Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959)


James Stewart (Paul Biegler), Lee Remick (Laura Manion), Ben Gazzara (Frederick Manion). Screenplay by Wendell Meyes. Directed by Otto Preminger. Rating: 12. Running time: 160 minutes.

A marvellous and radical courtroom drama without any hint of mystery, Anatomy of a Murder swaps the formulaic ‘did he do it?’ source of suspense and instead begins with an emphatic ‘yes he did.’ That the accused is the murderer of the alleged rapist of his wife is made clear from the outset, allowing the film to instead be about the plight of the defence and the crooked methods they employ. The feeling is paradoxical because the murderer’s lawyer is James Stewart, as watchable as always with the most supreme of likeability factors on his side. Bizarrely, he even has the time to deliver an array of jokes in the middle of cross-examinations in a way that immediately impresses both the courtroom’s audience and us.

The darker side, however, is also transparent and unavoidable: he practically coaches his client to plead temporary insanity as the only viable grounds for defence, despite the fact he’s obviously a clear-headed and cold-hearted killer; he also continuously uses dirty and forbidden tactics in the courtroom to get the upper hand in an otherwise impossible battle. That this did little to impress the Production Code is unsurprising; it hardly portrays American judicial proceedings in a confidence-inducing manner. Nor did the prevalence of the taboo topic of rape and the ever-present talk of torn ‘panties’ do much to spare the film of the censor’s wrath. Preminger apparently developed a reputation for producing controversial films, and we no doubt owe a great debt to him here as much as anywhere for the work he did in pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable.

Aside from the controversy, the film is also long, but it is so for the simple reason that it is impeccable in its attention to detail. Once the scene is set it becomes the purest of courtroom dramas, interested in nothing but procedure alone in the most enthralling of ways for legal novices and professionals alike, whilst also enlightening the former. A top grade film, that it’s simply impossible to criticise.

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