I recently realized something about myself after watching Legally Blonde and being disappointed with how quickly its final case is wrapped up: I really like courtroom dramas. Nearly every movie I’ve seen that centered around a trial was one I enjoyed, and I don’t think I’m alone in this sensibility given how damn near everybody loved The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story last year. There’s something about seeing America and Americans put to the test, sorting out right from wrong, pleading for justice, that’s consistently engaging. And one of the best representations of that in all of cinematic history is Anatomy of a Murder.
Set in a small town in northern Michigan, Anatomy of a Murder is, as you might expect, the story of a murder case. The facts are made clear early on and never disputed: Lt. Manion (Ben Gazzara) shot and killed a local innkeeper named Quill after his wife, Laura (Lee Remick), told Manion that Quill had raped her. Laura hires Biegler (Jimmy Stewart) a semi-retired former district attorney to defend her husband, bringing him back from his current existence of fishing, piano playing, and drinking with his colleague, McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell). But Biegler’s been thrown into the deep end with this one, since the local D.A. (Brooks West) brings in a high-powered prosecutor from the attorney general’s office (George C. Scott).
When Biegler meets Manion, he tells him that there are four ways to beat a murder charge: prove that it was suicide or an accident, prove that Manion didn’t do it, prove that he was legally justified to do it, or that the killing was excusable. He then strongly implies Manion should think about the fourth option, and he later decides to enter a plea of not guilty by temporary insanity. I think that’s probably unethical, but it sets the tone of the entire film right from the get go: this is about winning the case, not right and wrong. Manion is a murderer, that’s a fact. Biegler, our scrappy hero, Jimmy fucking Stewart, is going to defend him anyway. That’s how justice works in America.
The majority of the film is courtroom witness testimony, which sometimes feels a bit… outdated. For one, when the rape is brought into the case, the prosecution takes the tactic that Laura dresses provocatively and acts “unladylike,” apparently trying to convince the jury that either she wasn’t raped or, more alarmingly, that she was “asking for it.” Also, there’s a part where Laura’s ripped-off panties have to be talked about, and the judge begs the attorneys for an alternative term for “panties” before just letting the whole courtroom laugh the first time someone says the word. But those dated parts only stand out because of how ahead of the time Anatomy of a Murder was; it was criticized and even banned in places for its frank, graphic discussion of sex and rape.
Director Otto Preminger first came to fame for his film noir mysteries, and this film does maintain some of those sensibilities, mostly in the scenes shot outside of the courtroom. Like film noir, Anatomy of a Murder complicates the ideas of right and wrong, making it hard to guess what the best outcome could possibly be, and the weird twists that would need to come to get there. The real key to its style is its score, which was composed by Duke Ellington, who even appears in the film. Also helpful is the casting of Joseph N. Welch as the judge character, a real-life lawyer who helped turn the tide against McCarthyism, who is great in this role.
At the end of Anatomy of a Murder, Preminger skips closing statements. We go from the last witness to the attorneys waiting on jury deliberation. In every other trial movie, closing statements are among the highlight: the part where the writer can really reach out and bang you over the head with what the film is trying to say. By not showing that, it’s as if the film is saying it’s made its case, and now it’s up to us to figure it out. For better or for worse, that’s how the system works.