‘Anatomy of a Murder’ at 65 – Review

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Director: Otto Preminger
Screenwriter: Wendell Mayes
Starring: James Stewart, Lee Remick, George C. Scott, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Kathryn Grant, Brooks West, Orson Bean, Murray Hamilton, Joseph N. Welch

Courtroom dramas tend to get the blood pumping. There’s nothing quite like a shouted “Objection!” at the right time to turn a story on its head and throw everything into confusion. It’s the perfect place for twists and turns and heartwarming moments of finding someone not guilty. It’s the ultimate fight, the good guys fighting against the bad guys using only words, wit, and wisdom. Anatomy of a Murder is one of those rare cases where not only are all 160 minutes of runtime thoroughly engaging, but you come out not knowing exactly where you stand. James Stewart plays Paul Biegler, a former district attorney and small-town lawyer who spends much of his time enjoying himself, fishing mostly. His friend one day asks him to take on the case of a wife whose husband has murdered her alleged rapist, to try and save him from jail and eventual execution. He finds himself reluctantly agreeing to fight his corner.

Trying to make this film work is a tricky business. A great deal of it is sat in the courtroom, going back and forth to the witnesses, and there isn’t too much going on behind the scenes. It could have been incredibly dull and derivative. Thankfully it holds together, and two specific ingredients are the special cinematic glue.

The first is the writing, which is paced beautifully to slowly untangle itself at just the right speed, keeping the engagement levels right where they should be. You simply cannot tell which way the whole thing will go until the final few minutes when the verdict is finally announced.

The second, and perhaps the most important, is the cast. Their performances, particularly from the sparring lawyers of James Stewart and George C. Scott, are unmissable. Seeing Stewart and Scott go at it – the gentle, slightly withered face of Stewart against the slightly unhinged, desperate eyes of Scott – is a wonder to behold. They produce one of the great in-court rivalries for the ages. And, due to the amount of time we spend in that courtroom, we get more of it than we might in another film.

That we get so much is down to the moral ambiguity presented throughout. Both sides of the case use an array of tactics, both blunt and sneaky, to try and get what they want. Frederick Manion, the man on trial (played by Ben Gazzara), asks Biegler in one moment, after Biegler has made a comment which has been stricken from the record, how a jury can forget a comment they’ve just heard, to which Stewart replies simply, “They can’t.” Biegler is shown working all night in the public library, frantically searching for a precedent to try and wheedle their plea for insanity past whatever might be thrown at them. Interestingly enough, our main heroes don’t deny the murder; they’re trying to get themselves out of an execution.

Even this, though, goes through its swings and roundabouts. Between Lee Remick as Frederick’s wife Laura, and Frederick himself, they throw in so many twists and turns and little unsettling moments that we keep asking ourselves if we’re supporting the right team. Remick’s portrayal as a provocative, live-life-large young woman always has us wondering if she really cares about the outcome, or if there’s more hidden. Overseen by real world judge Joseph N. Welch playing the role of Judge Weaver (Welch had almost single-handedly turned the 1950s McCarthyism trials on their head in a trial in 1954), his gentleness seems to be the only guiding point of light in this strange, surreal world where we aren’t sure where right or wrong is, seemingly from one moment to the next. He doesn’t support one side more than the other, like many courtroom judges in film. If one side makes a convincing argument for an objection, or an overruling, he’ll agree to it. His lack of bias makes the film that much more unnerving. It really could swing either way. It’s all in the hands of the lawyers, and how good they are, which piles the pressure on ever more so.

Over time, many aspects of the film have come to be increasingly influential. Constantly regarded as one of the top law films and courtroom dramas of all time, the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards (Best Picture, Actor, two Supporting Actor nominations, Adapted Screenplay, Black-and-White Cinematography, and Film Editing), though it failed to pick up any trophies. The stylised, blocky opening credits, and the famous poster, were created by influential graphic designer Saul Bass, who showed off his iconic design style that would become more famous for their use across films such as Spartacus and The Shining, though he had already done Vertigo and Otto Preminger’s own The Man With the Golden Arm. Interestingly, terms such as “climax” and “contraceptive” each had their major film debuts in this feature.

Anatomy of a Murder is an incredible blend of the traditional and the modern, the subtle and the outrageously blunt and forthright. Some sections might slow a little, and it’s not a film simply to stick on in the background, but anyone who chooses to watch this film will find themselves experiencing something strange, uneasy, and altogether brilliant.

Score: 23/24

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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