Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder” was nominated for the Best Picture and other Oscars in 1959. An interracial court drama, the film was based on the 1958 best seller by Robert Traver, pen name of Justice John D. Voelker, of the Michigan Supreme Court.
Among other distinctions, “Anatomy of Murder” contains one of the longest trial scenes in film history, over an hour, in which James Stewart’s small-town lawyer defends a white army lieutenant, accused of killing a black tavern owner for allegedly raping his wife.
A sign on the highway greets the passengers: “Welcome to Iron City, Michigan. We’re a Lovely Town.” But this is immediately contradicted by alerting us that a vicious murder has been committed. Army lieutenant Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) claims he killed Barney Quill, a black tavern bartender because he had allegedly beaten and raped his wife Laura (Lee Remick). Laura substantiates her husband’s testimony and a lie detector bears her out. However, a medical examination by the police surgeon shows no evidence of rape, and that only her face was bruised.
Laura persuades Paul Biegler (Jimmie Stewart), a former prosecuting attorney, to defend her husband, even though he lacks ambition and his past record leaves a lot to be desired. Ever since Paul was beaten out of the office of prosecuting attorney, he hasn’t been “worth salt for peanuts,” as his assistant says. “Man gets beat for an office he’s held for a long time, he feels his community has deserted him, the finger of scorn is pointed.” “None but the lonely heart shall know my anguish,” says Paul. It’s been a year since Paul was skinned at the polls, and Parnell wonders how long he is going “to skulk like this.”
Parnell feels that Paul, “an honest-to-God lawyer,” ought to be at the office, “ready for clients, not fishing or playing that rootity taoo jazz.” Biegler is anything but a typical lawyer of a small town or big city. An unassuming man wearing an old hunting jacket, open shirt, and a battered hat, he is first seen carrying a collapsed fly rod, a knapsack and a trout basket. He is content to making modest living, running some abstracts, “divorce Jane Doe from John Doe once in a while, or threaten a few dead beats.” In the evening, he likes to drink rye whiskey and to read.
Though middle-aged, Biegler is single. A loner, his close friends are Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O’Connel), his assistant, who knows a lot about the law when he is sober, and his secretary Aida (Eve Arden), a dour and cynical, but good-hearted woman. When Paul asks Aida to cancel his appointments for the day, she quick to reply, “What appointments People think you’ve migrated to the woods.”
Aida has not been paid for a long time. From his last case’s pay, Paul bought a few necessities (like a new outboard motor). “Wish I could be classed as a necessity.” She is tired of seeing an empty refrigerator; “If that freezer gets many more fish, it’ll swim up-stream and spawn–all by itself.” Suspicious, she asks Paul not to let the lieutenant pay with “Purple Hearts.” “Professional soldiers never have a dime,” she explains,” “I was married to one.” Unfortunately, she turns out to be right.
A loser, Parnell is a kindred soul. He might have been a great lawyer, which is one reason why he hates to see Biegler’s “talent pushed aside by lesser men.” “I look at you and see myself–30 years ago–with the same love for the smell of the old brown books in a dusty office.” “I am just a humble country lawyer, trying to do the best he can against Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), a brilliant prosecutor from the Big City of Lansing. Biegler is not provincial, though he has never lived outside of Michigan.
Manion, a war hero who has seen “plenty of action in Korea” and “plenty of decorations,” is disillusioned. Having been married before, his first wife left him on charged cruelty (he liked eating crackers in bed), but the truth was she had found another man while he was fighting in Korea. Laura has also been married; her ex-husband was in Manion’s outfit. They live in Thunder Bay Amusement Arcade, a place surrounded by soldiers and tourists in Bermuda shorts.
There is sexual tension between Biegler and Laura, particularly when he sees her dressed in high heels, tight ankle length Capri pants, and a thin clinging jersey sweater. Morally and sexually loose, she may–or may not–have illicit affairs with other men. In fact, the prosecutor is able to demonstrate that the likeable bartender was actually encouraged by Laura into intercourse.
Biegler appears to be easy-going, but when challenged, he could be harsh as nails. Using an old case, in which a man had been acquitted because of his acting on “irresistible impulse,” what helps Biegler is the testimony of Mary Pilant (Kathryn Crosby), the bartender’s illegitimate daughters who tells the juror about her father’s questionable moral character. However, Biegler, the jury (and the audience), have doubts until the very end. Ambivalent toward his client until the end, Biegler tries to remember Aida’s acerbic remark: “You don’t have to love him–just defend him!”
Moral ambiguity, a far cry from Capra’s small-town lawyers, prevails in the court proceedings. The issues are not clear-cut, and the characters are not black-and-white. The bartender’s victim is actually a well-liked man, whereas the defendant is an arrogant man with a nasty temper. Biegler and the prosecutor are motivated by their need to win, using similar strategies. Neither cares about justice per se. Biegler shows–but doesn’t exercises–sexual interest in Laura. By standards of the l950s, the Manion’s marriage is non-conformist: There are no children from either marriage and there is no or apology about it.
Preminger shot most of the film on location, choosing for his sordid tale black-and-white cinematography, and Duke Ellington’s jazz score neither comforts nor stirs the “right” emotions.
The movie features one of the longest trial scenes in court dramas, close to 90 minutes, in which Preminger displays his distinctive mise-en-scene: Objective camera, with long takes and fluid tracking shots, thus failing to tell the viewers where to look at any given moment. In most court dramas, conventional stylistic devices, such as close ups at crucial, revelatory moments and background music, suggest who the hero or villain might be and what the viewers should feel toward them.
Symmetry and alternation are used as structuring principles. The narrative begins on the open highway at night, and ends on the open highway during the day. Driving to Thunder Bay Tourist Park, to collect his fee, Biegler gets a note from Manion: “So sorry, but I had to leave suddenly. I was seized by an irresistible impulse.” Paul lifts out of the oiled drum a red slipper with a spike heel; the heel had been broken and dangles from its joint. “Never saw a gin drinker you could trust,” says Parnell. Biegler then drops the red slipper on top of the bottles and says, “Partner, let’s go see our first client, Mrs. Mary Pilant.”
Anatomy of Murder ends in a cynical, unconventional way for a Hollywood court drama. Driving away, the only item that remains of Biegler’s case is Laura’s red slipper lying among the empty bottles in the garbage.
Paul Biegler (Jimmie Stewart)
Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara)
Laura Manion (Lee Remick)
Maida (Eve Arden)
Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell)
Mary Pilant (Kathryn Crosby)
Joseph N. Welch (Judge Weaver)
Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West)
Claude Dancer (George C. Scott)
Alphonse Paquette (Murray Hamilton)
Running time: 160 Minutes