ANATOMY OF A MURDER, one of the most highly regarded courtroom dramas, brought James Stewart his final Oscar nomination, one of seven the 1959 film earned, and the press praise, along with box office success, brought producer-director Otto Preminger out of a slump run of critical and financial duds. Legal experts consider this one of the top trial films.
“Twelve people go off into a room: twelve different minds, twelve different hearts, from twelve different walks of life; twelve sets of eyes, ears, shapes, and sizes. And these twelve people are asked to judge another human being as different from them as they are from each other. And in their judgment, they must become of one mind – unanimous. It’s one of the miracles of Man’s disorganized soul that they can do it, and in most instances, do it right well. God bless juries.”
A small town lawyer in Upper Michigan takes on a difficult case. ‘Paul Biegler’ (Stewart) will defend an army officer who shot and killed a popular local innkeeper. ‘Lt. Manion’ (Ben Gazzara) doesn’t deny it, claiming the man had just raped his wife. Biegler uses “irresistible impulse” as his mitigating argument, a version of the insanity ploy. He has dependable assistants in old friend and collogue ‘Parnell McCarthy’ (Arthur O’Connell) and wry secretary ‘Maida Rutledge’ (Eve Arden). ‘Judge Weaver’ (legendary lawyer Joseph N. Welch) is fair and impartial, but Biegler’s job would be easier if Lt. Manion wasn’t a hothead, his too-breezy wife ‘Laura’ (Lee Remick) known and demonstrated to be a blatant tease and the prosecution team strengthened by piercingly smart ‘Claude Dancer’ (George C. Scott).
Lengthy at 160 minutes but never draggy, thanks to taut handling from Preminger, fine writing and top work from the cast. Wendell Mayes superb screenplay was crafted from the novel by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker, who wrote it under the pseudonym Robert Traver. The story based on a real-life murder case that happened seven years earlier in the same places where Preminger and crew filmed on location in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Preminger and Mayes dared the Production Code with words not uttered before in scripts and won. Audiences with discerning mentality were thus allowed to be un-shocked by hearing adult actors use “bitch”, “contraceptive”, “panties”, “penetration”, “rape”, “slut” and “sperm” on screen without fearing the language would incite a Communist sexual orgy that would founder the Republic.
The whole package rings true, in look, tone (no false sentiment or excess theatricality), the ambivalent natures of the characters, the resolution that leaves you satisfied but pondering. Along with the judicious back & forth of legal fencing and pry into hidden motives that the script weaves for us to weigh and consider, the casting allows the pleasure of watching vetted pros (Stewart, O’Connell & Arden all 51) parry with new talent: Gazzara 28, second film, Remick, 23 in her fourth, Scott, 31 in his second. Stewart’s relaxed, deceptively folksy but shrewd and discerning attorney is one of his career-best performances, topping a decade of superior work in disparate genres. Brash yet likable Remick is perfect as the playfully seductive, co-dependent wife, pensive Gazzara quietly insolent, Scott a tight-wound essay in smart power (he made his feature debut that year with another plum part in the excellent western The Hanging Tree). It was inspired to cast Welch as the judge: the gentleman who famously reduced Sen. Joseph McCarthy from scourge to simp finesses his one and only acting job with charm, and knocks back chuckles with some of the best lines of dialogue. Praise also went to Duke Ellington’s low-key jazz score; he also makes a cameo appearance.
Academy Award nominations came for Best Picture, Actor (Stewart), Supporting Actor/s (O’Connell and Scott), Screenplay, Cinematography and Film Editing. The $15,700,000 gross made this the 13th most-attended movie of 1959. Six decades later, with faith in our warped beyond recognition justice system at rock bottom, taking another look this honest and intelligent pare of its essential processes is more than an entertainment: it’s practically a lament of bittersweet nostalgia.
Brought to trial for $2,000,000, with Brooks West (Arden’s husband, as the lead prosecutor), Murray Hamilton (also with Stewart that year, but on his side, in The FBI Story), Kathryn Grant, Orson Bean, Ken Lynch, Russ Brown, Howard McNear, John Qualen.
* Welch: “It’s almost immoral for Jimmy Stewart to become such a good lawyer without having to work at it as I did.”
There were three more lawyer-client screen battles fought in ’59: Compulsion, The Story On Page One and Libel. For Preminger, Anatomy‘s hit evened out the disappointments of Saint Joan, Bonjour Tristesse and Porgy and Bess.