Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Genre: Legal Thriller Running Time: 2 hrs. 40 min.

Release Date: July 2nd, 1959 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Otto Preminger Actors: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant, George C. Scott




roduced and directed by Otto Preminger, “Anatomy of a Murder” is a riveting courtroom drama and murder mystery, based on the novel by Robert Traver. Dissociative reaction, or a domination of the unconscious mind, sets up reasonable doubt as the film analyzes the complex makeup of a deviously intriguing killing. With jazzy music by Duke Ellington, fascinating (but slightly dated) criminological ideas (and discouraging loopholes for right and wrong), superb dialogue, and phenomenal acting, the entire film is a striking success.

Fisherman by day, musician by night, lawyer when absolutely necessary, Philadelphia ex-prosecutor Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is asked to take up a very unique case. Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) shot Barney Quill after Quill allegedly raped and beat Manion’s wife, Laura (Lee Remick). Fred’s defense is a bout of insanity, brought on by blinding rage – a condition known as “irresistible impulse.” Biegler isn’t quite the attorney for the case, having little experience in defense and, to a degree, wondering whether he’s up to the challenge. The extra catch is that Frederick doesn’t command sympathy; he’s arrogant, cunning, and he waited about one hour after his wife told him what happened to go and kill the attacker. In just about any court of law, that scenario spells cold-blooded, vengeful murder.

Aiding Paul in gathering evidence is drunkard counselor Parnell (Arthur O’Connell), with hopes of being a real lawyer again – at least temporarily as a sort of sidekick. He’s part muse and part philosophical conversationist, but wholly geared up for a battle of wills. Hard facts about the case become uncomfortably elusive when Laura’s version doesn’t exactly match up to other testimony (especially when a doctor examines her and doesn’t think she was even raped), and gaps of lost memory create suspicious holes in her story. But her lie detector test says she’s telling the truth.

Lee Remick exudes sexuality and mistrust with her tight sweaters and short skirts, a very level-headed, even-tempered judge presides over the madhouse courtroom, and Paul makes an effectively rambunctious show of the whole thing as he dukes it out with big city lawyer Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), who is specifically brought in for this high profile case. “I’m only concerned with a few facts…” says Paul as he interrogates Laura, who is dressed extra sexily and talking purposefully seductively. “Just answer the question… the attorneys will provide the wisecracks,” quips the judge.  Their clever exchanges, along with every other cast member’s jurisprudentially themed repartees, are so engrossing that the pacing of the film never slows down, even though the runtime is nearly three hours long. The rapid-fire questions and answers are entertainingly wry, the details are fascinating, and the deeper conversations are masterfully scripted. Constant verbal jousting is darkly humorous, like dialogue from a hardboiled film noir, allowing the plot to regularly thicken intelligently and innovatively.

The field of battle is the courtroom. It’s a taut series of duels between quick-thinkers, each one distinctly deceptive, hilarious, calculating, and creative. Viewers get to see all sides of courthouse drama, including the antics, trickery, badgering, following of procedures, objections, definitions, statements, surprise witnesses, unexpected evidence, and spontaneous outcries – in fact, they’ll see just about the whole trial. It’s incredibly tangled yet still understandable.  All of the facts are presented to the audience, though both sides refute every bit of testimony until the actual events come down to one person’s word against another. The beauty of the story is that the truth is insignificant next to how a lawyer can persuade a jury to his advantage. By the shocking conclusion, the real truth is left painfully mystifying.

– Mike Massie

  • 10/10