Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

One of the best courtroom dramas ever shot, Preminger’s film may be lengthy but is tremendously engaging.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Dir. Otto Preminger
1959 | USA | Crime/Drama/Mystery | 160 mins | 1.85:1 | English
PG (passed clean) for thematic elements, mild violence, sexual references and language

Cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, George C. Scott
Plot: 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?
Awards: Won Best Actor & Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice); Nom. for 7 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Leading Actor, Best Supporting Actor (x2), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing. 
Distributor: Sony

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: DVD
First Published: 5 Mar 2012
Spoilers: No

Perhaps Otto Preminger’s best known film, Anatomy of a Murder takes the dour and dull courtroom drama, and turns it into a highly entertaining and intellectually stimulating affair.

Made two years after the stunning critical success of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957), still the ultimate example of such a sub-genre, though Lumet’s film is different in that it focuses almost entirely on jurors in an enclosed room as they debate over a murder case, Anatomy of a Murder is considerably lengthier but brings so much to the table that it is difficult not to be engrossed in the drama that unfolds.

Anatomy of a Murder stars James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, George C. Scott, and Brooks West in a terrific collective performance that varies from explosive verbal tirades to subtle reactions to key revelations.  

Stewart gives a performance to remember, playing a small-town country lawyer who defends a suspected murderer on the grounds of insanity for killing a person that purportedly raped his wife.  Stewart’s character is up against cunning lawyers out to crucify him in the courtroom.  Expect fireworks, and all these to the amusement of the judge.

Preminger has shot Anatomy of a Murder with the kind of competence rarely seen in such a genre.  He keeps the film briskly-paced despite the amount of material that has to be covered.  

“As a lawyer, I’ve had to learn that people aren’t just good or just bad. People are many things.”

The best parts of the film occur in the courtroom (that is nearly two-thirds of the entire film) as witnesses are grilled, and lawyers fight to defend their clients, sometimes to hilarious effect.  

We as viewers become the jurors in this captivating murder case; the film does not provide any easy answers, hence we have to sift through the facts, opinions, and assumptions to come to a conclusion.  Even then, our conclusion is uncertain, and therein lies the beauty of this film.

Nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, in a year dominated by William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959), Anatomy of a Murder challenged the censorship code in America for its frank references to rape and sexuality.

There are awkward moments for those in the courtroom, especially in a scene in which the topic of a woman’s panties is brought up as evidence. There are also powerful moments that are made stronger by the art of scripted foreshadowing epitomized by a scene between Scott’s character and a witness named Mary Pilant.

Anatomy of a Murder is an absorbing and insightful black-and-white drama that is also one of the best trial movies ever made.  

Grade: A



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