Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), a lieutenant in the army, is arrested for the murder of a bartender, Barney Quill. He claims, in his defense, that the victim had raped and beaten up his wife Laura (Lee Remick). Although Laura supports her husband's story, the police surgeon can find no evidence that she has been raped. Manion is defended by Paul Biegler (James Stewart), a rather humble small-town lawyer. During the course of interviews, Biegler discovers that Manion is violently possessive and jealous, and also that his wife has a reputation for giving her favors to other men. Biegler realizes that the prosecution will try to make the court believe that Laura was the lover of the bartender and than Manion killed him and beat her up when he discovered them together. Manion pleads "not guilty" and Biegler, who knows that his case is weak, sets his assistants to try to find a witness who will save Manion. Written by
As a courtroom drama, "Anatomy of a Murder" would be hard to surpass. It is a first-class production with an interesting and unpredictable story plus a strong cast. It works admirably, both as a story and as a portrayal of the workings of the law. It avoids the labored dramatics and contrived resolutions in which so many movies of the genre indulge, and it also declines to shy away from pointing out the more ill-conceived features of the legal system.
From his first scene, James Stewart pulls the viewer right into the world of lawyer Paul Biegler. It takes little time before you come to know him and to get a pretty good idea of what his life is like. His scenes with Arthur O'Connell work well in rounding out the picture. The two are neither heroic nor brilliant, but simply sympathetic and believable.
Into Biegler's world then come the characters played by Ben Gazzara and Lee Remick, a married couple with more than their share of faults. By making them less than ideal clients, the movie takes a chance on losing the audience's sympathy, but it adds credibility and complexity to the story. Both roles are played well - again, it seems as if you know a lot more about them than is specifically stated.
When George C. Scott enters the picture, he adds yet another dimension. His character arrives at just the right time to complicate the plot, and his legal skirmishing with Stewart makes some dry material come to life in an interesting way. Eve Arden also has some good moments, and her character is used in just the right amount to add some amusement without causing a distraction from the main story. It's also interesting to see Joseph Welch as the judge, and his portrayal works well enough.
Otto Preminger holds everything together nicely, with the right amount of detail and a pace that keeps the story moving steadily. The result is a very nice contrast to the many run-of-the mill legal/courtroom movies that present such an idealized view of the justice system. It maintains a careful balance, making clear the flaws and unpleasant realities of the system, yet never taking cheap shots either. And it's also an interesting and involved story, one of the most carefully-crafted of its kind.
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