Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder" is possibly the finest courtroom drama yet made, with emphasis on 'courtroom'. The dissection of the murder's anatomy takes place within the court, within the language and conflicting narratives of the key players. We don't see the events surrounding the murder ... we see the trial.
It's a simple enough plot. A soldier (Ben Gazarra) is held for the murder of a man who has allegedly raped his wife. The wife (Lee Remick) is far removed from the wholesome image of faithful wife - she wears revealing clothes, hangs out down the bar, and flirts with any male who comes within hailing distance. James Stewart plays the small-town lawyer persuaded to take the unwinnable case - he's bright, but he's jaded after years as District Attorney, and prefers to escape down the river to fish for trout.
It's an open-and-shut case - the soldier admits the shooting, there are witnesses, and the wife's morals are the subject of much gossip around town. The tension is in whether or not Stewart can prove the rape allegation ... and whether or not he can prove that this was justifiable cause for the taking of the man's life.
Preminger was taking major risks. He explores themes which were still pretty risqué in the late 50's. He doesn't sensationalise - we get no gory murder, we get no flashbacks or images of the night. The setting is largely confined within the courtroom and Stewart's offices as we play out a psychological drama. What really happened? What really happened in the minds of the protagonists?
This is a mellow, black & white film: there are dark themes, but the lighting is certainly not 'noir' - the drama is beautifully lit, filmed almost tenderly. The acting is superb (though Gazarra's performance is beginning to appear a little dated), with Stewart and Remick stealing the show. Remick is a wonderfully cool and intelligent actress, and she plays the role of the promiscuous wife with relish and a certain humour. Stewart, as usual, has physical presence ... and then the voice comes in, like whorls in coffee ... creamy, rich, riveting the attention.
The courtroom drama is beautifully handled - the tension and the emotion played slowly, allowed to peak, then subside again. It's as if Preminger is fishing - one moment reeling in the drama, the next letting it run. The judge is used to inject light relief - a brave move in itself - and the themes of rape and promiscuity are never allowed to become salacious. Indeed, the judge's role is to relieve tension ... then crank it up again, reminding the actors of the seriousness of the court case, keeping the audience under control as he does so.
It's a beautifully filmed, tense, psychological drama which demonstrates that good writing, a good plot, and quality acting mean a director has little need for special effects to keep the audience rooted in their seats.