Preminger’s trick – which he pulls off in spades – is to get the audience to root for Biegler, a man driven solely by his need to win the case. He isn’t even particularly concerned with getting paid, agreeing to take the case pro bono with the promise of payment only after a successful defense. Stewart is as charming as ever, which goes a long way toward making Biegler likable. He does everything he can to make a man who is very likely guilty appear to be innocent. Prosecutor Dancer is more interested in discrediting Laura’s rape claim, badgering and humiliating her on the stand in an attempt to make her look like a slut. Although tame by modern standards, the language – with its talk of “panties” and seminal fluid – was quite rough for its time. Even though it isn’t shocking anymore, it still comes across as surprisingly frank.
I can see what this movie has been used as a model for law students to study. It presents a murder trial not from the standpoint of who actually did what to whom, but as a set of manipulations by the defense and prosecutorial teams. Their goal is to convince the jury of their case, which they sometimes do through tricks and unscrupulous behavior. The extent to which Biegler and Dancer are willing to go is largely left up the viewer’s interpretation. That’s another aspect of the movie that is so deftly handled – we never know when someone is outright lying. Duke Ellington’s evocative jazz score brilliantly underlines the improvisatory nature of the lawyers’ tactics.
The 1080p Blu-ray transfer of Anatomy of a Murder, framed at 1.85:1, makes this film look like it was made recently. Criterion has done a remarkable job of presenting everything flawlessly. The picture is incredibly sharp throughout, with fine detail visible in nearly every frame. While there aren’t any stunning vistas on display, keep an eye out for clarity in subtle elements like the pattern on Stewart’s tweed jackets. So good is the detail, some of the actor’s makeup stands out a little too much in fact – Stewart in particular looks funeral-ready. Grain, though not heavy, is present and completely natural throughout.