Drawing from his background in law, Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, is an arresting courtroom procedural, which, despite its length (160 minutes), is sharply focused on its task. Preminger’s disregard for immaterial exposition removes needless fluff to deliver a tense, and impeccably paced film.
From the onset of Preminger’s film, the audience is greeted with excellence via an exquisitely designed opening title from the legendary Saul Bass. Set to a quick tempo-ed jazz piece written for the film by jazz great Duke Ellington, Anatomy of a Murder is decidedly imbued with talent. Paul Biegler (Jimmy Stewart) drives happily home from yet another fishing trip. The recently deposed District Attorney has spent the last few months stocking his refrigerator with fish and drowning in a bottle of bourbon, with fellow lawyer, Parnell Emmett McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell). Receiving a late night phone call from Laura Manion (Lee Remick), Biegler is offered the opportunity to defend Manion’s incarcerated husband. Coerced into taking the case by bourbon, McCarthy, and the need to pay his loyal secretary (played by the sharp-tongued Eve Arden), Biegler accepts a meeting – knowing no concrete details – with presumed-killer, Lieutenant Manion (Ben Gazzara). Looking no further than the front page of his local paper, Biegler reads that Lt. Manion is charged with first-degree murder for the brutal shooting of Barney Quill in response to Quill’s sexual assault of Mrs. Manion. A through-and-through straight shooter, Biegler is determined to assemble the facts, and present the most solid case the evidence allows.
When Colombia Pictures sold the rights of Anatomy of Murder to television, Otto Preminger sued, due to the gross destruction done to his film via the insertion of commercials. Preminger’s drama clocks in at nearly three-hours, yet is so brilliantly paced, the time hardly registers. So much so, it is easy to see why Preminger took offense to the mutilation of his picture, and to his carefully-constructed tempo. With Ellington’s quick and airy score, Preminger’s film, much like its lead investigator, focuses only on the truth of the situation, accentuating only the necessary facts. Again, in line with his lead actor, Preminger gives the secondary focus to dry humor and charisma, breaking up the monotony of his fact-based crime procedural. Preminger knows how to create a great amount of tension throughout his film, and does so by creating doubt in the case, and some staunch opposition to Biegler. Seemingly telling half-truths with regards to his case, Preminger, approximating any good prosecutor, always had evidence or fleeting thoughts of doubt to refute any absolutes that the audience (and their proxy Biegler) may have finally gotten a handle on.
Upon its release, Anatomy of a Murder was met with public outcry and condemnation due to its controversial topics and flowery language. Stewart’s own father was purportedly so offended by the film that he took out an ad in his local paper warning against the film’s “dirty” message. Of course, late 1950’s America was more concerned with the film’s use of words like “panties,” “rape,” and “sperm” than the pervasive idea that proving Mrs. Manion’s dress and attitude were to blame for her sexual assault. Certainly, idealistic American films had seldom dealt with such lofty topics as a violent rape, but Preminger only half-addresses the issues America faces to this day. While Stewart’s Biegler objects to the prosecution’s assumptions that a lack of stockings and tight clothes put her at risk, even Preminger was not forward-thinking (or perhaps daring) enough to directly address the glaring problems with societal “victim blaming.”
Rounding out Preminger’s masterful grip on narrative form and pacing are the performances that bring the film to life. The always delightful and extremely talented Jimmy Stewart is the embodiment of Duke Ellington’s improvisational and playful score. An avid lover and performer of jazz, Stewart’s Biegler is an oddball in a decade that was rallying against the progressive music. Capable, smart, genial, and quick to jump to the defense of those less fortunate than himself, Stewart’s character is the “ideal” small town lawyer. An unquestionably charming presence in the film, Stewart is in stark contrast to his “big city” rival and the ugliness of the crimes that pervade the film. George C. Scott provides a smart and confident Assistant State Attorney General (a very important man) Claude Dancer, and is every bit as detestable as he is cunningly astute. Preminger surrounds his heavyweights with a competent cast including fantastic newcomer (in ’59) Lee Remick, who undoubtedly masters her character’s mix of bubbly appeal and fearful devotion.
In what is certainly one of the greatest courtroom dramas ever made, Otto Preminger recruits top talent for every aspect of his film, from opening the title to the final frame. Featuring a lively jazz score and the incomparable Jimmy Stewart, Anatomy of a Murder is as tantalizing as its central case.