Anatomy of a Murder (1959) is said to be one of the most accurate courtroom dramas put to film. While I can’t attest to that fact (I don’t know nearly enough about the law to verify anything), I wouldn’t be surprised if it is true. It deals with harsh subjects interestingly and without any feeling that the filmmakers are holding back for the sensor. It’s a movie that makes you think about the problems with the law and the court system and makes you talk about differing morals.
Small town lawyer, Paul Biegler (played by Jimmy Stewart), is defending Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who is accused of murder. Manion was witnessed shooting the victim in a bar. The fact that he did so isn’t in question. No, the Biegler’s line of defense is the insanity plea. He is claiming that after the lieutenant found out his wife, Laura (Lee Remick), was raped by the dead man, Manion lost possession of his faculties and therefore cannot be held responsible for what he did. Convincing the jury won’t be easy with two lawyers, one being topnotch Assistant State Attorney General Claude Danceron (George C. Scott), on the side of the prosecution. Manion’s spotty past with wife, filled with claims of abuse, and Laura’s reputation for flirting with every guy that walks by also don’t make Biegler’s job any easier.
Everything about this film seems realistic. It may be 1959 but the main issues of the movie, namely rape and murder, are not skirted around. Anatomy of a Murder also doesn’t try to canonize its protagonists. Manion, Laura, and even Biegler are not saints. My sympathies were with Biegler, but I couldn’t help but think he used the ins and outs of a trial in the same tricky ways as his opponents. He brings up points about the case that he knows aren’t admissible in court, such as a lie detector test taken by Laura Manion where she swore she was actually raped. Biegler is aware such evidence and testimony will be stricken from the written record but not the mental and emotional record of the jurors. There are also strong hints that the whole insanity plea is bogus and concocted by Biegler.
When I think about it, Stewart’s character wouldn’t be nearly as likeable if played by a different actor. Here’s a guy who I believe still has a moral compass. It’s just an old, rusty one that isn’t always taken out to be used, and when it is, it doesn’t always lead to the right path with the straightest of lines. It’s to Stewart’s credit that his charm wins over and gets me to like this sometimes shady lawyer warts and all. What’s great about Anatomy is it captures the slimy, manipulative nature lawyers can sometimes have when twisting the law and the people who make decisions on it to their advantage.
Despite the questionable morals of the characters, I still wanted to see Biegler succeed, but I felt bad about it. Such is the result when discussing complex topics like the faults in the court system or what constitutes right and wrong. These are complicated issues with a lot of grey. No easy answer is necessarily available.
I didn’t finish Anatomy of a Murder with a certainty that justice was served. Knowing how true aspects of it are, it actually left a bit of a bad taste in the mouth. Thankfully, I also took away a smile and the knowledge that I had just watched one expertly written, complicated story that tells of the faults in people and in the system we call the law. A film like this has the power to spark endless debates and discussions. I’m sure it will keep on doing that.