What Is True? Or, How Much of It Is True? Otto Preminger's Classic: 'Anatomy of a Murder'

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.

Anatomy of a Murder

Director: Otto Preminger
Cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O'Connell, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant, George C. Scott
Distributor: Criterion
Release date: 2012-02-21

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.





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.