In a murder trial, the defendant says he suffered temporary insanity after the victim raped his wife. What is the truth, and will he win his case?
James Stewart ... Paul Biegler
Lee Remick ... Laura Manion
Ben Gazzara ... Lt. Frederick Manion
Arthur O'Connell ... Parnell Emmett McCarthy
Eve Arden ... Maida Rutledge
Kathryn Grant ... Mary Pilant
George C. Scott ... Asst. State Atty. Gen. Claude Dancer
Orson Bean ... Dr. Matthew Smith
Russ Brown ... George Lemon
Murray Hamilton ... Alphonse Paquette
Brooks West ... Dist. Atty. Mitch Lodwick
Ken Lynch ... Det. Sgt. James Durgo
John Qualen ... Deputy Sheriff Sulo
Howard McNear ... Dr. Dompierre
Alexander Campbell ... Dr. W. Gregory Harcourt
Anatomy Of a Murder is probably Otto Preminger's best film. It's certainly my favorite. Adapted from a novel by Robert Traver, it tells the story of a lawyer in northern Michigan and his defense of a particularly surly and violent murderer. As is always the case with Preminger, scenes are filmed mostly with all the characters present in the frame. There is no cross-cutting to speak of, which is to say the drama plays out with the assorted characters confronting one another, or at any rate with one another, and the effect is one of surprising warmth and good feeling in the movie's cosier scenes, which for once enhance rather than detract from the drama. I would have been quite happy to have spent much more time in lawyer Biegler's house and study, with its books, old furniture and broken typewriter, but alas this is a murder case so one has to get down to businss.
The question of whether the defendant, an army officer, was temporarily insane, is in fact insane, or is merely putting on a good show, is never fully resolved. The lawyer is by no means perfect. He's a little lazy, though he gets over it. One senses he's cheap. He enjoys his shabby genteel bachelor's life and isn't always responsive to the needs of his secretary, who would like to get paid more regularly. In the end he proves far more dedicated and brilliant than we might have first imagined him to be, but the fly in the buttermilk is that the better he gets the more complicated the case becomes, and the more ambiguous everything gets the more he finds out about his client and the man he killed. In this respect the movie is a masterpiece of ambiguity. Beautifully shot on location in black and white, it is more gray than anything else. Morally gray. No one is quite what he appears to be at first. And people change; or rather we learn more about them. The bartender at the resort where his boss was killed at first comes off as a jerk; in time he comes to seem more of a jerk. Then he seems maybe not so bad after all; and then he's a jerk once more, but a jerk we understand. The lawyer's assistant, an on-again, off-again recovering alcoholic, is also a mixed bag. He is dogged but sloppy, and always (or so it appears) on the verge of breakdown. Or at least this is how Arthur O'Connell plays him. The prosecuting attorney is a dolt, but he is aided by a legal bigwig the state has brought in, but this hotshot is no match for the cunning country lawyer. The defendant's wife, who 'started the whole thing' is gorgeous, sexy and provocative. She makes a play for her husband's lawyer, but he doesn't bite. One wonders about her. And one wonders about the marriage she and her hot-tempered spouse really have, and whether it will last.
This is a very sophisticated and adult movie for 1959, or for that matter today. The location filming greatly enhances the mood, chilly and very upper midwestern. Yet indoors one feels different, and the tone is often playful. The actors are superb. James Stewart is gritty, lovable, homespun, physically slow and mentally quick; and for all the familiarity there is about his screen persona, out of character, that is, in character he manages continually to surprise and delight. He was a true actor. Ben Gazzara is very Method actorish, which suits him well in his role as the volatile military man. Lee Remick is stunning as his wife, and one can well imagine a man killing for her, many times over. She is also a good actress. George C. Scott plays the state's bulldog prosecutor well, though he's an acquired taste at best. His hamminess contrasts with Stewart's folksy naturalism in interesting ways not ungermane to the plot, but he is out-acted and outclassed by the old pro he is presumably upstaging in this film.
First of all be patient as the following information is getting to a point that might add to your appreciation of the movie. I became aware of the following information while attending Northern Michigan University in Marquette, MI over a few tall drinks with John D. Volker, the author, years ago.
This great courtroom drama is set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. To be more specific the cities of Marquette, Negaunee and Ishpeming and the village of Big Bay and is based on a true murder case that took place there. The names of the cities and people are changed in the movie but it is filmed on the same locations that the murder case took place. The screenplay was written by John D. Volker (who wrote his novels under the pen name Robert Travers) and was based on his first novel. He was from Ishpeming (Iron City in the movie) and a Michigan Supreme Court Justice when he reviewed the appeal of this case and turned it into a detailed novel and then screenplay. The movie is given an extra dose of authenticity by using the unique people of the Upper Peninsula as extras and in minor roles.
The point of all this historical information is that along with a hard hitting realistic style by director Otto Premenger, great score by Duke Ellington, plus top notch true to life performances by the excellent cast (Jimmy Stewart, Ben Gazara, Lee Remick, George C. Scott, et.al) this black and white film is more reality than fiction and being aware of this adds to impact of this psychological courtroom drama. This is a true human experience written by an author from the area directly from the original court transcripts, filmed where it happened in a style that fits the subject matter where it actually happened with a cast that really knows what they are doing.
If you like ripped from reality courtroom dramas, does it get better?
Well filmed, beautifully acted, and painstakingly directed, this film deserves the highest praise.
James Stewart brings his customary stammering, quirky charm to a role that could have easily become overwhelmingly serious. Lee Remick is seen establishing her early image as the somehow fragile, undeniably seductive pawn (see also "A Face in The Crowd"), while Gazzara wavers intensely somewhere between heartless murderer and protective husband. The supporting cast is strong, creating a human backdrop for the senior players, keeping the story in the real world, effectively preventing this from becoming an exercise in legal theory.
This film is noteworthy for a myriad of reasons, but most specifically because it addresses the still controversial issue of acquaintance rape, and presents us with a victim of questionable morals. At the same time our murder victim is seen as a monster, then a friend and father. There really are no heroes here, no noble defenders, no pristine heroines, no completely innocent bystanders...both sides take their turns pointing fingers, each claiming that the other only got what they deserved.
We are forced to re-evaluate our thoughts on what constitutes justifiable homicide--the unwritten law that Manion speaks of in the film versus the law as written that Biegler must now interpret. This manipulation of intended meaning sets a somewhat tragic precedent evident in the legal system we work within today.
This film is highly entertaining, and excellent for discussion. Watch it with some of your more philosophical friends.
* Duke Ellington did the music and has a cameo as "Pie-Eye."
* The part of the judge was offered to both Spencer Tracy and Burl Ives, but instead went to Joseph N. Welch who was a lawyer in real life who had represented the U.S. Army in the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954.
* The part played by Lee Remick was first offered to Lana Turner, who agreed to take it on the condition that she would wear gowns designed exclusively by her personal couturier, Jean Louis. When director Otto Preminger objected that such gowns were not suitable for the role, Turner turned down the part. Columbia was ready to give in to Turner's demands but Preminger resisted and gave the role to Remick, then almost a beginner.
* The Lee Remick part was turned down by Jayne Mansfield.
* Otto Preminger originally wanted Lee Remick for the part of Laura because he had been impressed with her debut in A Face in the Crowd (1957) and knew that she could play a young sultry woman (even though Remick was 8 months pregnant when Preminger approached her for the role). A few weeks later he called to tell her that he had given the part to Lana Turner and instead offered her a smaller role of Mary Pilant, but Remick boldly refused. On an especially hectic day when Remick received a call saying that she had the part of Laura, she thought it was a joke and hung up. It took another phone call to convince her that she truly did have the lead female role.
* The film was cut, scored and in previews only a month after filming had wrapped.
* James Stewart's father was so offended by the film, which he deemed "a dirty picture", that he took out an ad in his local newspaper telling people not to see it.
* Upon its original release, the film was banned in Chicago, Illinois.
* The "law library" in the courthouse was actually filmed in the Carnegie Public Library in Ishpeming Michigan. The door that was opened in the Courthouse, which is in Marquette, Michigan, was the door to the men's restroom. The movie was filmed on location in Marquette County Michigan.
* Part of the controversy surrounding this movie was because it included use of the words "bitch", "contraceptive", "panties", "penetration", "rape", "slut" and "sperm".
* The movie's poster was as #1 of "The 25 Best Movie Posters Ever" by Premiere.
* When James Stewart's character goes to the hotel to visit Kathryn Grant, the clerk at the desk is reading Leon Uris's "Exodus". One year later, director Preminger would go on to direct its film version, Exodus (1960).
* Otto Preminger disliked the use of flashbacks; hence there are none in the film.
* Duke Ellington's score is a diagetical one, i.e., it is not superimposed over the action but can only be heard within the context of whatever scene music might be playing in.
* Shooting was completed in just two months.
* James Stewart's character Biegler is generally cited as being the reason why he was cast as smalltown West Virginia lawyer Billy Jim Hawkins in the 1973-74 TV series "Hawkins" (1973).
* [June 2008] Ranked #7 on the American Film Institute's list of the 10 greatest films in the genre "Courtroom Drama".