Looking for a Great Courtroom Drama? Start Here
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American courtroom films are pre-made pressure cookers that force audiences to question their own values. They are practically a genre of their own. But even the biggest give in to some pretty hokey dramatic impulses. Think of Jack Nicholson’s annoyance: “You can’t handle the truth!” at the end of “Some Good Men”. Paul Newman’s final argument before the jury in “The Verdict” mentions faith, power and the symbols of justice – and not a single fact from the case.
Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder” (1959), one of the greatest trial films, is not immune to this kind of awesomeness, but here the witness whose testimony closes the trial at the last minute regulates guilt improperly or innocence. Conventionally, courtroom films tend to steer the audience’s sympathy towards an outsider or the wrongly accused. But in “Anatomy of a Murder,” the defendant undeniably committed the murder he is charged with, and its defense attorney is played by James Stewart – at least in the late 1950s, no one had the idea of an outsider. (He may have played one in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” in 1939, but was now well into the darker post-war phase of his career.)
Even Duke Ellington’s (who has cameo) jazz score expresses a kind of brassy ambivalence; This is not a film that is prone to easily humable melodies or triumphant orchestral swellings. It’s a legal drama that audiences trust to live in gray areas – what one character calls the “natural impurities of the law.”
“Anatomy of a Murder”: Rent it from Amazon, FandangoNow, Google Play, or Vudu.
“As a lawyer, I had to learn that people are not just good or just bad, but many things,” says Paul Biegler (Stewart) late in “Anatomy of a Murder” in just as narrow a line as the film comes to its animating principle to explain. It speaks to Preminger’s audacity that the film lasts an hour before the camera enters a courtroom. The first section deals with identifying the characters, establishing the facts of the case, and crafting a legal theory that might lead a jury to believe that murder was somehow excusable.
Biegler is a small lawyer in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula who makes a living while the many fish he can catch build up in his refrigerator. “I do a few abstracts and occasionally divorce Jane Doe from John Doe,” he explains. He’s humble: although he doesn’t have much experience as a lawyer, he used to be a district attorney. His knowledge of this office will come in handy when he goes on a different type of fishing expedition and gets the current prosecutor (Brooks West) to reveal vital information about a polygraph test.
The case involves a Korean War veteran, Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) who shot and killed a bar owner named Barney Quill. The lieutenant’s wife, Laura (Lee Remick), had told him that Barney had raped her. “I have the unwritten law on my side,” says Manion to Biegler, but Biegler explains that the “unwritten law is a myth”.
The case of the release of Manion rests instead on a number of written legal premises. Perhaps he committed murder while in a dissociative state. Maybe this state fits the legal definition of insanity or maybe it doesn’t. Perhaps an obscure Supreme Court precedent allows Biegler to thread the needle.
Is anyone involved in this process not guilty in one way or another? Certainly not Friedrich, who is established as an abusive, jealous husband with a violent temper. And maybe not Laura. While guilty of victims is an abomination today, it is a 1959 film, and an assistant attorney general (George C. Scott) called upon by the district attorney is making some effort to suggest to the jury how Laura got dressed and acted on the night of the crime meant that she invited what happened to her. (In his story, she may even have done a piece for Quill.) Preminger has already established Laura as a cracker that could catch fire: When she first met Biegler in his office, she really felt at home on the couch. And Remick, whose performance switches between vulnerability and flirtation in no time at all, creates a multi-dimensional character that remains a miracle of ambiguity.
“Anatomy of a Murder” was hardly Preminger’s first challenge to the Production Code Administration or local censorship agencies, both of which were trying to oversee the subject presented in films. His 1953 film “The Moon Is Blue”, a comedy that takes a scandalously careless attitude towards sex, opened without government approval. Preminger’s “The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955) starring Frank Sinatra focused on a heroin addict.
Even so, “Anatomy of a Murder” still features a ton of characters openly talking about rape, birth control, and panties. Judge Weaver must ask the courtroom audience not to laugh when the underwear is mentioned.
While some of the other Preminger films of the period (“Bonjour Tristesse” from 1958 or “Porgy and Bess”, released the same year as “Murder”) used widescreen formats like CinemaScope or Todd-AO, “Anatomy of a Murder” preferred to use claustrophobic ones instead Compositions where the audience is asked to judge the reactions of several characters at the same time. Pay close attention to the questions: Preminger often makes sure to keep the lawyer, the witness and – a little further in the background – the judge in focus at the same time.
About this judge: To the extent that there is an outright crime in “Anatomy of a Murder,” it is the scene in which Joseph N. Welch in the role is stolen. Amazingly, he wasn’t an actor at all: Welch is better known as the special adviser to the Army in the 1954 Army McCarthy hearings, in which he gave Joseph McCarthy a dressing that contemporary television audiences may have freshly remembered: ” Have you finally left no sense of decency? “
After meeting attorneys on both sides in his chambers, Judge Weaver delivers a line of his own age: “Skirmishes over. Shall we join on the battlefield now? “