Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. Because the new Conjuring movie didn’t scratch our itch for (supernatural) legal fireworks, we’re coping with five days of courtroom dramas.
Most courtroom dramas are exercises in narrative compression. In the real world, the American justice system grinds slowly. But on TV and at the movies, an arrest is followed quickly by a trial, which usually takes just a few days—or even a few scenes. Anatomy Of A Murder is an exception. Director-producer Otto Preminger’s low-key classic follows a murder trial from start to finish, from the arraignment to the jury selection to the verdict. The film goes deep into procedure, detailing how the nitpicking objections of prosecutors and defense attorneys are part of a larger strategy to bend the law in their favor. It’s a long, leisurely paced, and utterly absorbing picture, the kind that’s hard to turn off whenever it pops up on cable.
Much of the credit for why Anatomy Of A Murder is so mesmerizing belongs to the cast, led by Jimmy Stewart. In 1959, Stewart was at the end of a decade where his work with masters like Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann had added darker shades to his otherwise bright and affable screen presence. There’s a slyness to Stewart’s performance in Anatomy Of A Murder: He plays the “humble country lawyer” Paul Biegler, defending a soldier who killed a bartender accused of raping his wife near an Upper Peninsula Michigan resort. Biegler is charming and folksy, entertaining the courtroom with witty zingers. But he also subtly—and perhaps unethically—coaches his client on how to describe his crime in legally defensible terms. And it’s implied that he’s partly motivated by hurt feelings over losing his job as district attorney.
Ben Gazzara plays the client, gruff and sarcastic hothead Lt. Frederick Manion, while Lee Remick is his sexpot wife, Laura. Unlike the Hollywood-trained Stewart, Gazzara and Remick emerged from the worlds of Broadway and anthology television, where newer styles of naturalistic acting were spreading in the ’50s. Biegler’s antagonist Claude Dancer—a big city ringer from the state attorney general’s office, brought in to kibbutz on the case before ultimately taking it over—is played by George C. Scott; Scott also apprenticed in New York theater, but on the grander, more Shakespearean side.
Preminger and screenwriter Wendell Mayes, adapting a semi-autobiographical novel by the lawyer and judge John D. Voelker, mostly just let these actors and their different styles play off each other in long scenes of testimony and cross-examination. A brassy Duke Ellington score adds a note of sophistication, as does the surprisingly frank dialogue, which tosses around words like “sexual climax” and “panties.” (In one of the movie’s most famous scenes, the judge, dryly played by real-life McCarthy hearings hero Joseph N. Welch, preemptively reprimands the gallery for tittering at all the panty talk.)
But what mostly stands out about Anatomy Of A Murder is how low-stakes and tawdry the murder case is. The truth of what happened between Laura, the barkeep, and the lieutenant is never definitively established. The implication is that Laura stepped out on her louse of a husband one night and flirted with a popular local bartender—who in a drunken stupor sexually assaulted her, provoking the soldier into beating her and shooting him. It’s hard to say what “justice” would look like in this case. The filmmakers even comment on how little it all matters by spending two and half hours on a story that’s then wrapped up in a rush, with an anticlimactic ending and a stinger shot of a trashcan.
What’s ultimately important here is the gamesmanship, and the many different and fascinating ways the players execute their moves. Anatomy Of A Murder is really the anatomy of a courtroom, examining how even the simplest, most inconsequential case can be an occasion for some great theater.