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The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Only the biggest ones (if any) will be covered with spoiler tags. Spoiler tags are used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.
For detailed information about the amounts and types of (a) sex and nudity, (b) violence and gore, (c) profanity, (d) alcohol, drugs and smoking, and (e) frightening and intense scenes in this movie, consult the IMDb Parents Guide for this movie. The Parents Guide for Anatomy of a Murder can be found here.
Two humble ex-district attorneys in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Paul Biegler (James Stewart) and Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell), now given to fishing and drink, take on the case of U.S. Army Lieutenant Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), accused of shooting and killing Thunder Bay Inn owner Barney Quill after Quill allegedly beat and raped Paul's wife Laura (Lee Remick), known at the bar as a seductive "good time" girl. With little memory of the actual murder, Paul's only defense is "irresistible impulse", a version of temporary insanity, but his defense is weak. On top of that, prosecuting attorney Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West) has called in the State's prominent Assistant Attorney General Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) to aid the prosecution.
Anatomy of a Murder (1958) is also a novel written by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker [1903-1991] under the pen name Robert Traver. Voelker based the novel on a 1952 murder case in which he was the defense attorney. The novel was adapted for the movie by screenwriter Wendell Mayes.
As the trial proceeds, it looks more and more like the prosecution is going to win over the jury, who will then likely convict Manion of murder. As the arguments draw to a close, Biegler is made aware that Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant) is present and willing to take the stand. Mary produces Laura's ripped panties, which she found in the inn's laundry and presumes that Quill tossed them there after raping Laura. In his cross-examination, Dancer insinuates that Mary was Quill's mistress and that she's trying to get back at him for stepping out with another woman. It is then that Mary admits to the court that Barney Quill was her father. After closing summaries have been given, the jury goes into deliberation and eventually produces the verdict "Not guilty by reason of insanity." A day or so later, Biegler and McCarthy drive out to the trailer camp to get Manion's signature on his promissory note, only to find the Manion's trailer gone. The park manager gives them a note that Manion left. It reads: "So sorry but I had to leave suddenly. I was seized by an irresistible impulse", and basically stiffs them for their lawyer's fee. In the final scene, as they stand over the garbage bin holding empty beer cans, gin bottles, and Laura's "stepping out" shoes, Biegler suggests to McCarthy that they pay a visit to their next client, Mary Pilant, for whom they are handling Barney Quill's estate. "Now that's what I call poetic justice for everybody", McCarthy replies.
Those who have both seen the movie and read the book claim that the movie follows the book fairly closely, except for the finale. In the book, Mary Pilant is presented as a School Teacher, hired by Barney Quill to be the hostess of the Thunder Bay Inn—Mary Pilant describes him as a gentleman, whereas, in the movie, Mary Pilant is revealed to be Barney Quill's daughter—in the ending twist when the state attorney asks a question whose answer he does not know in advance. Parnell McCarthy is more delineated in the book, and the movie leaves out the cross examination of the state's psychiatrist. The cross-examiner ripped him for making a psychiatric judgment that could result in a 1st degree murder conviction without having even talked to the patient. It is said that the casting of the movie is uncannily accurate in that every face and personality in the film fits the persons in the novel.
Three court dramas from that same time period that have been viewer recommended include Witness for the Prosecution (1957) in which a woman turns witness against her husband, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) in which four Nazis are tried for war crimes, and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) in which a white Southern lawyer defends a black man falsely accused of rape. Two more recent court dramas that come highly recommended include Presumed Innocent (1990), in which the prosecuting attorney finds himself framed for murder, and the comedic My Cousin Vinny (1992) in which an inexperienced New York lawyer defends two boys in a very conservative Southern court.
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