Plot: Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a practicing lawyer, but he prefers to spend his time holding a fishing pole, not a briefcase. He handles some divorces and small cases from time to time, but takes on barely enough work to keep the lights on, let alone keep up on all of his expenses. He has little interest when he is first approached to be the defense in a murder trial, but his tipsy friend Parnell (Arthur O’Connell) nudges him to accept and the case itself holds Biegler’s interest. The accused is Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who says he killed a man after his wife returned home bruised and beaten, claiming the man had raped her. As Biegler delves into the case, he realizes this will be a nearly impossible case to win, as Manion is a jealous man with violent tendencies, while his wife Laura (Lee Remick) is flirtatious and her beauty combined with her racy fashion choices make some look poorly upon her. But he is determined to present the best case possible and finds himself emotionally invested, but can he find a way to win over a jury and prove his client’s justification?
Entertainment Value: Anatomy of a Murder is one of the best courtroom dramas ever produced, a razor sharp examination of some controversial topics that also skewers the broken legal system. The movie runs over two and a half hours and is all dialogue driven, but never feels slow and never fails to keep you reeled in. The first section of the movie establishes the characters and gives us an overview of the case, but does so with great depth and attention to detail. This allows us to get to know the characters as people, their positive and negative traits, making them feel like real humans, not just stock characters or stereotypes. This is especially true of Laura, who endures a lot of scrutiny and judgment for her looks and outgoing persona, especially once the trial is underway. The film then shifts into the trial itself, which is presented with a very authentic feel and attention to legal details, including grandstanding and obvious loophole tactics. The banter between lawyers, manipulation, and legal sparring is epic to watch in action, easily some of the most engaging, insightful trial scenes I ever seen in a motion picture.
The movie is driven by dialogue, so the cast needed to be on point and able to carry this kind of material. Thankfully, Anatomy of a Murder boasts a remarkable cast that is more than up to the task. James Stewart has the lead and is incredible, turning a passionate and impressive performance. He still has the usual nice guy elements, but it was fun to see him get loud and a little more aggressive than usual. His work during the trial scenes is so good, bantering with the other attorneys and showboating at times, it is a pleasure to watch him here. His lead is excellent, but the supporting cast is also loaded with talent from top to bottom. Lee Remick is radiant and charismatic, while George C. Scott is fantastic in one of his earliest roles. Arthur O’Connell, Ben Gazzara, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant, and Murray Hamilton are also on deck here, but there’s also a number of other small, but impressive performances. Of course, all of this is directed with immense skill by Otto Preminger. The movie sparked controversy when it was released, with the frank discussions of some topics that made people uncomfortable, but it remains a powerful experience even after all these decades. Anyone with even a minor interest in cinema should seek out Anatomy of a Murder.