by members of the law community. The American Bar Association placed it at #4 in their list of The 25 Greatest Legal Movies. And as the film encompasses (from the defense standpoint) all of the basic stages in the U.S. criminal justice system from client interview and arraignment through trial, Anatomy of a Murder is still shown in law schools today as a teaching tool.
I wrote this as a part of the Order in the Court! Blogathon, where bloggers are writing about cinema’s take on legal proceedings. Click the banner below to read more posts about classic courtroom movies!