Every legal movie fan today’s collection certainly can’t miss this 1959 masterpiece by Otto Preminger, Anatomy of a Murder.
At the center of this drama/comedy is Paul Biegler, once a brilliant small-town Michigan lawyer, then fading in disgrace after losing his top position as district attorney.
Everything changes when he finds an opportunity to defend Sergeant Frederick Manion, accused of shooting Barney Quill, a local bar owner, allegedly as revenge for the supposed rape of his wife, Laura.
Initially, Biegler hesitates to accept the case, as Manion is a deeply cold and unlikeable man, while his wife is well-known in town for having plenty of freedom with other men.
However, he is convinced after talking first with both of them and then with Frank McCarthy, an old friend and colleague who later abandoned the profession because of a drinking habit.
Hoping to win the feelings of the judge and the jury, Biegler chooses to exploit the insanity defense, arguing that Manion was acting in a state of temporary mental incapacity.
The trial stage immediately becomes a ruthless arena as the prosecution goes to great lengths to avoid naming the violence the woman suffered and focusing on the murder’s cold execution.
Moreover, rival lawyer Mitch Lodwick seeks backup from the city in Claude Dancer, a sharp law veteran known for aggressive tactics and the sudden introduction of evidence and witnesses to surprise the defense.
By the way, even Quill, the victim, is not the saint his friends try to depict and indeed turns out to have an illegitimate daughter, Mary Pilant, who unwittingly becomes the swing vote in Manion’s conviction or absolution.
The only verdict is masterpiece
Despite illustrious contemporaries such as Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger’s name resonates more subtly, underscoring a discreet but indisputable presence in the 20th-century moviemaking arena.
Nevertheless, his influence on the cinematic landscape is irreplaceable. Arriving in the United States, just on the verge of the World War II uproar, Preminger inaugurated a prolific career spanning decades and lasting until the 1980s horizon.
Prominent among the gems produced during this fruitful period is the 1959 movie, Anatomy of a Murder, which with a direct and ruthless narrative, presented audiences a violent intrigue and a portrait of fierce and remorseless characters.
In this drama told as a comedy, the lines between victims and perpetrators become blurry, each appearing as a predator ready to take advantage of the mess in the rural Michigan setting serving as an evocative and disinterested background rag to this complex courtroom duel.
Despite the controversial topics, the movie keeps incredible fun, adopting the tones of a brilliant comedy through the sharp plume of screenwriters Wendell Mayes and John D. Voelker.
Indeed, although it touches on sensitive subjects such as death or rape, wringing a cynical smile from the public amidst an atmosphere of endless good mood.
Preminger’s vast theatre experience and rigorous perfectionism are crucial to creating a cinematic work controlled in every detail.
Like only a few others, this master filmmaker’s best skill was balancing artistic exigency with the desire for commercial success, winning both audience and critical acclaim, marking a remarkable milestone in his career path and in the inviolable laws of the gilded world of Hollywood.
The comedy of human drama
James Stewart enters the scene as a friendly lawyer with a fine taste for eggs, fishing, and jazz, with contagious enthusiasm and invincible spirit in vivid contrast to the stern and rigid atmosphere of those days.
Despite his relatable character, he is not a naive person, displaying an almost hostile persistence in confronting the era’s social conventions, for example, fighting for the right to use the word “panties” in court: an amusing and symbolic scene for freedom of expression and against moral censorship.
In his endeavor, he is joined by an alcoholic friend, played with tremendous verve by Arthur O’Connell, who will attempt to maintain sobriety during the trial, being the one who convinces the lawyer to embark on the challenge of defending Ben Gazzara, a complex and dark character.
As a soldier seemingly composed but constantly on the verge of violence, Gazzara shows he is just as cunning and sarcastic as his lawyer. He quickly realizes his only hope for absolution is to convince the jury of his temporary insanity by exploiting the jury’s sympathy for his wife.
In the role, we have the sunny and seductive Lee Remick, a supposedly vulnerable yet overly carefree woman, significantly when alcohol loosens her inhibitions and she forgets about marital loyalty, even openly teasing Stewart in the presence of her husband.
For the prosecution, we find Brooks West, a young and naive lawyer initially far too confident of victory. However, when things deteriorate, he quickly calls up a fellow city lawyer, the tough George C. Scott, who is much brighter and harder to fool.
Finally, there is sweet Kathryn Grant, the key witness and probably the only character in this intricate plot who seems to possess a conscience and morality amidst a sea of manipulation and deception.