By: Oberst Von Berauscht (A Toast) –
Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a former District Attorney struggling to get his private practice off the ground, mostly due to being too preoccupied with fishing to develop a clientele. Realizing he’s got bills to pay, Biegler somewhat reluctantly takes a murder case, defending an army officer accused of killing the man who allegedly raped his wife. As he builds the case and moves to trial, new elements surface which reveal questionable motives for just about everyone involved, and Biegler is stuck in the middle trying to make sense of the facts.
If this material was put in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Anatomy of a Murder could have been little more than a dull teaching tool.
Indeed, the film is considered by many legal professionals and professors to be the definitive portrayal of the defensive litigation process in cinema, as the movie follows the process closely and rarely deviates far from reality. Credit is due to director Otto Preminger, who manages to make this nearly 3 hour film move deliberately, never bogging down or wearying. Preminger, alongside Editor Louis R. Loeffler and Cinematographer Sam Leavitt, makes each moment of the film serve a purpose in furthering the story.
Anatomy of a Murder was a film which pushed the boundaries of the Hays Production Code, which set strict censorship rules on American Cinema until the mid 1960s. The film features direct and graphically clinical references to rape, including a lengthy discussion on the presence of sperm in the rape victim. The film also uses words such as “bitch” and “slut” among others which were considerably harsh for 1959. It is no mistake that the judge in the film is played by none other than Joseph N. Welch; the attorney who famously chastised the disgraced Senator Joseph McCarthy during his anti-Communist witch hunt. It may come as a surprise that the famously conservative actor James Stewart took the lead role in such a controversial movie.
However political Stewart might have been, he clearly believed in the project, as he delivers one of his most complex and fascinating characters. As the lawyer Biegler; Stewart portrays a man who likely doubts his client’s story, but nevertheless feels compelled to pursue the best possible defense of him. In the process of doing this, Biegler serves as a cog in a system which is both incredibly fair and unfair at the same time, the inherent flaw of the American Justice System being the human factor, that the outcome of a case is often determined less by the facts and more by courtroom theatrics. Other notable performances are George C. Scott as the determined and clever opposing counsel, and Lee Remick as Laura Manion; the wife who claims to have been raped. Remick’s character is portrayed like a trailer-trash femme fatale.
Helping to provide the film with a unique voice is Jazz Maestro Duke Ellington. The score for the film was a first, in that no African American composer had been tapped to put together the soundtrack for a major Hollywood picture. The music is as dynamic and free-wheeling as all great Jazz, creating a mood of unpredictability to complement the twists and turns in the plot.
Now you’re cookin’ with gas!
A groundbreaking film, the style of which would be the template for dozens of courtroom dramas, few of which were as effective.
Take a Drink: whenever someone mentions “Thunder Bay”
Take a Drink: for each Objection
Drink a Shot: for language you wouldn’t expect from a 1950s movie