I’ve seen a lot of James Stewart over the course of watching the IMDB 250 list. For me, he’s at his best when he has a sinister touch about him, most notably under the direction of Hitchcock. Left to himself he has a tendency to drift into aw-shucks American apple pie territory. The combination of Stewart and Frank “Capra-corn” Capra is a particularly sickly mix. Anatomy of a Murder is on the edgier side of his performances under the direction of Otto Preminger, but there are some cheesy moments, particularly at the beginning while the Stewart’s character Paul Biegler is established (a district attorney who’s lost his post at re-election).
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
Jazz-loving Biegler is shown at a loose end at the beginning, drinking on his own and spending his days fishing and playing the piano. His fridge full of newspaper-wrapped fish is a decent visual metaphor for his unfocused ingenuity but hardly a realistic one. It would get pretty stinky in there after a few days. Biegler’s alcoholic Irish lawyer friend, Parnell McCarthy (played by Arthur O’Connell) is able to stop his heavy spirit drinking like turning off a light switch in order to assist with a new case.
These gripes might seem minor but the strength of this film is in the main courtroom story which was based on a novel written by a lawyer in a real-life case that closely mirrored the characters and ploy of the film. The power of a narrative based closely on real-life events makes the usual Hollywood blather and bullshit of the fictionalized character-establishing scenes at the start even more unsatisfying than usual.
This is a long film but it never drags thanks to Preminger's skillful direction, the power of the underlying real-life narrative and the strength of the supporting actors. A husband is on trial for murder after shooting a local barman who his wife says raped her. We never know for sure whether the wife was raped, what really went on between the husband and wife at the time of the events, or what the true mental state of the husband was. (The defence is based on short-term insanity.) There are twists and turns but not in the expected way of revealing more of what happened on the night of the shooting. Instead the focus is on Biegler’s legal case. The twists and turns relate to his ability to persuade the judge that by law his client should be found not guilty. They have nothing to do with his client’s innocence or guilt of the crime.
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There is surprisingly frank discussion about the alleged rape and the sexual habits of the wife for a 1959 film. She is slut-shamed in court by the big-town lawyer for the prosecution (played with impressive presence by George C. Scott) and the word ‘slut’ is used in the dialogue. The film goes further, however, and effectively slut-shames the wife itself. She is shown flirting with Stewart’s character as well as with army officers at a bar while the trial is in progress. She even casts a meaningful look at the battered old alcoholic, McCarthy.
A real strength of the film is its refusal to indulge in flashbacks. We don’t see a single reconstruction of the night of the murder, let alone – heaven forbid – a series of evolving flashbacks as more knowledge of the night is fed in. It is only too easy to imagine a weaker director doing this but the result would be to deflate the ambiguity about the events of that night and detract from the real unfolding drama, which is the journey of the legal arguments in the courtroom. Similarly, we never see the murdered barman to judge what sort a womanizer he might have been, although we see photographs of him.
Personal Score: 9/10
This is part of a series of film reviews where I give my comments on IMDB Top 250 films as a writer. The idea is that over time these posts will build into a wide-ranging writing resource.
For more details about the approach I've taken, including some important points about its strengths and weaknesses (I make no claims about my abilities as a film critic or even the accuracy of my comments... but I do stand by the value of a writer's notes on interesting films), see my introductory post here.