Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

“Twelve people go off into a room: twelve different minds, twelve different hearts, from twelve different walks of life; twelve sets of eyes, ears, shapes, and sizes. And these twelve people are asked to judge another human being as different from them as they are from each other. And in their judgment, they must become of one mind – unanimous. It’s one of the miracles of Man’s disorganized soul that they can do it, and in most instances, do it right well. God bless juries.”

‘Anatomy of a Murder’, directed by Otto Preminger in 1959, is an American court room drama starring James Stewart as Paul Biegler, a folksy lawyer in a small town who is tasked with defending a US Army Lieutenant charged with murder. The Lieutenant, Frederick Manion, played by Ben Gazzara has killed a man in retaliation for raping his wife Laura, played by Lee Remick. It’s a long, and intricately detailed film that unflinchingly plays out the crime within the clinical setting of the courtroom. Preminger spends a lot of time setting up the characters and building relationships between the Biegler, Manion and his wife, slowly creating a scenario in which it is far from clear where the truth lies. This seems perverse. Usually we as an audience are used to crime dramas in which the truth is a goal to reach, or even the climax of a film. Here, the purpose of the film is to chart the skills of Biegler as he negotiates and, at times, actively manipulates the situation, and all the time the ‘truth’ is something he tries to avoid. Preminger’s movie is pleasingly involved and the performances, particularly those of Stewart and Remick as the part victim, part femme-fatale Laura, are fantastic. Stewart plays with his honourable, straight-laced polysemy by playing a character who is, on the surface, straightforward, but throughout the film is shown to be cuttingly efficient at controlling the information in the courtroom and manipulating the jury.

Would I recommend it? Alongside ’Twelve Angry Men’, ‘Adam’s Rib’ and ‘A Few Good Men’, it is one of the finest crafted and meticulously detailed courtroom dramas. Watch in a double-bill with ‘Adam’s Rib’ for a lighter touch.


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