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Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

 
 
 

Stewart Makes me a Biegler

The prosecution would like to separate the motive from the act. Well, that's like trying to take the core from an apple without breaking the skin - Paul Biegler

Lee Remick and James Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder

There are a lot of good courtroom dramas, ones which manage to get you gripped by the powerful legal battles along with an element of intrigue as to what will happen. But "Anatomy of a Murder" starring James Stewart is not just good it is great because not only does it get you gripped by the legal battles and what happens in the courtroom but because it is also surprisingly amusing, not in a comedy sense of being amusing but in the cat and mouse games of one-upmanship which go on between the legal teams. As such "Anatomy of a Murder" maybe an impressive 160 minutes long, it never once becomes dull as it draws you into the courtroom cat and mouse games. And what makes "Anatomy of a Murder" all the more watch able is that director Otto Preminger doesn't mess around with fancy camera angles or snappy edits, allowing the story, the courtroom skirmishes to flow in a very natural way.

Paul Biegler (James Stewart - Vertigo) is a rather humble lawyer who likes to live his life simply enjoying as much time as possible fishing. But on returning from one fishing trip he finds himself asked to defend Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara - Road House) who has been arrested for the murder of bartender, Barney Quill who Frederick believes raped his wife Laura (Lee Remick). During the course of his research not only does Biegler discover that Laura is in fact not only attractive and flirtatious but also that Frederick has anger issues caused by uncontrollable jealousy. Despite knowing that he doesn't have a great case Biegler agrees to defend Manion and take on not only the D.A. but also the slick Asst. State Atty. Gen. Claude Dancer (George C. Scott - Malice) in the courtroom.

Ben Gazzara as Lt. Frederick Manion in Anatomy of a Murder

"Anatomy of a Murder" is based upon a novel written by Michigan Supreme Court Judge John Voelker and whilst he once claimed it was a work of fiction it is supposedly based upon a real murder in 1952. As such, because the original story was written by someone with a knowledge of what happens in a courtroom the actual story to the movie feels more realistic as if the various scenes, the legal battles which ensue are based upon fact rather than someone's imagination. And this is just one of the many reasons why "Anatomy of a Murder" is both interesting and entertaining as it doesn't at all feel staged.

Helping it not to feel staged is Otto Preminger unobtrusive direction as whilst there are some great camera shots, especially in the courtroom as the camera moves around to capture various movements and legal tricks, it doesn't feel like it's over done. There is a real naturalness to it all with long scenes where the camera barely moves and rather than trying to make it more frenetic with snappy edits Preminger leaves it alone. So when we have a legal skirmish between Biegler and Dancer there is none of this flicking between faces rather than the both of them in the same shot. As such it has to be said that Preminger's direction is brilliant because whilst he achieves the naturalness of the courtroom he still manages to capture the energy of a scene without using cheap tricks and for a movie which lasts 160 minutes it never feels slow or dull.

What Preminger also achieves is to capture the sense of ambiguity generated by the storyline as we question whether Laura Manion was raped or whether it was Frederick who beat her and killed Barney Quill out of some other jealous rage. Through Laura's obvious love of male attention which we discover when she blatantly flirts with Biegler on their first meeting, we know instantly that here is a woman who is uncontrollable when it comes to garnering attention almost encouraging it by her behaviour. And then there is her husband who is almost blase when we first meet him, yet we know that he is constantly fighting to keep his own jealousy and anger in check even when it is obvious that he is even jealous of Biegler. But on top of this it is the knowing glances between Laura and Frederick which makes you wonder whether there story is just a cover up for something else. It's brilliantly done because whilst Biegler in the course of his investigation discovers evidence to suggest that Laura was raped and also rips to shreds the prosecution with their evidence you are still never sure whether he is being had by the Manion's.

But whilst the sense of did they or didn't they makes it interesting it is the courtroom antics, the legal battles and skirmishes which makes it both gripping and fun. You can't but help be amused when Biegler proclaims to be just a small time backwater lawyer because you know under that laid back, amiable exterior is a legal mind which is razor sharp. And you have to say James Stewart is magnificent as Biegler because he delivers that laid back nature so perfectly but then in a blink of an eye he gets across the power of the man, the brilliant legal brain and confidence. As such you almost feel that Biegler has not only prepared a brilliant defence case but also a prosecution case knowing exactly what the prosecutors will do next right down to the tricks they will use so that he is one step ahead of them. So whilst it may almost seem strange that when the prosecution are questioning a witness that Biegler will be fiddling with a fishing fly you know that beneath his simplistic nature is something greater going on.

At the same time you have the slick Asst. State Atty. Gen. Claude Dancer played by George C. Scott who often looks bemused by the antics of Biegler, knowing that his opponent is not such a small time lawyer that he pretends to be. As such the courtroom antics are a fascinating game of cat and mouse, one-upmanship as they try to outwit each other often with an amusing and natural put down which just makes you smile. And at the centre of this is the almost sleepy judge, played not by an actor but by an actual lawyer, whose slow almost tired delivery of dialogue is as amusing as the skirmishes between the legal team. The scene where they discuss what term they should use to describe Laura's panties is just so funny thanks to the way each of these main characters act and deliver their lines but at the same time you also get a feeling that something similar will have happened in a real court case.

Whilst "Anatomy of a Murder" really belongs to both James Stewart as Paul Biegler and George C. Scott as Asst. State Atty. Gen. Claude Dancer the supporting performances are just as intrinsic to why it is so good. Lee Remick not only looks stunning as Laura Manion but also gets across that flirtatious, playfulness quite beautifully especially when she flirts with Biegler almost enjoying watching him squirm. At the same time Ben Gazzara is equally as good as her husband Lt. Frederick Manion really delivering that rage and jealousy as well as temper which simmers just beneath the surface of his character. Plus adding to the amusement are some brilliantly restrained performances from Eve Arden and Arthur O'Connell as Biegler's friends and helpers.

What this all boils down to is that "Anatomy of a Murder" is a brilliant movie and quite easily one of the best courtroom dramas to have ever been made. On one level it is gripping as we watch this case unfold in the courtroom entertained by the way the facts are revealed and both legal teams go about proving their cases. But at the same time it is also amusing as the legal skirmishes take on a sense of one-upmanship between the prosecution and defence with the laid back judge stuck in the middle. On top of this there is also director Otto Preminger's unobtrusive direction which allows it to flow naturally meaning that whilst "Anatomy of a Murder" maybe 160 minutes long it never ever feels dull or slow. All of which makes "Anatomy of a Murder" a brilliant courtroom drama and a great movie.

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