Smalltown lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart) courts controversy when he agrees to defend army lieutenant Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who is facing charges of murder. It is alleged that Manion killed a bartender whom he believed to have raped his wife (Lee Remick), and the evidence assembled by the hard-headed big city prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) seems to confirm this. Nevertheless, Biegler believes in his client and does his best to prove his innocence. Otto Preminger's courtroom drama features a score by jazz great Duke Ellington, titles by the legendary Saul Bass, and was nominated for seven Oscars.
Anatomy of a Murder
, Otto Preminger's 1959 film of the novel by Robert Traver (a pen name for a Michigan Supreme Court Justice), was controversial in its day for making frank on-screen use of then-unheard words such as "panties", "rape" and "spermatogenesis"--and it remains a trenchant, bitter, tough, witty dissection of the American legal system. With its striking Saul Bass title design and jazzy Duke Ellington score, Anatomy of a Murder
takes a sophisticated approach unusual for a Hollywood film of its vintage. Most radically, it refuses to show the murder or any of the private scenes recounted in court, leaving it up to us to decide along with the jury whether the grumpy and unconcerned Lieutenant Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) was or was not subject to an "irresistible impulse" tantamount to insanity when he shot dead Barney Quill, the bear-like bar owner alleged to have raped Manion's teasing trailer-trash wife Laura (Lee Remick in unfeasibly tight trousers). James Stewart plays Paul "Polly" Biegler a former District Attorney keen to get back into court to clash with the political dullard who replaced him in office. Biegler is supported by the skills of his snide secretary (Eve Arden) and boozy-but-brilliant research partner (Arthur O'Connell). For the prosecution, the befuddled local DA hauls in Dancer (George C Scott), a prissy legal eagle from the local big city whose sharp-suited, sly elegance makes an interesting clash with Biegler's "aw-shucks" jimmy-stewartian conniving. This is simply the best trial movie ever made, with a real understanding of the way lawyers have to be not only great actors but stars, assuming personalities that exaggerate their inner selves and weighing every outburst and objection for the effect it has on the poor saps in the jury box.
On the DVD: The print is letterboxed to 1.85:1, but it's a bit of a cheat since that seems to involve trimming the top and bottom of the image (losing the steps under and the clouds above the Columbia lady in the opening titles), though the film isn't seriously hurt by a tighter look at the action. Also included are: an Ellington-scored photo montage, soundtracks in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish with subtitles in ten languages, filmographies for director and principal cast, original advertising (highlighting Saul Bass' poster designs, a trailer and more trailers for more Columbia Jimmy Stewart or courtroom films. --Kim Newman
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