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
Begin with an extremely tight and well written script, from the novel by the same name. While reportedly the story is based on a real-life case it is nevertheless a timeless story, almost biblical, presenting age-old questions of human conflicts and human dilemmas.
Add to that a sensational cast, starting of course with the leads, Jimmy Stewart, George C. Scott, Lee Remick, and Ben Gazarra, but also the rest of the cast, filled as it is with numerous accomplished and veteran stage actors and radio performers from days of yore. Character parts played by actors Arthur O'Connell, Eve Arden, Ken Lynch, Joseph Kearns, and Howard McNear. Someone paid careful attention to the casting for this film.
Perhaps the most masterful stroke as far as casting goes was the casting Joseph Welch as the judge. Welch was an experienced and renowned lawyer in real life. Welch turns in a very good and a very believable performance.
With the collision of those elements, a great script and a great cast, adding Otto Preminger as director, an overseer who knew exactly what to do with it all, you then have a very fine film.
More than any other movie or play, including modern day presentations like the television series Law & Order, this 1959 movie, Anatomy of a Murder, even though it is now 46 years old, is by far the most realistic and technically accurate courtroom drama ever produced. The conduct of the trial, the examination of the witnesses, the colloquy and bantering back and forth between the lawyers and between the lawyers and the judge, is spot-on. Every bit of it. Every question from the lawyers, every objection, every ruling by the judge, every admonishment from the judge, and the testimony of the witnesses, every bit of it, is realistic and believable, lines that were accurately written with care, and then flawlessly delivered.
Beyond the technical accuracies of the legal proceedings, some other aspects of the overall story were also spot on. The ambiguous ambivalence of lawyers, their motivations, their ethics, their relative honesty. Nothing is all black or all white. Shades of gray abound. Legal cases as sport. Being a "good lawyer" means pushing the envelope too far, bending the rules until you're told to stop. Not for justice. No, not that. To win. That's why. To win. Then sanctimoniously telling themselves that the system really works better this way. The movie accurately captures the fact that real-life legal cases are very often comprised of upside down Alice in Wonderland features. Innocent people are guilty, and guilty people are innocent. Good is bad, and bad is good. Everything is relative. Some call it cynicism. Others, cynically, call it realism. Anatomy of a Murder captures all of these and more.
I've read the criticism that Lee Remick was not believable, that as an actress she failed at nailing the portrayal of how a true rape victim would appear and behave, and that her character, Laura Manion, just didn't seem to have the proper affect nor strike the right emotional chord of a woman who had been raped. All I can say is that such criticism misses a humongous part of the point. It is almost mind-boggling that there are viewers out there who, after viewing this film, somehow managed to miss it. Let me clear it up: we the viewers WERE SUPPOSED to have serious doubts about whether Laura Manion had actually been raped. The question of whether she was really raped or not is central to the plot and story line. That's why Lee Remick played the part the way she did. And then, in turn, it was part of the story for the Jimmy Stewart character, Paul Biegler, to recognize this problem, and the problem that it presented to his defense. He worried that the jury would see it and would also doubt that she had been raped, and so that's why he propped her up in court, dressed up all prim and proper, with a hat over her voluptuously cascading hair, and with horned-rim glasses. So, yes, Lee Remick nailed it. Bull's eye.
Speaking of Lee Remick, some say that this was the movie that put Lee Remick on the map. She was stunningly beautiful here, at the ripe young age of 24. Even though the film is in black and white, her red hair, blue eyes, and porcelain skin still manage to jump right off the screen and out at you. Has any other actress ever played the role of the beautiful and sexy lady looking to get laid any better than Lee Remick? It was a woman she reprised several times in her career, sometimes with greater subtlety and understatement than others. This was her first rendition of it, and it may have been the best.
Anatomy of a Murder is a very complex movie, with multitudes of layers and texturing, where much is deftly explored, but precious little is resolved. It's a movie that leaves you thinking and wondering. I highly recommend it.
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