Monday, 2 May 2016

I've Just Seen: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Director: Otto Preminger

It is interesting to compare Preminger's film with Sidney Lumet's film 12 Angry Men. Both films look at the uncertainty surrounding facts in trials, but approach it with very different emotions. 12 Angry Men seeks to present the trial-by-jury process at its best, particularly the importance of reasonable doubt, with all persons eventually basing their decision on fact. Anatomy of a Murder, however, is much more cynical about trials, with Jimmy Stewart's ostensibly 'good' lawyer Paul Biegler advising his clients on how to influence the jury in their favour, and how to present facts in a way that supports their arguments.

Knowing Preminger's film came out in 1959, the discussions around the alleged rape and domestic violence are rather surprising. We are never given clear answer to questions, nor do characters necessarily act as we would wish if we want to believe them innocent. Laura Manion says she was raped, but her flirtatious behaviour and lack of apparent emotional trauma makes us question her allegations. We are meant to feel this, just as we are meant to question the spurious assertion that her husband Manny was temporarily insane when he killed Quill.

This is a murky journey into unscrupulous morality, both from the victims and the lawyers. Stewart is terrific as Biegler, a man doing his job - to get his client off - but grappling with the truth of events. George C. Scott is also great as a prosecutor Claude Dancer who is brought in to expose the holes in Biegler's case. Really, everyone delivers wonderful performances which maintain the complexity of their characters. The cinematography is also beautiful in its stark black-and-white, which highlights the grey areas of the story. Courtroom films are some of cinema history's greatest films, and Anatomy of a Murder is up their with the best of them (and has one of the best posters as well!).


  1. Anatomy of a Murder was literally the fifth movie I reviewed on my site, and I reviewed it in the same post as 12 Angry Men, so I like the comparison here. I see Anatomy as a possible indictment of the American judicial system. Biegler is personally worried about the truth of events, but is professionally worried only about clearing his client and winning the case. This is such a morally gray film, especially for its time. There aren't any easy answers for anyone, which is what makes it work.

    I'd recommend Witness for the Prosecution in the same vein--it covers a lot of the same territory and does it really well.

    In addition to having a great poster, Anatomy of a Murder also has a great jazz soundtrack. I like pretty much everything about it.

    1. I forgot about the soundtrack! It is fantastic. This is a great example of all the elements - story, images, acting, sound, direction - all working.

      Yes to Witness For the Prosecution as well. You almost have 12 Angry Men, and maybe Judgment at Nuremberg on one side, and then Anatomy, Witness For, and even To Kill a Mockingbird, that have a more damning view of the judicial system.

  2. Otto Preminger was AMAZING! I've known about Anatomy of a Murder for a long time and I've seen it a few times. But in the last few years, I've come across Bunny Lake Is Missing (I had no idea Carol Lindley was capable of such a performance!) and Angel Face (OMG! Angel Face! I want to see it again RIGHT NOW!).

    He was kind of a jerk though.

    If you haven't seen the other two, put them on your list. Especially Angel Face.

    1. Thanks for the recommendations. I have seen Angel Face, which was very good, though I should definitely watch it again. Bunny Lake is Missing sounds interesting, I shall look out for it.