James ‘Jimmy’ Stewart is one of Hollywood’s most beloved actors of all time. His noteworthy movies range from an Oscar-winning performance in Frank Capra’s The Philadelphia Story to becoming an Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite in Rear Window and Vertigo. After ‘Hitch’ had infamously ditched him for Cary Grant on North By Northwest, James Stewart managed to team up with another great European émigré director, Otto Preminger, for one of his better roles – the leading part in the courtroom drama Anatomy Of A Murder.
Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a former district attorney of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. After having lost his reelection bid, he now works as a humble small-town lawyer who kills the majority of his time playing the piano and fishing. Biegler’s closest associates are Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell), an alcoholic colleague, and his mocking secretary Maida Rutledge (Eve Arden). One day, his quiet life becomes all haywire when the attractive Laura Manion (Lee Remick) approaches him about a case.
Her husband, rude and impolite Army lieutenant Frederick ‘Manny’ Manion (Ben Gazzara), has been imprisoned for the first-degree murder of an innkeeper named Barney Quill. The soldier does not even deny the accusations, but justifies the killing by saying that his wife was raped by the proprietor. On top of that, Manion claims to not even remember the event – thus suggesting that the best defense strategy for his trial might be that he suffered from an ‘irresistible impulse,’ a form of ‘temporary insanity.’
As Paul Biegler digs deeper into the case, he seems to hit several roadblocks. First he finds Laura Manion dancing with other Army officers. Then the local district attorney (Brooks West) calls the big-city prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) for assistance. So Biegler has to fight two opponents in the courtroom of Judge Weaver (Joseph N. Welch) at the same time. Last but not least, there’s a mysterious Canadian stunner by the name of Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant) – whom Barney Quill has appointed as the sole heiress to his estate.
The Paul Biegler part is a prototypical role for James Stewart. During his storied career, the legendary actor frequently played honest John Q. Publics who end up in a crisis without too much of their own doing. That includes his appearances in the Alfred Hitchcock movies and in the Westerns such as John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance he often participated in from the 1960s on. The attorney-at-law Paul Biegler is of the same mold, and his likable wisecracking antics do their fair share to keep both the judge and the prosecution busy.
In a way, the leading role in Anatomy Of A Murder is probably one of the finest of James Stewart’s many performances – and that’s a lot to say about a man who worked in the motion picture industry for more than half a century. After all, we’re talking about an actor who has classics like Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington as well as Henry Koster’s Harvey and several Alfred Hitchcock films on his résumé. Yet the Paul Biegler part seems to be tailor-made for Stewart, as if Otto Preminger and his screenwriter Wendell Mayes had always imagined the movie with him in mind.
If Anatomy Of A Murder is one of the career performances of its leading man, the same is true for the man in the director’s chair – a filmmaker whose body of work includes pictures such as Laura, The Man With The Golden Arm, and Advise & Consent. While Otto Preminger was at the helm of many great movies, Anatomy Of A Murder was arguably his finest hour. The drama grabs you from the opening moments and never loosens that stranglehold in the course of its 160-minute running time.
Part of the film’s allure is its soundtrack, a brilliant (mostly brass) jazz score courtesy of the master himself Edward Kennedy ‘Duke’ Ellington that won him three Grammy Awards. Especially noteworthy is the way it coquettes with Lee Remick’s Laura Manion character, the sultry but equally dangerous femme fatale in Anatomy Of A Murder. Add to a large variety of music, including James Stewart himself tinkling the ivory at one point, and the soundtrack easily becomes one of the strong points of Otto Preminger’s movie.
It’s not only Duke Ellington’s notable jazz score, however, by which Anatomy Of A Murder separates itself from the rest of the competition. The film is also a lot more liberal in its use of sex and rape than many of its contemporaries. Shot during an era in which the censorship of the Hollywood Production Code was still very much in place, Otto Preminger’s work contains more graphic and verbal references to both than what was generally allowed and seen on American silver screens at the time. Based on a true story novelized by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelkner using the alias ‘Robert Traver, these elements only make the movie even more realistic.
When Anatomy Of A Murder first came out, courtroom dramas were very much en vogue in the United States. Nowadays it seems to suggest itself that Sidney Lumet’s legendary 12 Angry Men was largely responsible for the hype, yet that’s a misconception. The low-budget project received a lot of critical acclaim – three Oscar bids among other things – but totally bombed at the box office despite a high-profile ensemble spearheaded by James Stewart’s close friend Henry Fonda.
Using an equally splendid cast, including the recently deceased Ben Gazzara, Anatomy Of A Murder fared a little better. It has long been a favorite of jurists, in particular. UCLA law professor Michael Asimow, known for his film study Reel Justice, describes it as “probably the finest pure trial movie ever made.” Together with 12 Angry Men and the Agatha Christie adaptation Witness For The Prosecution by Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger’s work is the cream of the crop in the courtroom drama genre. In short, it’s one for the ages.