Anatomy of a Murder Review

(3.5 STARS)

Anatomy of a Murder is a conventional court drama masquerading as an all-time great. Much of director Otto Preminger’s film is unsurprising and unoriginal. Some of it is downright uninspired. But two things make this film a must-watch for any movie buff: the sensational writing and the brilliant performance by Jimmy Stewart. On those fronts, Anatomy of a Murder is a grand success.

Paul Biegler (Stewart) is a down-and-out attorney in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. He still has the skills needed to excel in the courtroom, but he doesn’t have the drive since he lost his District Attorney re-election bid to Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West). When a woman named Laura Manion (Lee Remick) asks Paul to represent her husband, Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) in his murder trial, he reluctantly obliges. With the help of his good friend and boozehound Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell), Paul prepares a complex defense, claiming his client was stricken with temporary insanity when he found out his wife was raped by a local bartender. The claim is shaky, and gets only worse once certain things come out in the trial, but Paul is clever, and he’s willing to use every trick in the book to regain his honor and set his client free.

The trial takes up the bulk of the film’s running time. It’s pretty standard courtroom stuff, but the Paul is an interesting and lively character, and he captures our attention throughout. That said, the film is long—nearly 150 minutes—and that’s enough time to test any viewer’s patience.

However, the film is just packed with dynamite dialogue from all the characters. Paul does some truly audacious things in the courtroom, things few, if any, real lawyers would actually try. It’s a riot watching Parnell struggle to overcome his perpetual drunken stupor and try to contribute to the case. Even bit parts like that of the judge are extraordinarily written. All the dullness of the courtroom is captured, as is all the excitement one wishes would exist in a real courtroom.

But all the well-written words in the world wouldn’t mean a thing without great performances behind them. Jimmy Stewart is as good here as he has ever been. He tones down the folksiness a little to portray a man totally driven to regain his former glory. He’s not heartless or anything, but he doesn’t really question his client’s reasoning. He sees a potentially big power grab against a former rival, and he goes all out for it.

There are excellent supporting performances throughout the picture. Lee Remick is equal parts damsel-in-distress and femme fatale. Her true nature is in question for a long time, and Remick does her part not to tip our sympathy one way or the other until we know all the facts. Arthur O’Connell isn’t in the picture as much as I would’ve like, but he makes the most of his screen time, playing the hilarious but loyal boozehound Parnell. And George C. Scott has a small and somewhat thankless role as an assistant D.A., though it was funny to see the great star of Patton in a role like this.

In its time, Anatomy of a Murder was considered a barrier-breaking motion picture. It was one of the first Hollywood films to openly discuss sex and rape. Nowadays, it seems quite dated in this respect. Not only do most films talk about sex in some way, but the sex in Anatomy of a Murder is incredibly tame by today’s standards. The treatment of the word “panties” is especially dated, though it was somewhat comical to see 1950s characters react to something like that.

Despite being overlong and recycling some tired clichés, Anatomy of a Murder remains one of the courtroom genre’s most enduring entries. With such great writing and acting, it’s easy to see why. It’s got everything you’d expect it to, but it allows its best assets to shine and shrinks some of its problems into the background. I loved it and am happy to give it a very solid recommendation.

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