Login

EMPIRE ESSAY: Anatomy of a Murder Review

Image for EMPIRE ESSAY: Anatomy of a Murder

In a murder trial, the defendant says he suffered temporary insanity after the victim raped his wife. What is the truth, and will he win his case?

★★★★★

From Perry Mason to John Grisham, most American lawyer movies, novels and TV shows feature idealists whose clients are innocent victims. Battling valiantly against superior legal firepower and despite great personal cost, they are rewarded when the innocent accused is acquitted and the real villains exposed and rarely mention their fees. Anyone who followed the O.J. Simpson trial knows this is a polite fiction, and that the superstars of the US legal system are not altruistic crusaders but high-priced sharpshooters. Among the first insiders to admit this was Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker, who (under the pen-name Robert Traver) wrote the 1958 best seller Anatomy Of A Murder. Inspired by a real-life murder at the Lumberjack Tavern in Big Bay, Michigan, the big, complex, uncompromising book was bought by the big, complex, uncompromising Otto Preminger. The director clashed with censorship bodies to make an unexpurgated film version — even if it meant frank on screen use of then-unheard words like "panties", "rape" and "spermatogenesis". A huge hit, with a fistful of Oscar nominations, it remains the courtroom classic. Almost every subsequent lawyer movie, even if it reverts to the Perry Mason message, has been influenced by it.

From its striking Saul Bass title design (featured also on the poster) and jazzy Duke Ellington score, Anatomy Of A Murder takes a sophisticated approach, unusual for a Hollywood film of its vintage. Most radically, it refuses to show the murder or any of the private scenes recounted in court, leaving it up to us to decide along with the jury whether Lieutenant Frederick Manion (Gazzara) was or was not subject to an "irresistible impulse" tantamount to insanity when he shot dead Barney Quill, the bearlike bar-owner alleged to have raped Manion's teasing wife Laura (Remick).

Manion is lucky enough to snag as his defence counsel Paul "Polly" Biegler (James Stewart), a former Iron Cliffs County District Attorney keen to get back into court to clash with the political dullard who replaced him in office, and Biegler calls on the skills of his snide secretary (Eve Arden) and boozy-but-brilliant research partner (Arthur O'Connell). For the prosecution, the befuddled local DA hauls in Dancer (George C. Scott), a prissy legal eagle from the local big city (Lansing, Mich.) whose sharp-suited, sly elegance makes an interesting clash with Biegler's aw-shucks jimmystewartian conniving. On the bench is a real-life courtroom giant: playing the judge is Joseph Welch, the attorney whose quiet persistence ("Have you no shame?") literally put an end to the career of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Anatomy Of A Murder is simply the best trial movie ever made, far less contrived than the brilliant but stagey Twelve Angry Men, with a real understanding on the part of Stewart and Scott (both among the film's Oscar nominees) of the way lawyers have to be not only great actors but stars, assuming personalities that exaggerate their inner selves and weighing every outburst and objection for the effect it has on the poor saps in the jury box. Scott accuses Stewart of "flagrant, sneaking subterfuge" and Stewart counters with "I'm just a humble country lawyer doing the best I can against the brilliant prosecutor from the big city of Lansing". This, of course, plays shot dead Barney Quill, the bearlike bar-owner alleged to have raped Manion's teasing wife Laura (Remick).

Manion is lucky enough to snag as his defence counsel Paul "Polly" Biegler (James Stewart), a former Iron Cliffs County District Attorney keen to get back into court to clash with the political dullard who replaced him in office, and Biegler calls on the skills of his snide secretary (Eve Arden) and boozy-but-brilliant research partner (Arthur O'Connell). For the prosecution, the befuddled local DA hauls in Dancer (George C. Scott), a prissy legal eagle from the local big city (Lansing, Mich.) whose sharp-suited, sly elegance makes an interesting clash with Biegler's aw-shucks jimmystewartian conniving. On the bench is a real-life courtroom giant: playing the judge is Joseph Welch, the attorney whose quiet persistence ("Have you no shame?") literally put an end to the career of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Anatomy Of A Murder is simply the best trial movie ever made, far less contrived than the brilliant but stagey Twelve Angry Men, with a real understanding on the part of Stewart and Scott (both among the film's Oscar nominees) of the way lawyers have to be not only great actors but stars, assuming personalities that exaggerate their inner selves and weighing every outburst and objection for the effect it has on the poor saps in the jury box. Scott accuses Stewart of "flagrant, sneaking subterfuge" and Stewart counters with "I'm just a humble country lawyer doing the best I can against the brilliant prosecutor from the big city of Lansing". This, of course, plays > well with the small-town folks on the jury, who see the fly-fishing, jazz-playing humbler as one of their own and are only too happy to pick up on the innuendo about the uppity slicker from out of town.

The case turns on the relationship between the Manions, and Remick (cast when Lana Turner refused to wear tight slacks) and Gazzara play their parts so well that no audience can ever quite decide whose version of what happened is most likely. Gazzara, screwing cigarettes into a strange holder and burning with suppressed anger, is that rare thing in a Hollywood crime movie: violent but smart, seemingly a sociopath but also, as his war record attests, a hero. And Remick is a giggly, calculating slut whom Stewart has to coach

in dressing like a dowdy housewife, insisting she wear a girdle. The end is a kick in the teeth. The jury lets Manion off, but he skips town after (it is implied) beating up his trampy wife. He leaves a note for the lawyer he has stiffed out of a fee, claiming he had an "irresistible impulse" to leave before paying. But the canny Biegler has used a late development in the case to position his firm for future profit, administering the valuable estate of the murder victim.

Cleverly wrought and expertly played crime thriller.