This week, Professor Victor F Perkins died – he was the co-founder of the Department of Film and Television Studies at my university, and a man who made a massive contribution to the field. In order to commemorate his life and his work, my student newspaper commissioned a piece looking at a list of 10 films that he called his favourites in an issue of Sight and Sound. I mention this because I was one of the writers of this piece, and the film I was watched was Anatomy of a Murder. I’ve had it on the side for a long time, and I finally had a reason to get round to watching it – all I can say is I’m sad I left it for so long – this film is a masterpiece, and I can see why Professor Perkins loved it.
Jimmy Stewart stars as Paul Biegler, a semi-retired Michigan lawyer who takes the case of army Lieutenant Manion (Ben Gazzara) who murdered a local innkeeper after his wife (Lee Remick) claims he raped her. Biegler pushes for a temporary insanity verdict and, over the course of an extensive trial, he locks horns with District Attorney Lodwick (Brooks West) and an out-of-town prosecutor (George C. Scott). He faces a number of obstacles, including fashioning Mrs Manion as a less sexually provocative witness and dealing with the Lieutenant’s temper, and finds that his case rests on the victim’s business partner (Kathryn Grant), who is harbouring a dark secret.
This is a tense and very well-paced film, which is no mean feat considering that most of it takes place in a courtroom (it’s two and a half hours long, and they fly by – you feel that the film could be double the length, and it would still be as engaging). This is in part to the extremely competent direction (by Otto Preminger), which creates situations riddled with uncertainty that help shift the moral sands. Was Mrs Manion raped, or was it a lie? Did Lt. Manion believe his wife and kill out of revenge, or was his motive simple jealousy? (It is notable both that we don’t get to see the murder, leaving us to have to make our own judgement based on the evidence, and that Manion’s guilt is never in doubt, only the consequences of the murder.)
We never find out, and the trial is morally complex for that very reason (as well as more realistic). It’s a refreshing change to not have the film come down heavily on one side or the other, and it makes it a far more engaging watch – Anatomy of a Murder was really ahead of its time in this manner. It is culturally important for far more than just that, though.
Anatomy of a Murder is a fine example of a trial film (and is still studied by American law students to this day), and was massively controversial on its release – it was one of the first films to deal explicitly with sex and rape, and it used then-unheard words like ‘panties’ and ‘spermatogenesis.’ It boasts an arguably career-best performance from the always fantastic Stewart (and that is high praise), here using his homespun charm to conceal a keen legal brain, and the film debut of George C. Scott as his courtroom rival. It is well-acted all round, and the trial is gripping viewing.
This film is a masterpiece, and it is easy to see how it influenced legal film and television to the present day, being both highly accurate factually and incredibly captivating (I would argue that it surpasses the other major famous law film, 12 Angry Men, on both fronts). Its blend of moral ambiguity and strong performance mean that, although the subject matter has lost some of the shock value from 1959, the tale remains as good as ever, and I would highly recommend this one.
Director: Otto Preminger
Cast: James Stewart (Paul Biegler), Lee Remick (Laura Manion), Ben Gazzara (Lt. Frederick Manion), Arthur O’Connell (Parnell Emmett McCarthy), Even Arden (Maida Rutledge), George C. Scott (Asst. State Atty. Gen. Claude Dancer)
Running Time: 160 Mins
Image credit: https://mubi.com/films/anatomy-of-a-murder