Watching Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder for the first time, I was struck by how fresh and relevant the film feels more than fifty years after its 1959 release. Significant cultural changes and the advent of DNA profiling have not dulled the edges of what is essentially a pitch-black comedy set primarily in a courtroom. The Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray treatment of the film definitely provides an ideal opportunity to discover – or rediscover – this classic.
James Stewart stars as former district attorney Paul Biegler. Bored after a lost election forces him into early retirement, Biegler decides to defend Manny Manion (Ben Gazzara). Manny has been charged with murder for the death of a man who allegedly raped his wife. Manny’s wife Laura (Lee Remick) is curiously flirtatious and carefree for a woman claiming to have been recently raped. The medical report was inconclusive. Biegler doesn’t seem too confident that the facts of the case are exactly as Manny and Laura are reporting them. Manny makes no bones about the fact that he killed the alleged rapist. The problem for Biegler is that Manny didn’t witness the sexual encounter and waited an inordinately long period of time before tracking the perpetrator down. Laura’s strong advances toward Biegler make the lawyer even more suspicious.
The bulk of the two-and-a-half hour movie takes place in court where Biegler faces off against the man who won his job, District Attorney Mitch Lodwick (Brooks West). Lodwick, however, is barely competent. It’s his assistant that keeps Biegler on his toes – a prosecutor from out of town named Claude Dancer (George C. Scott). Much of the fun of Anatomy of a Murder comes from watching Biegler and Dancer try to outwit one another. Stewart and Scott dig into their roles with obvious relish. But what makes this film so enduring is the utterly cynical way it presents these lawyers. At no point are the issues of “right” and “wrong” really considered. Manny very likely killed a man in cold blood, but he is coached by Biegler to hide behind a temporary insanity defense. Laura may or may not have actually been raped. It is regularly suggested throughout the film, by numerous characters, that Laura was unsatisfied with her husband and prone to extramarital affairs.