At the time of its release, Anatomy Of A Murder was considered so scandalous and shocking that Chicago’s then-mayor Richard J. Daley banned it, and star Jimmy Stewart’s own father urged family and friends to skip it. Not because of anything we see anyone doing in the film – it’s a straightforward courtroom trial drama. But the trial concerns a man accused of shooting his wife’s rapist, and there are some fairly lengthy discussions of the wife’s actions and the exact nature of the various forms of evidence, including mention of the words “contraceptive” and “sexual climax”, which for 1959 was a lot. Happily, here in 2021, when your average Law and Order SVU script goes even further, there’s still enough going on to surprise and shock.
The film focuses almost entirely on the trial proceedings and the efforts of Michigan defense attorney Paul Biegler (Stewart), his paralegal Maida (Eve Arden), and friend and co-counsel Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell). Things kick off shortly after Biegler has lost a re-election bid for his town’s district attorney seat, and has been consoling himself with a semi-retirement spent fly fishing and drinking with McCarthy. He doesn’t even have an opinion when local army Lieutenant Fred Manion (Ben Gazzara) is arrested for killing a local bartender. Only when Manion’s wife Laura (Lee Remick) calls to hire him to serve as Manion’s defense attorney does he take interest.
Biegler realizes quickly that this is going to be one messy case. Manion claims he shot the bartender after his wife Laura claimed she’d been raped; Manion assumes that that’s just cause. And then when Biegler meets Laura to hear her side of the story, she spends most of their conversation flirting with Biegler. But after some frank discussions with both Manions, and a bit more investigation into the crime, Biegler takes the case and mounts a defense of temporary insanity. In court he is matched by not just one, but two prosecuting attorneys – local DA Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West) has brought in a ringer in Claude Dancer (George C. Scott), a suave, brilliant attorney who seems to enjoy knocking Biegler’s “humble country lawyer” schtick down several pegs. Although, Dancer seems to enjoy discrediting Laura’s rape claims even more.
The SVU comparison actually isn’t that far off the mark. There’s a lot of attention to the weird details of courtroom procedure – so much so that this film sometimes is used in law schools as a teaching tool. There are a good deal of twists and turns in the case, such that while the ending isn’t that much of a surprise, it’s still fun to see the route the film used to take us there. It also doesn’t depict Biegler as a wholly noble person either, nor Dancer as completely a snake; Biegler skates dangerously close to coaching his witnesses, and Dancer calls him on it – and on using his folksy-lawyer schtick to appeal to the jury. The judge doesn’t always buy it either – but he gets just as fed up with Dancer, and spends a good deal of time trying to keep both sets of lawyers reined in.
…In a fun twist, the judge is played by actual lawyer Joseph N. Welch – who is best known for serving as Chief Counsel for the Army during the Army-McCarthy hearings only five years prior, and for being the man to famously ask Joseph McCarthy “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” He claimed to have taken the role because “it looked like that’d be the only way I’d ever get to be a judge”. Most trial lawyers probably have a little bit of the orator in them, and a bit of a flair for the dramatic – but for a non-professional, Welch does surprisingly well in the part, and he probably could have enjoyed a decent second career after this role. Instead, he retired from both the law and the screen.
Another non-actor appearing in the film is Duke Ellington, who also wrote most of the film’s score alongside his brief appearance as a bar-room pianist named “Pie-Eye” playing a duet with Biegler. The film justifies the score by making Biegler a jazz fan. Ellington’s score grabs attention on its own – brassy and bawdy and ever-so-sleazy – so I didn’t necessarily need to have Biegler give a de facto stamp of approval; but it was more of a throwaway detail, so I wasn’t bothered by that either.
All told, I enjoyed it – I already have a soft spot for this kind of courtroom police procedural, and this had all the very elements which draw me in.