Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Anatomy of a Murder
Directed by Otto Preminger
Written by Wendell Mayes from a novel by John D. Voelker
1959/USA
Carlyle Productions
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental
One of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Lt. Frederick Manion: How can a jury disregard what it’s already heard?

Paul Biegler: [shaking head] They can’t, lieutenant. They can’t.

An anatomy of a lawyer’s mind.  I love this movie.

Since Paul Biegler (James Stewart) was defeated for his office as District Attorney in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, he has turned to private practice, with few clients thus far, and fishing.  He is lucky to have a devoted secretary, Maida (Eve Arden) and loyal friend Parnell Emmett McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell), a boozer who has either been disbarred or simply abandoned the practice of law.

Things start looking up when a murder case comes Paul’s way.  Laura Manion (Lee Remick) calls to ask him to defend her husband Frederick (Ben Gazarra) who shot a Barney Quill, a saloon owner who raped her.  Frederick is under the impression that there is an “unwritten law” on his side but Paul disabuses him of the idea and together client and attorney come up with a defense that just might work.

Mrs. Manion is one hot cookie and enjoys toying with men. The trial eventually becomes more about whether or not there was a rape than whether her husband should be found guilty of murder.  Despite never having worked as a criminal defense attorney, Paul proves to be an extremely crafty advocate.  So much so that the man that defeated Paul in the election brings in a Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), a famed prosecutor from the Attorney General’s office, for assistance.  A fascinating battle  of wits ensued.  With Joseph N. Welch, the attorney that defended the Army in the Army-McCarthy hearings {“have you no sense of decency?), as the judge.

I was a trial attorney in a previous incarnation.  I can’t stand many courtroom dramas but I adore this one.  Both the law and the strategies of both sides are absolutely spot on.

There are many, many moments that bring a smile to my face.  I also love the ambiguity of the thing.  Almost every actor that was not James Stewart could have with justice been nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar.  Lee Remick is absolutely perfect.  The film does not show the American justice system at its best but it does show how it really works at times.  Very highly recommended.

Anatomy of a Murder was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of: Best Picture; Best Actor (Stewart); Best Supporting Actor (O’Connell); Best Supporting Actor (Scott); Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium; Best Cinematography, Black-and-White; and Best Film Editing.  Lee Remick was robbed.

2 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

  1. Admittedly this is a great movie with super performances all round. It is just one of those movies that leaves me puzzled for the wrong reasons and I wonder if it is a cultural thing. There is never any doubt that Frederick shot and killed Barney. Instead the case revolve around the issue of whether or not there was an excuse good enough to shoot him. Baffling.

    • Baffling but I think that’s the law. Temporary insanity is a defense almost everywhere in the US. Of course, as Polly says what they really needed was something to hang the jury’s natural sympathy for a rape victim and her husband on. Personally, I think that Laura teased Quill and then turned him down, resulting in the rape. Then, whether Manion really believed Laura or not, he headed off to shoot Quill in a jealous rage.

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