Otto Preminger is a man who is no stranger to controversial subject matter. Scourge of the Legion of Decency, Preminger directed several films that pushed the boundaries of what was considered taboo and generally okay to talk about in film, many using novels and stage plays as the source. Many said his 1953 The Moon is Blue treated sex in too light-hearted and frivolous a manner; 1955’s The Man with the Golden Arm was one of the first Hollywood films to deal with heroin addiction; and 1962’s Advise & Consent put a light on the subject of homosexuality. However, one of his best, most adult and controversial films came in 1959 with the release of Anatomy of a Murder.
Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a small town lawyer with few clients. When a murder takes place on the outskirts of town, he is asked to defend Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who admits to having killed the man who allegedly raped his wife Laura (Lee Remick). It quickly becomes a prominent case, and Biegler must now find a way to win the case despite, or even because of the ambiguity of events.
It should be noted from the beginning that Anatomy of a Murder does not ever really seem to be a film that seeks to be controversial for the sake of doing so. What really lies at the heart of the film is a considered, intelligent, slightly uneasy deliberation on the realities of the legal system. It does so by looking at a case that is, at once, both simple and complex – a man brought to trial for murdering the man who raped his wife. In such a case, certain things will be discussed, certain words will be used. Controversy is simply a by-product of the project. Much of the controversy surrounding the film arose from the fact that it was amongst the first to freely and frequently use words like “rape”, “panties”, “bitch” and “sperm”. The filmmakers even have the foresight to see and address this potential for offence. Some characters seem uneasy using the word “panties” in open court, opting to talk around it with vague references to “undergarments”, somewhat short-circuiting the need for concise testimony. The judge has an aside with the lawyers present as to whether or not they know of any other word that could replace the word “panties” that so many find uncomfortable. It’s a rather well known exchange:
Judge Weaver: What exactly was the undergarment just referred to?
Paul Biegler: Panties, Your Honor.
Judge Weaver: Do you expect this subject to come up again?
Paul Biegler: Yes, Sir.
Judge Weaver: There’s a certain light connotation attached to the word
“panties.” Can we find another name for them?
Mitch Lodwick: I never heard my wife call ‘em anything else.
Judge Weaver: Mr. Biegler?
Paul Biegler: I’m a bachelor, Your Honor.
Judge Weaver: That’s a great help. Mr. Dancer?
Claude Dancer: When I was overseas during the war, Your Honor, I learned
a French word. I’m afraid that might be slightly suggestive.
Judge Weaver: Most French words are.
After this, the judge makes his announcement to all present in the court that the word “panties” shall be used during proceedings. The court erupts into a light, mildly embarrassed laughter. The judge addresses them again, telling them that their laughter is neither welcome nor appropriate, considering the seriousness of the case. Director Preminger and writer Mayes see the potential for offence here and get their point in – we’re all adults here, so let’s damn well act like it.
That’s something that comes through from many aspects of this film. Preminger seeks to tell a grownup story in a grownup manner and, as such, expects his audience to be grownups about it. At one point during court proceedings, Biegler protests that “this is a cross examination in a murder case, it’s not a high school debate.” Indeed, only a grownup will be able to fully appreciate the building complexities of the case, the sly dual nature of many of the characters on show, the relationships between each of them. A juvenile mindset simply won’t get it. Most people will recognise the small-town quaintness of Biegler, but those of the more mature temperament will be able to pick up on the sneakiness of his tactics, the cunning of his mind, the importance that he always be seen as just a simple small-town lawyer. Much goes the same for Laura Manion, whose sweet face and pretty eyes belie how self-aware she is in her ability to attract men, and thus bringing into question her account of the night in question. Likewise for Laura’s husband, Frederick, the man on trial for his life. A soldier, a genuine war hero, but someone who always wears a mild look of disgust on his face, and who’s not exactly mild-tempered.
The intelligence and skilfulness in the handling of the legal aspects being discussed also require a degree of focus to truly understand the thrust of the film’s thematic concern, and that is the reality of the legal system. Early on in the film, when Biegler first discusses the case with Manion, he is told that Manion hoped to rely on the “unwritten law” as justification for his crime. Biegler tells him, “The unwritten law’s a myth, Lieutenant. There is no such thing as the unwritten law, and anyone who commits a murder on the theory that it does exist has just bought himself room and board in the state penitentiary, maybe for life.” The film acknowledges the need in the law for something to be written down, for there to be a precedent set. In fact, there is a small moment of real triumph when Biegler and McCarthy happen upon an old case history, which gives credence to their best defence theory. However, the film also knows that the real backbone of any trial such as this one is in the testimony of its witnesses. It is also here that the film shows this to be its great weakness. Witnesses are expected to be honest and forthcoming and without any hint of deception. However, as we see throughout the film, witnesses can be carefully coached (a violation, but something we do see happen). They can also be discredited, their memories be fuzzy, their own motives unclear, or they can simply lie. Even expert witnesses, like doctors or psychiatrists, can be contradicted by other experts. How can juries be expected to extrapolate the true circumstances surrounding the murder and deliver a clear verdict when the evidence they are given is questioned at every turn? A major tactic of Biegler is to make unfounded, but damning statements about the credibility of a witness for the prosecution, which the judge then instructs the jury to disregard. “How can a jury disregard what it’s already heard?” asks Manion. Biegler answers, “They can’t, Lieutenant.”
What is a very interesting point about the climax of the trial is the feeling one has by the final verdict. I won’t say how it swings, but there is the undeniable sense of uncertainty as to whether or not justice has really been served. Evidence has been entered and questioned, witnesses have been presented and scrutinised, experts examined and cross-examined so much that even we, who have much more information than the jury, are genuinely unsure as to what really took place. The nearest we ever come to being sure of the truth is our initial feelings when we first hear about the case, with little to no evidence or context. If this is really how it is, if the most comfort we feel can be found before we learn more about the case, then how much faith can we really have in the legal system? If the trial, with all its evidence and witness testimony and expert opinion and legal pontificating, serves no purpose beyond bamboozling a potential jury, then what good is it?
It’s not just in its concerns with legal fallibility, or the subject matter being discussed, that the film asks a degree of maturity and sophistication of its audience, but within the craft of the filmmaking on show, too. Preminger’s direction is superb, his predilection for letting important stuff happen in the background, or the other side of the frame, leaves it to the audience to choose where they look, who they side with. There is also a wry degree of whimsy there, too. Look at the scene where McCarthy and Bielger have lunch outdoors, an industrial crane in the background. Notice that, as the pair converse, making points to one another, the crane in the background echoes their back-and-forth discussion. Also, look at the actual trial, itself more of a performance from the lawyers. Preminger picks up on the point, wonderfully illustrated in Mayes’ script, that lawyers must be more like actors in the courtroom, since it’s the best story that usually wins out. The cinematography from Sam Leavitt is also excellent, comfortably subtle with no sudden shifts of light and shadow. Here, black and white is a difficult thing to find. The music is superb, a jazz-soaked score from Duke Ellington that remains catchy and fun, but with the characteristic nuance of the genre, dropping hints as to where the drama and danger lie.
The acting throughout is superb, and a testament to great casting. Only James Stewart could pull off Paul Biegler, the humble small-towner with all the hallmarks of typical James Stewart character. Yet, underneath that is a sharp and devious mind. Lee Remick is great as Laura, effortlessly conveying the feeling of sweetheart and tramp (just watch her bat her eyelids at Stewart on their meeting in his office). Ben Gazzara’s Frederick Manion is someone you feel like you should respect and believe, but you still nevertheless feel like there’s something off about him. Arthur O’Connell is really quite affecting as Biegler’s friend and partner, a former lawyer and still a brilliant legal mind, now trying to drag himself out of the bottle he’s been resting at the bottom of for years. George C. Scott brings with him all the weight and stature of his considerable presence to the role of the big city Assistant State Attorney General Claude Dancer, though this would be only his second feature film. A real treat in the film is the presence of Joseph N. Welch, who plays Judge Weaver, and is an absolute delight to watch. Welch is most famous for the fact that he was the lawyer who took on Senator Joseph McCarthy during the Communist witch-hunts in the 1950s, defending the US Army against McCarthy’s interrogations. Welch, sitting not six feet from him at the time, lambasted the Senator’s conduct, famously asking of him “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” You can find the footage of that and watch it for yourself. It’s bracing stuff. Especially since McCarthy himself says, in court and on film, that Welch is a fine actor who likes to play to a crowd in his work, just like Paul Biegler.
Just as an aside, this perhaps is not the only swing that Preminger takes at McCarthy in the film. Arthur O’Connell’s character is Parnell Emmett McCarthy, who is a recovering alcoholic. Joseph McCarthy himself was an alcoholic, which many believed contributed greatly to his death in 1957, just two years before the release of this film. Also, an early scene has Parnell remark on a brown paper bag that Biegler has just brought in, which clearly contains a bottle, hence his interest. Parnell smilingly says, “I’m everlastingly suspicious of, and/or fascinated by, the contents of brown paper bags.” A famous incident in the early days of the indictment of US soldiers by Joseph McCarthy had him declare that he had evidence of wrongdoing in a brown paper envelope that he would not let others inspect, leading many to believe he either had none or was stalling for time until he got some. That Parnell sobers up turns himself around for the good of the law makes him some reflection of the real life Senator McCarthy.
Anatomy of a Murder is, quite possibly, the best trial film ever. It’s not so much an attack on the legal system as it is a meditation on its inherent flaws and fallibility, and the filmmaking behind it is excellent on all fronts. From the direction to the acting to the script to the cinematography, it’s all woven with rich subtlety and delicacy. If you’ve ever had any consideration on the nature of law, this should be seen.