Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder is perhaps his most well-known and critically celebrated film. Released in 1959, it’s an adaptation of a true story written by John D. Voelker under the pseudonym Robert Traver. Voelker’s position as a Justice on the Michigan Supreme Court sets the stage for a courtroom drama, albeit one with a cast of ambiguous characters whose motives are repeatedly called into question. These characters only make the story more complex and compelling than the average murder mystery.
At the center is Paul Biegler (James Stewart), a lawyer in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He’s surrounded by his trusty secretary, Maida Rutledge (Eve Arden), and his colleague, Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell), as he agrees to take on the case of Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara). Biegler’s relationships with Rutledge and McCarthy are easygoing and familiar. His relationship with McCarthy is also one of professional respect and admiration, despite McCarthy’s alcoholism.
Lt. Manion’s case revolves around his admitted murder of bar owner, Barney Quill, whom Manion alleges raped his wife, Laura (Lee Remick). When Biegler agrees to take Manion’s case, it’s with the defense of dissociative disorder, also known as irresistible impulse. In short, even though Manion knew that it was wrong to kill Quill, he was unable to control himself, and is therefore, not responsible for his actions. Although it’s a defense with precedent, it still falls to Biegler to convince the jury of its validity.
The film sets up Biegler to be at somewhat of a disadvantage against the big city prosecutors. One in particular, Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), is professional and collected, in direct contrast to Biegler’s performance-style defense. Biegler plays the beleaguered, outnumbered attorney when it suits his needs, while at other times, he’s shrewd and cunning.
One of the things that makes Anatomy of a Murder so compelling is that almost every character seems to be working an angle, regardless of which side of the law they are on. Biegler is interested in the letter of the law, but he clearly dislikes his client. Manion is guilty of murder and is using the system to his advantage. Even Laura is not the straightforward victim. She is overtly sexual and rebellious, certainly not the kind of woman that would inspire immediate sympathy on the part of the jurors of the time.
In her interactions with Biegler, Laura is often openly defiant until he emphasizes just how she can be perceived in Manion’s trial. While the case may not be explicitly about her rape, it understandably plays a large role in both the defense and prosecution. Because Laura is so able to play both sides, it’s not always clear just what is the truth, or how much of the truth is really important in the end, and therein lies much of the appeal of the film. The blame the victim mentality is clearly evident throughout, particularly in the “deliberately voluptuous and enticing” testimony given by witness and bartender, Al Paquette (Murray Hamilton). It’s shocking to consider such an approach today, but it speaks to the gender politics and restrictions of the time. Reputation, regardless of truth or not, could determine everything in a trial such as this one.
Equally as riveting is the film’s tone and style. Employing Saul Bass’s beautiful title cards and Duke Ellington’s exciting and modern jazz score, Anatomy of a Murder instantly stands out as a different kind of drama. Ellington’s score is especially important in creating tension and excitement. One scene even has Stewart alongside Ellington on the piano and the energy of the moment is a small encapsulation of the film. In addition, Preminger’s decision to film completely on location creates an authenticity that sets and stages can never fully achieve. His insistence even leads to shooting scenes of Biegler’s home in Voelker’s own home.
Stewart’s performance as Biegler is nuanced and playful. Biegler’s sense of right and wrong is not as clear-cut as it is in other quintessential Stewart roles, but that moral ambiguity is part of what makes him so completely thrilling on screen. Additionally, the rest of the cast is wonderful. Remick’s Laura is alternately vulnerable and predatory, and her relationship with her husband is well played opposite Gazzara’s intimidating Manion. Arden and O’Connell are perfectly cast in supportive roles for Stewart’s Biegler and they serve as the real moral center of the film.
Anatomy of a Murder is many things, equal parts courtroom drama, murder mystery, and at times, humorous and light, but above all else, it’s a love letter to the law. Preminger makes this abundantly clear when, in an early scene, Biegler and McCarthy are set to spend an evening reading law books for the sheer pleasure of it. In fact, what drives Biegler’s interest in Manion’s case has little to do with whether he believes his client to be innocent or guilty; rather, he’s more concerned with the legal intricacies of the defense. In turn, by focusing so specifically on a true-life case, Anatomy of a Murder serves as a complex and fascinating study of the law, one done with style and artistic intent.
In true Criterion fashion, the DVD release is filled with extras that are both instructive and entertaining. There are interviews with Preminger, Ellington, and Bass experts, as well as vintage clips from a 1967 episode of The Firing Line on the topic of censorship and newsreel footage from the set. Additionally, there are excerpts from a not-yet-released documentary on the film entitled Anatomy of “Anatomy”. These bonus features are an excellent supplement to the film and to understanding its full impact.