Classic Movie Watchlist 2018

Classic Movie Of The Week: Anatomy Of A Murder (1959)


Starring: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara

Director: Otto Preminger

There is a murder. A man has killed someone who was seen flirting with his wife. He claims that she was raped, and that he killed the man in a fit of fury and insanity. But something about his history as a jealous type and her trailer trash, fast reputation doesn’t entirely add up. Can their lawyer win the case?

This is such an unusual court drama, with the plot being the bones that the film rests on, and yet there is so much more going on. The film is an indictment of the law and the court system in America at the time, and the film has a strange kind of realism that other films about court cases don’t have. For a start, the judge in the film is played by an actual judge, Joseph Welch (who brought down Joseph McCarthy) and the film itself is based on a novel by a Supreme Court Justice. The film focuses a lot on the politics and showmanship that goes into being a lawyer, and the story also follows the case, without flashbacks, so we have to make our minds up along with accused’s lawyer as to what really happened.

That lawyer is Beigler, played by Jimmy Stewart, who knows his way around a case and has been made cynical by his time as a DA. He’s aided by his sharp secretary and alcoholic researcher, who help him make the case. While he counsels Laura (Remick) the wife to dress conservatively at court and to act demure for the public, the court hears that there was no evidence found of rape. We have to ask ourselves who is really guilty, and know that the protagonist that we’re rooting for may be defending a murderer. We’re not shown a justice system in all it’s glory and honour, we’re shown the justice system as a business.

The film was controversial at the time for the way in which is openly showed the murder and rape case and used language that one might hear in court but that was rarely heard on screen. It adds to the bitterness and realism of this film. But for all it’s focus on capturing the reality of the court room drama, the film is also an intriguing story and full of interesting people. You want to know what really happened. Lee Remick is wonderful as the wife tired of her jealous husband. Was she really raped? Is her husband a jealous murderer or was he defending the woman he loves? The film keeps you guessing, and though it’s not a cheerful tale, it’s a really great film.

See It If: you love Jimmy Stewart or court room dramas. Cynical and realistic, this one is unlike any other.


6 thoughts on “Classic Movie Of The Week: Anatomy Of A Murder (1959)”

  1. My workplace film club just covered this one,¹ and I’d have to say there’s a lot more ambiguity here–hinted at in your final questions–than “the court hears that there was no evidence found of rape” would indicate.

    The “lack of evidence” was carefully selected by the prosecution to point to perceptions of what is “required” to constitute rape–just as the “actual” evidence was carefully selected by the defense to point to perceptions that the legal requirements were met.

    I also don’t think it’s (intentionally…) an indictment of the U.S. court system, which, by all accounts that I’m familiar with, hasn’t changed much on these fronts in the time since. It’s been said that the film is more popular with law students than even film students, because it is apparently a lot closer to how trials actually look–with input from Welch on how a judge would act, and how everyone in that room might speak or react to tweak lines here and there.

    Naturally there are some actual legal concerns (that would be true at the time) with how things were worked out. such as Beigler coaching his witnesses from the beginning (though that would seem to be, for all its illegality, a probable truth still in many a case). Still, the original book was actually written by the man who acted as the defense attorney in the actual case/trial it was based on.

    But, still, you’ve hit the nail right on the head: this is entirely about the ambiguity of the case, and the questions we’re left with, even as it takes us straight through how it’s treated by the justice system, warts and all.

    Liked by 1 person

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