Monday, July 1, 2024

The Case for Anatomy of a Murder

Stewart as Biegler pleads his case.
Anatomy of a Murder is the best courtroom drama ever made.

Otto Preminger’s enthralling motion picture requires multiple viewings to be fully appreciated. When I first saw it, I focused on the riveting story, which treats the viewer much like the jury. We listen to testimonies, watch the lawyers try to manipulate our emotions, and struggle to make sense of the evidence. When I saw Anatomy of a Murder a second time, I knew the case’s outcome and was to able to concentrate on the splendid performances. James Stewart, Arthur O’Connell, and George C. Scott earned Oscar nominations, but the rest of the cast is also exceptionally strong. In subsequent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate the film’s well-preserved details, from the small town upper-Michigan atmosphere to Preminger’s brilliant direction (e.g., in one shot, as Scott's prosecutor cross-examines a witness in close-up, Stewart—the defending lawyer—is framed between them in the background).

Lee Remick and George C. Scott.
The opening scenes quickly establish Stewart’s shrewd lawyer. After ten years as Iron City’s public prosecutor, Paul Biegler has lost his office and gone into private practice. He’s also lost his passion for the law—he spends most of his time fishing, playing the piano, smoking Italian cigars, and reading old cases with his elderly, alcoholic friend Parnell Emmett McCarthy (O’Connell). His life takes a dramatic turn when he eventually agrees to defend Lieutenant Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who is being tried for the murder of a man who may have raped Manion’s wife Laura (Lee Remick). Manion doesn’t deny killing the man, whom he shot five times. His lack of remorse, his wife Laura’s open sexuality, and the couple’s coldness toward one another tip the scales against them from the start.

Perhaps, it’s those very drawbacks that attract Biegler to the case. With a newly sober McCarthy assisting him, Biegler builds his defense around an old Michigan case in which a man was acquitted of murder because he acted out of “irresistible impulse.” As a psychiatrist (Orson Bean in a great bit part )  explains on the stand, it didn’t matter if Manion knew the difference between right and wrong. He was compelled to act (in the words of another witness, he was a “like a mailman delivering the mail”).

Saul Bass's opening credits as justly famous.
Once the drama shifts to the courtroom, an already-engrossing story seems to shift into a higher gear. The sparring between Stewart and Scott, as an ambitious assistant state attorney, is played to perfection. Remick has a splendid scene as Scott interrogates her on the witness stand. Joseph Welch provides welcome dry humor as the judge, who seems more like a referee trying to keep two fighters from killing each other. Interestingly, Welch was a former Army lawyer who participated in the McCarthy hearings; his real-life wife also appears in Anatomy as one of the jurors.

At the time of its release, Anatomy of a Murder was quite controversial, much of it stemming from the frank discussion of the crime. Preminger seemed to relish in breaking barriers on film content. His sex comedy The Moon Is Blue (1953) shocked audiences with its plot about older men (David Niven and William Holden) pursuing a young virgin. Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) was one of the first mainstream films about drug addiction.

Our favorite Preminger works are the film noir classic Laura (1944), Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965), and, of course, this one. You may disagree with me on whether it's the finest courtroom drama, but I'm not alone in my assessment. Back in 2021, I interviewed Michael Asimow, a professor at the Santa Clara Law School and co-author of Real to Reel: Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies. When I asked him what film did the best job of presenting a case realistically, he replied: "Our all-time favorite is Anatomy of a Murder. Almost all of it is a gripping murder trial, with two great lawyers going after each other, full of twists and turns and with an ambiguous ending. Watch this movie—you’ll be amazed at how good it is."


  1. Perfect assessment. My go-to recommendation as well for fans of courtroom dramas. The moment Stewart stipulates that Mrs. Mannion is attractive is a killer, and has there ever been a more compelling movie voice than Gazarra's? As for Lee, she could do no wrong in my book. Would love to read your thoughts on the very off-beat Hard Contract with James Coburn.

    1. I haven't seen Hard Contract in many years. I'll need to watch it and reassess it!

  2. I agree with your review in every way. The opening line says it all. I would add however, for me it’s tied as best courtroom drawn with The Verdict. Thanks for the insights. I will relish these when I watch the movie again

  3. Besides the court room drama aspect of Anatomy of a Murder, I'm partial to the setting of the film. I live on the North Shore of Lake Superior and love the late 1950s Great Lakes atmosphere. I'm both a Jimmy Stewart and Duke Ellington fan, so it's fun to see them together.

  4. I've heard about Anatomy of a Murder for years but have never seen it. Your post sold me on it! I'll have to check it out at my library. It's exciting to watch a movie as a "first time" viewer. :-)