Courtroom games: Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959)


Some of the best courtroom dramas have a self-importance about them, delivering momentous decisions about historic events or social issues. Anatomy of a Murder has no such pretensions. It deals with a muddled, ugly incident in an inconsequential town, and the lawyers on both sides treat the case more or less as a professional game. There’s no clear truth, and no clear positive outcome.

Maybe Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzarra) experienced temporary insanity upon hearing that his wife, Laura (Lee Remick), was raped, and can’t be blamed for killing Barney Quill, the man who did it. Or maybe he’s the one who beats his own wife, and jealously attacks any other man who takes an interest in her, interest that she may willingly invite.

Anatomy of a Murder would not be as effective without featuring an alleged rape, and it knows it. Not only does the crime involve an array of cultural assumptions about its victims, the film makes sure to complicate the issue as much as it can. The prosecution easily finds reasons why Laura could have been ‘asking for it,’ reasons that are familiar because they haven’t changed (even if the standards of provocative clothing have).

The film cleverly avoids blaming Laura for the rape, without making the viewer sure that she was raped. It leaves plenty of ambiguity about her relationship with Quill. She certainly doesn’t let her experience get in the way of having fun with other men while her husband’s in jail. If you believe, however, that a man remains responsible for his actions even when with a woman who is known to be promiscuous, dresses in a sexualised way, and who has flirted with him and accepted his offer to drive her home—don’t worry, this film probably won’t disappoint you.

Anatomy of a Murder carefully uses the actors who play its two most significant lawyers. Manion is defended by Paul Biegler (James Stewart), and the prosecution is backed by Assistant Attorney General Claude Dancer (George C. Scott). Biegler is likeable, even more so today. He doesn’t just love jazz music, he’ll sit down beside Pie Eye (Duke Ellington, who composed the film’s score) and play it with him and his band. He doesn’t sleep with Laura, even though she makes an offer, and he’d like to accept it. He treats his alcoholic friend, Parnell (Arthur O’Connell), kindly and trustfully. And he’s played by good old Jimmy Stewart. Watching Biegler in the courtroom, it can be easy not to notice that his outrage on Laura’s behalf doesn’t match his attitude at any other time. He plays the part of a simple country lawyer to distinguish himself from Dancer in order to win the case, and he is indeed acting.

This was only Scott’s second film. Even though he gives one of the most riveting performances in Anatomy of a Murder (he’s great even when doing nothing more than silently watching Stewart, and makes sure that Dancer lives up to his reputation when he finally comes into play), he’s not high on the credits, and doesn’t appear in the introduction for the film’s trailer. And as one of his wives put it, he has a face “like a relief map of Afghanistan.” The audience just isn’t on his side in the way that comes instinctually where Stewart’s concerned.

Dancer is an upstart from out of town, over-confident and disdainful of the court he’s been called in to. He uses sneaky tricks to manipulate and intimidate the witnesses, especially Laura. He theorises that she was having an affair with Quill and lied to her husband, who beat her before mudering Quill. And the fact is, he could be right. He presents a plausible scenario to explain the entire situation, but he’s being so incredibly aggressive and mean while he does it that it’s hard to agree with him. No matter the truth, it’s clear that if Manion gets off free things will be bad for Laura, not to mention for the next man who’s interested in her.

Anatomy of a Murder is sneaky in its own way, manipulating the viewer into liking Biegler even though it’s not necessarily for the best that he wins his case. It’s knowing in its use of the crime of rape and how its victims are judged. Biegler believes that no one is completely good or completely bad, and the film skilfully presents a case where the viewer can’t be certain of the truth, or what is for the greatest good, or who is to blame.

It’s clear that Biegler loves the process of the law. Perhaps he sees it as the best way to make judgments in matters that can never be objectively understood. He and Dancer play a game with each other, testing their skills to the limit, almost heedless of the outcome. Biegler doesn’t even get paid, but at least Parnell kicks his habit. And despite the film’s heavy themes, we all had fun, didn’t we?


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