1959 / Best Actor / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actor

Film #244: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Next up we have two films set around court cases, starting with the film that most law professors hail as the greatest pure trial movie in film history.

That film is Anatomy of a Murder and James Stewart stars as Paul Biegler a former DA who now runs a failing law firm alongside a loyal secretary who sticks by Paul despite his lack of cases. Biegler is contacted by Laura Manion who wants him to defend her husband Paul who has been charged with the murder of innkeeper Barney Quill. It transpires that Biegler went to Quill’s inn after discovering that Quill had raped Laura but once getting there shot him in cold blood. As Biegler realises the case will be a tough one to win, he decides to go with a defence of temporary insanity. This involved explaining to Paul exactly what he wants him to say on the stand and hopes this will be enough to get him off. Meanwhile Paul also tells Laura to dress more demurely in court as her seductive outfits may give the wrong impression to the jury. Paul’s other issue is that the prosecution have drafted in a hot new attorney in the form of Claude Dancer who initially rungs rings around the world-weary Paul. It is only when Paul does some digging that he discovers the relationship between Quill and his barmaid Mary. Paul implores Mary to come forward as a witness as he feels that his case would depend on her testimony. But with Dancer getting the best of Paul, is Mary going to be enough to win the case?

I would agree that Anatomy of a Murder is a great trial movie and one that bases most of its action in and around the gathering of evidence. Despite being over two and half hours long, Anatomy of a Murder flew by thanks in part to Wendell Mayes’ script which is incredibly well-paced, and giving a lot of time to each individual part of the story. Even though the vast majority of it is set in the courtroom, Otto Preminger still manages to make his film seem utterly stylish. The film is also given a contemporary air thanks to the Duke Ellington soundtrack which makes Anatomy of a Murder seem a lot less stuffy than other trial movies of the time. This is also true of the film’s content, as it was one of the first to deal with both rape and sex in graphic terms as they both play heavily into the trial itself. Of course the cast are all terrific, with James Stewart earning a Best Actor nomination for his role as the once great DA who has now fallen on hard times. New kid on the bock George C Scott was also awarded a nomination for playing the young and hungry Dancer with some of the film’s highlights being their courtroom sparring. Elsewhere, Lee Remick’s sexuality makes you question whether or not Quill did force himself on her, while Eve Arden is on brilliantly comic form as Biegler’s secretary Maida. Overall, Anatomy of a Murder is a fantastic film, full of intrigue, great performances, an amazing soundtrack and a well-paced script. It’s also probably the best film I’ve ever seen that’s largely set in a courtroom.


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