Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Directed by Otto Preminger


Anatomy of a Murder is surprisingly light-hearted for a trial involving rape and murder.  It’s a two and a half hour movie, set mostly within a court room, that focuses on a small-town defense attorney named Paul Biegler (James Stewart).  The film emphasizes procedure over character, giving each person a moment to shine but more or less trying to find balance in a system of law and order made to deal with potentially heinous crimes.

So, while the murder at the center of this case is ugly, it is commented upon and analyzed in a mild manner.  Conversation of sexual abuse and other violence take place in almost boring detail.  In a fashion made much more familiar through the recent cultural obsession with criminal dramas, shows, podcasts and more, Anatomy of a Murder breaks down the smallest components of the case, treating each piece of testimony and evidence with the proper weight given the life or death consequences.

As Biegler, James Stewart gets to perform both for the camera and for the court audience.  His character revels in this aspect of his job, often drawing laughter from those in attendance and ire from the opposing prosecutors.  More often than not, however, the tense relationship between prosecution and defense is treated with the playfulness of two roughhousing brothers.  Sure, they’re at each other’s throats, but it’s the nature of their jobs.  In that way it’s kind of like professional wrestling.

There are several amusing moments in this film that are almost slapstick in nature.  In one, the judge convenes the lawyers to discuss the use of the term, “panties,” knowing it will make the courtroom laugh, and none of them can come up with a better term to use.

In another scene, the prosecutor purposefully blocks Biegler’s view of his witness on the stand, forcing Stewart to lean this way and that, trying to see the witness (from the camera’s POV) over the prosecutor’s shoulder.  The comedy is entirely visual, like something from an old Chaplin film.

Still, this level of comedy is never meant to undercut the seriousness of the crime on trial.  A man, Lt. Manion (Ben Gazzara) is charged with the murder of Barney Quill.  Manion’s wife Laura (Lee Remick) contacts Biegler, looking for representation for her husband.  She says Quill raped her, and when he learned of this, Manion fell into a fit of madness and killed Quill.

Biegler spends some time interrogating Manion before he agrees to represent him (despite Manion not having the funds to hire Biegler).  In this time he comes up with a defense, that Manion fell into a state of temporary madness in which he succumbed to irresistible urges.  It’s Biegler who gives Manion this idea, and we’re never given a clear indication of whether this is true or not.  All that matters is that it might work as a defense.

Again, the court case exists in its own bubble, away from the real world.  We know that Manion killed Quill, but we’re quickly forced to accept that and move on.  This serves to further separate us from reality, creating a world in which the rules are different.  Normally murder would be enough to antagonize Manion towards the audience, but we’re asked to sympathize with him or at least to listen, as if we’re in the jury ourselves.

Though much of the story is presented through an objective lens, allowing us to decide for ourselves what to believe, there are a few factors which alienate the prosecution from the audience.  First, James Stewart is quite likable and our way into the story.  We’re meant to root for him, particularly as a small-town lawyer and even more so when the prosecution team consists of two big-city lawyers.  There is a clear line of demarcation, pitting the little man against the system.

Second, though Biegler defends a murderer, his case hinges on the circumstances regarding the rape of Manion’s wife.  In order for the prosecution to distance the murder from the suggested defense, they take it upon themselves to call into question the nature of the sexual encounter between Quill and Manion’s wife.  Their goal, in other words, is to suggest that it was consensual or that she at least inspired Quill to act in the way that he did.

So listening to one side question the victim of sexual abuse is a shortcut to making them unlikeable.  Suddenly we’re right there with James Stewart, even if we don’t yet believe his client’s story.

In the end, Biegler wins and Manion is found innocent.  It’s a somewhat confounding moment because Manion never does quite seem innocent.  There is always something mysterious and certainly a little sinister about him.  When he wins, the film treats it as a triumph, like the end of Philadelphia or A Few Good Men.  The good guys won, in other words, but the ending brushes away any of the ambiguity purposefully maintained throughout almost the entire movie.  I kept expecting the rug to be yanked out from under us as Biegler learns that Manion murder Quill in a cold, calculated manner.  But that never happens.

The rules of the court are much more black and white than in real life.  Anatomy of a Murder succeeds in taking a complicated murder case and breaking it down into minute detail, almost as if deconstructing a formula.  This presents the trial as a game where certain rules apply that aren’t present in the real world.  In order to make sense of such a mess you have to create your own guidelines.  This allows for a situation in which a man guilty of murder is given the opportunity to fight for his life, whether he deserves it or not.

Like a lot of court room dramas, Anatomy of a Murder is about the process more than the nature of the story.  The lawyers, judges and witnesses speak about murder in the same mundane, detailed way they might describe tax evasion.

Up Next: Field of Dreams (1989), Duck Soup (1933), Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

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