johnlink ranks ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959)

Nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture, ANATOMY OF A MURDER is a classic courtroom drama starring Jimmy Stewart. When I started this movie, that’s really the extent of what I knew. Isn’t that the best way to see something? I think so. But I’m going to go ahead, ignore that idea, and talk about it a bunch anyway.


I watched ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959) on 5.52.13. It was my first viewing of the film.

Stewart plays Paul Bieggler, an attorney newly out of public office and back into private practice. He takes on the case of Lt. Manon (Ben Gazzara) who is about to go on trial for murdering a man who is alleged to have raped his wife Laura (Lee Remick). Sounds like a standard fare courtroom story, and it is in the sense that the story is straightforward. The power is in the execution of the details.

It’s clear how many films this influenced. In the first ten minutes I was reminded of the witty banter written by Aaron Sorkin for A FEW GOOD MEN. Many films adapted from John Grisham novels, not the least of which would be A TIME TO KILL, can find the seeds of their story in ANATOMY OF A MURDER. This is important to note because there are scenes in the film which seem to think its audience rather unsophisticated. An early scene has Bieggler trying to get Manon to guess how he is going to defend him when it is clear that Manon did kill the victim. Modern audiences, well versed in the myriad Law & Order type shows, know full well that this will be a case focused on proving temporary insanity. The movie drags this out for several minutes, with the idea of proving crazy being a major a-ha moment which doesn’t land with the same impact on a modern audience.

Even the controversial language of the film is almost cute in its innocence to a jaded modern viewer. The big gasps are supposed to come at the frequent referral to rape, penetration, panties, and (in a moment akin to dropping an f-bomb in a PG-13 movie) the use of the word bitch. Certainly a product of its time, this is a film which Director Otto Preminger used to further dismantle the Hays Code, a task he arguable started with his 1955 story of heroine addict Frank Sinatra THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM.

I fear I may be apologizing for ANATOMY OF A MURDER when it needs no apology, however. The tension in this movie is very real. There is nothing archaic or cliche about its power. The movie buzzes along. It runs over two and a half hours and feels a third that long. I could watch this movie all day. The one annoying actor, and it is a character choice really, is Brooks West as DA Mitch Lodwick. He is the man who took Bieggler’s job. It is apparent, when the trial starts, at just how in-over-his-head Lodwick really is. It’s a subtle jab at the election process for public service, though it is only one of many such small thematic tweaks this movie is layered with.

Fortunately, the movie swiftly turns the prosecuting duties over to Lodwic’s ‘assistant’ Claude Dancer. George C. Scott plays Dancer with a sly vigor which elevates the film to another level. When Scott, Stewart, and Joseph N. Welch as the judge get going, this movie soars to great heights. It is surprisingly funny and sophisticated work, especially considering the fact that Welch was not an actor, but rather a former lawyer himself who defended the army during the McCarthy era communist witch hunts. You would never know he was not an actor, though perhaps that just goes to show how comfortable he was in a courtroom. I was repeatedly surprised at how funny this movie could be, and by how much laughter was to be had.

The thread which really brings this movie from solid to all-time-classic has to do with another triangle, however. Stewart is defending Manon for defending Laura’s honor. However, there is plenty of question regarding how much honor his wife has. Was she raped? It would seem so. In 1950s America, it would seem, it is perfectly acceptable for the prosecution to wonder if she was asking for it. Regardless, she is certainly loose and carefree. She intices and seduces men and then knowingly acknowledges their stares. When Bieggler asks her if she has ever cheated on her husband she puts her sunglasses on before carefully denying it. Manon is no saint himself. He is vengeful, quick to rage, and violent. He seemingly wants a fight. A man raping his wife would appear to be a good excuse to have the opportunity to kill someone, and he seems more than happy to manipulate an insanity plea if it works out.

Many movies of this sort make it clear that the accused is innocent of the crime. If not (like in A FEW GOOD MEN or A TIME TO KILL) we are asked to sympathize with the killers because of special circumstances. ANATOMY OF A MURDER never asks us to like the Manons. Oh, it wants us to stare slack-jawed at Laura’s beauty and it wants us to find some sort of understanding for why Lt. Manon might do such a thing. But the movie never asks us to like them. They lie to Bieggler. They lie to each other. The end provides one last lie which calls into question the integrity of everything Lt. Manon said before it. Preminger, as a director, doesn’t draw extra attention to it. Stewart doesn’t bat an eye. He’s seen it all. He’s defended murderers before, it would seem, so what if perhaps this one wasn’t quite as innocent as we might think. He’s got the law on his side after all.

The thematic nuance in this film is astounding. It’s one I’d love to break down again and again, because there is a ton to be found. In one viewing, this has easily become my favorite courtroom drama of all time. Sorry A FEW GOOD MEN, you’ll have to take a back seat to your predecessor. It doesn’t mean I won’t remember you, I just found someone better.



The bonus is for the music, done by the great Duke Ellington (who also has a cameo). The jazzy score immediately paints the movie (and Bieggler) as forward thinking and immediate. I loved the way it brought the early scenes to life, and the choice to mostly abandon music in the courtroom.



~ by johnlink00 on May 26, 2013.

3 Responses to “johnlink ranks ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959)”

  1. Well written review!

  2. Thanks for reading!

  3. […] best movie I saw this year was ANATOMY OF A MURDER, which I scored at 9.25 (all rankings out of 10). In fact, that was the only movie all year to earn […]

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