A lawyer from a small Michigan town defends a man who killed another man who raped his wife.
“Anatomy of a Murder” is an epic courtroom drama filled with unique characters, snappy dialogue, and a concerning moral dilemma. It’s a film that takes its time developing ideas, letting characters grow, and giving the viewer a chance to meditate on what they see before them. There are moments of dramatic tension and wild revelations, but in the end, what makes this movie so good is its believable characters, realistic approach to small town crime and punishment, and the tactility world that Preminger helped bring to life.
A Murder Most Foul
(SOME SPOILERS IN THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH)
Paul Biegler (James Stewart, “A Wonderful Life”) is a small town lawyer living in Michigan’s upper peninsula. He spends his days leisurely, as work for lawyers is few and far between, and at night he drinks and reads law books with his old friend Parnell Emmett McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell, “The Poseidon Adventure”). One night while Parnell and Paul are drinking, Paul receives a phone call from a woman named Laura Manion (Lee Remick, “The Omen”). Laura asks Paul if he’ll represent her husband, Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara, “The Big Lebowski”). Paul agrees to meet with Manion, and after discussing the case and learning more details about Laura’s rape and the subsequent murder of Barney Quill, he decides to represent the lieutenant. As Paul puts together his case, more details begin to reveal themselves, and a big-shot lawyer (George C Scott, “Patton”) from Lansing is brought in to help the DA (Brooks West) prosecute Manion.
The best part of this film is the characters. Every character we meet feels flushed out; nobody is perfect, they all have little eccentricities, they’re all tempted by one thing or another, and they all feel natural in this small town setting. One thing I really like about this film is that it doesn’t sugarcoat anything. Lt. Manion and his wife, Laura, are poor: they live in a trailer in a rather shady area of town, and most of the people in this town are rather poor too. There’s not much to do for entertainment, so they drink (or, when there’s a murder trial, they go to the courtroom). Nobody in this little hamlet is perfect. Both Biegler and McCarthy drink too much, McCarthy in excess. Laura has a rather sexually aggressive personality, and she knows it. Lt. Manion has a temper. None of these people are white knights in shining armor, swooping in to save the day- these feel like real people with real problems, and what’s even better is by the end of this movie, not all of their problems are solved. We’re given a brief glimpse into the lives of these characters, but it feels like they’ve existed for years before we met them, and they’ll continue for years on after this.
Stewart, O’Connell, and Scott all received actor nominations for their roles in this film, and all of them deserved it. James Stewart is wonderful as Paul Biegler. He’s got a sort of cool collected presence that sometimes will give way to a bumble or two. He’s not above being surprised or being taken off-guard, but for the most part, he keeps his humor and wits about him. Some of the best dialogue in the film comes during the courtroom scenes; Stewart and Scott go at it in ways that will sometimes make the viewer laugh, and other times will hold them with tension. O’Connell as McCarthy was another great character, elevated by the stellar performance. O’Connell’s character is one of the more troubled ones- he’s an alcoholic, and he knows it, but he has a difficult time changing his ways. Watching his character struggle with alcoholism grounds his character immensely, and it makes him all the more interesting and sympathetic. George C Scott was amazing in everything he ever did (okay, I haven’t seen everything he’s done, but he’s pretty darn great in everything I have seen him in). His hardnosed, almost bloodthirsty portrayal of Dancer is intense. Though Dancer is only doing his job, the sharpness with which Scott plays the character makes him feel almost vicious. Remick was good too- I’ve only ever seen her in “The Omen” before, but she was pretty good playing opposite Gregory Peck. She held her own in this film, though at times I believe she was a bit heavy handed. Much of this film’s tension and mystery comes from the ambiguity of the rape that supposedly happened. Laura’s character insists that she was raped by Quill, but a doctor’s examination came back inconclusive, and Laura’s character is rather forward with men. There are multiple times in this film when Laura makes what seems to be a pass at Biegler, and there’s another scene when Biegler has to drag Laura from a bar and tell her to go home. It’s also established that Laura had another husband before Manion, and she cheated on her first husband with Manion, divorced her first husband, and married Manion three days later. The implication is that Laura is a rather loose woman, and that perhaps the rape did not happen, that Laura instead tried to seduce Quill. The question of whether or not Laura was actually raped is never answered in this movie, but the way Laura plays the character seems to sway our belief more to one side than the other. If Remick had played Laura with a little more subtlety, the ambiguity might have carried a little further.
Another great thing about this film is its frankness. This film was made in the fifties; a time when sex-related dialogue was, for the most part, still taboo. This movie holds nothing back when it comes to examining most details of the rape and murder. Its rather shocking to see a film approach this topic so brazenly in the 50s, but it feels far more real than dancing around the details. The only real issue with this film is also a great strength: its length. This movie is two hours and forty minutes long, and though for the most part it’s paced rather well, at times it does drag. While this film wouldn’t have been nearly as impactful without the slow build of characters, gradual reveal of key plot points, and deliberate pacing of the courtroom scenes, it is a touch slow for modern audiences. This is a slow-burn drama, but it’s got plenty to love about it.
I’d be remised if I didn’t at least mention that Duke Ellington did the score; he even has a cameo in the film. The score is jazzy and iconic, though the courtroom scenes are almost all boneyard-silent as far as music goes. The music reminds me, in a way, of Miles Davis’s score for “Elevator to the Gallows”, the stunning French noir film that came out just one year prior.
I’d put “Anatomy of a Murder” right behind “12 Angry Men” as far as courtroom dramas go; they’re both classics that won’t be forgotten any time soon. This film is far more epic than most courtroom dramas, and therein lays its greatest strength and weakness. If you’ve got the time and patience for it, “Anatomy” is a fantastic film.
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