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15 January 2013

Anatomy Of A Murder (1959)

Directed by: Otto Preminger
Music: Duke Ellington
Starring: James Stewart, Lee Remick, 
Ben Gazzara, Arthur O'Connell, 
Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant
I watched this film a few days ago, when I was flipping channels, and I only began watching because James Stewart's name leapt out at me. I had no idea what the film was about, and to be honest, I did not recognise any of the cast other than Jimmy Stewart. After the first ten minutes or so, I nearly decided to switch channels, not being a big fan of rape-murder films, but decided to watch it until I had finished drinking my tea. I ended up watching the entire film and forgetting the tea.

Coming back from a fishing trip, Paul Beigler (James Stewart) finds a message from a Mrs Manion to call her. While he is waiting for the call to be put through, his friend, Mr Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell), comes to visit. Mrs Manion is not at home, and Beigler leaves his name and number and a message for her to call him back. Mr McCarthy is also down on his luck, not having enough money to pay his tab at the pub; the barkeeper, Toybull, doesn't seem too bothered though.  We learn that Beigler was once a leading lawyer, who had lost a re-election bid for the post of District Attorney. Now, says, McCarthy, he spends his time fishing and playing that 'rooty-tooty jazz' instead of 'making like a lawyer'.
While they are conversing, Beigler's call comes through. McCarthy is astonished when he hears her name. He interrupts the conversation and tells Beigler that if that is a Manion from Thunder Bay, and she wants him to represent her husband, he should say 'Yes'. Beigler is taken aback - he doesn't even know what it is all about. But McCarthy is insistent.

It is as he predicted; Mrs Manion wants Beigler to defend her husband. When Beigler demurs, she begs him to at least talk to him. Beigler, egged on by McCarthy, agrees and sets a time for the following morning. Soon, McCarthy is filling him in on the case. Mrs Manion had been raped by a man named Barney Quill, the owner of Thunder Bay Inn. When her husband, a lieutenant in the US army hears about it, he went to Quill's house and shot him five times. Quill died, says McCarthy dryly, of lead poisoning. And Lt. Manion turned himself in to the deputy Sheriff. This is the man that Beigler is to defend.
The next day Beigler tells his secretary (and Girl Friday) Maida Rutledge (Eve Arden) to 'cancel all my appointments'. What appointments, she deadpans? And then she opens the refrigerator to put the milk in: "And if this refrigerator gets any more fish, it would swim upstream to spawn all by itself!" 

So Beigler sets off to keep his appointment with the mysterious Mrs Laura Manion (Lee Remick). And her husband.
Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara) is not very sure that an ex-District Attorney can handle his defence. That's okay, says Beigler, he's not sure he's taking on the case either. The lieutenant is 28 years old, and a veteran of the Korean War. Decorated for valour. He hopes to get off on the unwritten code - the man he killed had raped his wife. Beigler debunks him of his notion. There is no unwritten law that allows a murderer to walk scot-free.
Further meetings with the sullen and hostile Lt. Manion do not endear him any more to Beigler. But Lt. Manion is a sharply intelligent man. So bright, in fact, that he realises that Beigler's statements and questions are leading somewhere.
Back at the office, Laura is waiting. What does Maida think of her? 'Pretty,' says Maida,  "and easy. The kind men like to take advantage of, and do.'
If Lt. Manion was hostile, Laura is the opposite. Beigler gets the story out of her. She and her husband had had dinner, and then, she walked over to the Inn's bar where Barney Quill, the owner, challenged her to a game of pinball - for drinks. She was there until 11pm, and then she left by the side door. Barney came out soon after and offered her a drive home, telling her the bears were prowling and it wasn't safe. (Laura manages to make Beigler very uncomfortable during this conversation.) Then, taking her along a deserted lane, he stopped the car and, tearing off her clothes, beat and raped her,  and then tried to do it again. She has the bruises to prove it. She even took a lie detector test.
Beigler is not still sure he wants to take the case - that will depend on what Lt. Manion tells him the next day, he says, but if he does, he wants McCarthy on his team. But McCarthy has to lay off the booze. McCarthy is touched though unsure whether he can become sober enough to help; but for a little while, he has a chance to be a lawyer again.
The next morning, Lt. Manion tells his story - he had gone to Quill's bar with a gun. He remembers seeing Quill's face behind the bar. Other than that, he remembers nothing. The shots? Oh, yes, he remembers hearing them. But they came from far away, like someone else was doing the shooting. Oh, yes, Lt. Manion has his defence ready. And now, he has a defence lawyer too.

So begin the preparations. First, a psychiatrist. Lt. Manion is broke. So is Beigler. Would the army be willing to pay for one? The lieutenant thinks so. On his way out, Beigler drops in to the District Attorney's office - to tell the present incumbent, Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West) that he will be defending the Manion case. The D.A. wants him to wait until Judge Maitland, who is in hospital comes back in two months. Of course Beigler is willing, if the D.A's office will drop the charge to manslaughter, so he can get his client out on bail. The D.A. laughs, but that laughter soon stops in its tracks - Beigler knows the lie detector test was in Laura's favour. However, both know also that the results of that test is not admissible in court.
Beigler later learns that  a) Laura is afraid of her husband b) Lt. Manion is jealous, though he likes to show her off and c) while the sweater and skirt Laura wore the night of the rape were handed over to the police, they never did find the panties she claimed Quill tore off her that night.

Beigler also pays a visit to the inn where he learns that it is now being run by Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant), Quill's manager. She is also tipped to be his heir. But Mary is not particularly helpful. Meida and McCarthy are also doing their to investigate. Meida hits pay dirt - the town manicurist knows 'everything about everyone'. But McCarthy disappears without a word.
Everything is in place. The judge, the prosecutor, the jury, the defence. The lady who provides the  motive for the murder, who Beigler wants changed from a fun loving party girl to a meek housewife with dowdy heels and a sober suit.
The defendant who has managed to eke out a diagnosis of 'temporarily insane'. And 'dissociative reaction'. And 'irresistable impulse'. Oh, and there is precedent too. 

So begins the trial. And the defence.

How will this end? Will the judge, and more importantly the jury, buy Lt. Manion's plea? How far is the D.A's office willing to go to win a 'Guilty' verdict? Will Laura be able to impress the court with her version of events? Why does Alphonse Paquette (Murray Hamilton), the bartender over at Quill's perjure himself? For Mary Pilant? Just who is Mary, and what is her connection to Quill? Where is McCarthy? Will Paul Beigler hold his own against Assistant Attorney General Dancer (George C. Scott) come to assist the D.A? And... 

Just where are those goddamn panties?

Anatomy of a Murder captures the moral ambiguity of the justice system - how lawyers are out to win at any cost, justice be damned. It also deals with the plea of temporary insanity, a claim that the defence sets forth. What is temporary insanity? 

Largely appreciated by the legal profession as one of the finest trial films ever made, Anatomy of a Murder chronicled the process of legal defence in an ambiguous case. Much of the two hours and forty minutes of the movie is spent in court, as we watch American jurisprudence from the defence viewpoint unfold before our eyes - from interviewing the client to his arraignment (the process where the charges against the defendant are read out in court) to the trial itself.  

Based on a novel by the same name, Anatomy of a Murder was written by John D. Voelkner, a Michigan Supreme Court Justice, under the pseudonym Robert Traver. He based the story on a case in which he had been lawyer for defence. He was also the legal advisor at the shooting of the film, ensuring that sets, trial, lawyers, judge, were all as realistic as possible. 

Anatomy of a Murder is a slow movie, and one that depends on the frankness with which it details the elements of the trial to hook our interest. For a film of its times, it did not shy away from the explicit use of language (yet there is no profanity), a use that is said to have shocked viewers at the time. It graphically described sex and rape (for the time), a first for a mainstream film of the time.  It was one of the earliest films to challenge the Hays Code.

It also called into question the practices developed by lawyers to win their case, particularly the way rape victims are (even today) attacked by the lawyers of the accused, and the way facts are manipulated or often, invented, by lawyers eager to win for their 'side'.
Without pulling any punches, it showed how lawyers get their point across to juries even when their questions (and the witnesses' answers) are 'stricken from the record'. As Lt. Manion asks Beigler sotto voce after Judge Weaver asks the jury to disregard Beigler's leading question: "How do you disregard what you've just heard?" "That's the whole point," Beigler responds. "You can't."
Director Otto Preminger paid obeisance to the soul of the novel, and kept it much the same, deftly building up the tension even while what is happening on screen is mostly static. In translating the novel to the screen, he ensured that the verbal duels between counsel, between judge and counsel, the examination of the witnesses, the grandstanding in front of the jury, the way the judge keeps a firm hold of the proceedings - all these were realistically and accurately told. Anatomy of a Murder  is probably the most realistic courtroom drama that I have ever seen.
All of the above would have been in vain if the casting had suffered. But James Stewart brings his trademark charm to bear on his role of Beigler, the attorney for defence. As a lawyer who had just recently lost his re-election bid for District Attorney, and is now being pushed (by his secretary, who wants her pay cheque) to redeem himself, Stewart played Beigler with just that right amount of lazy charm and cunning - even the city lawyer does not stand a chance against him. He gives no quarter in his fight to win, and is willing to fight dirty, even suborning his own witness. This was a role that is so unlike Jimmy (remember It's a Wonderful Life?) that one is a bit taken aback at the way he is willing to coach Lt. Manion in claiming temporary insanity as his defence. It won him an Academy Award nomination, and is perhaps one of his finest (the finest?) screen outings. 

Ben Gazarra played Lt. Manion, accused of killing the man who raped his wife, with the grittiness required of him. He is not a very likeable man to defend, this army man, uncooperative as he is; he establishes himself early on as jealous, possessive, and aggressive, and one wonders at the insanity plea. Yet, he works it well, so well, and the end of the film is as unexpected as it is amusing.

Lee Remick is gorgeous. Her turn as the sexy, seductive and coquettish Laura Manion put her squarely in the path of success. She's the woman whose rape leads to one man's death and another's arrest for murder. She is a party girl, attractive to men and attracted to them. Did she lead the victim on to consensual sex and then cry rape to her possessive husband, as the prosecution claims she did, or did he rape her, as the defence contends? What is the legal definition of rape anyway? Acting that role out called for a combination of brass and restraint - she had to leave us, as much as the jury, guessing at what is true and what is not.

Preminger had a firm grip over the casting, holding out for Lee Remick (in one of her earliest roles) despite the studio wanting a bigger name. But his casting coup lay perhaps in the casting of Joseph Welch as Judge Weaver; Welch was a famous Boston lawyer in real life and was well-known for his cross-examination of Senator Joseph McCarthy during the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings.
He's a joy as he manages to control his courtroom with a mixture of dry wit and legal clout. Preminger also filled the jury benches in the film with the surviving members of the jury of the original murder case. Locals were used for the rest.

Anatomy of a Murder is a very complex telling of a very adult theme, and there is no easy tying up of loose ends at its conclusion. You are the judge and the jury - you interpret the facts as you hear them, disregarding what the judge tells you to disregard, and yet, as Lt. Manion points out, it is hard to disregard what you hear. The trial may have ended with the jury pronouncing its verdict, but the ambiguity remains long after you have seen the film.

This is not a clever film; it is less of a courtroom thriller than a post-mortem of a murder. But if you want an accurate representation of the legal system with all its warts and blemishes, and a carefully crafted courtroom drama that is not dated after more than half a century, then this comes highly recommended.

Please do not watch if you are a viewer who wants action in every scene, and hotshot lawyers who are a combination of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. It is not that sort of a film. :)

Director Otto Preminger's father Markus Preminger was Attorney-General to Emperor Franz-Josef von Habsburg, monarch of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

Anatomy of a Murder was one of the earliest films to rely extensively on Jazz for its music. The music was scored by Duke Ellington, who also appears in the film in a brief cameo.
Some of the scenes were actually shot at Thunder Bay Inn in Big Bay, Michigan, just a block away from the scene of the actual murder. 

The posters for the theatrical release, including the one I have used, was designed by Saul Bass, one of America's leading graphic designers and filmmakers. He was well-known for his posters and title sequences.


  1. Another one for the list!
    When will I ever get to even half of the list! Thank God, my memory fails me most of the time and I forget what is on it!
    Thanks for the enthralling review!
    Wish I could write like this.
    By the way the Emperor was Franz-Josef von Habsburg.

  2. Harvey, laughing so much at your gratitude for your failing memory! Shall I make it even more tempting. It's available on YouTube:

    I'm glad you enjoyed the review. Thank you so much for the appreciation. You made my day. :)

    There was a 'z' at the end of Fran -  I swear there was! Thanks for the correction. of 'Habsburg'. It's your neck of the woods after all. :) I changed it in the post.

  3. To second Harvey, "Another one for the list"; actually second all his comment, except of course where he claims to loose his memory :)
    I certainly wish I could write like this.

    Incidentally, Happy New Year, and I have a quiz qn. for you ---

    In one Hindi movie, in a hotel/restaurant in India, a character orders a "Bordeaux-Sauternes" .
    Name the Movie & the Actor

  4. And another one for my list, too! I've heard of this - of course - but never have got around to even reading up on what it's all about, let alone watching it. But James Stewart is one of my favourites, and this sounds thoroughly interesting. Thanks, Anu. (Oh, and thanks, too, for the trivia - some delightful stuff there, especially the bit about the members of the jury). 

  5.  Thank you, Samir, and Happy New Year to you too. I must admit to being at a loss - characters in Hindi films are not usually known for their knowledge of wines. Do tell!

  6.  You're welcome to the trivia, Madhu. :)

    Yes, do put this on your list. It is very interesting, especially if you have never seen how a real criminal trial works. From that perspective alone, it's worth a watch. And then, to watch the sparring between counsel, the judge's quips - oh, it is serious alright, but you can't help laughing too. There is no frantic 'Let's do this' or 'We need to find that crucial witness' sort of thrills here.

    Actually, just watch it, and let me know what you think. :) It's available on YouTube.

  7. I will give you a hint ---
    I have used a dialog spoken by the Producer (& another actor) of that movie as a comment on a couple of your reviews.

  8.  My dear Samir, I'm down with cold, cough and 'flu. If you think I'm going to go searching for your comments, you've got another think coming! You can tell me, if you like. :)

  9. Sorry to hear about your 'Flu'; to cheer you up, here is the entire movie. The scene is just before the 38th min.

  10.  :) I'd completely forgotten Kalyug. In any case, even if I had remembered the film, I doubt I would have remembered this particular scene. :)


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