Release Date: July 1st, 1959
Directed by: Otto Preminger
Written by: Wendell Mayes
Based on: Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver
Music by: Duke Ellington
Cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant, George C. Scott, Duke Ellington (cameo)
Carlyle Productions, Columbia Pictures, 160 Minutes
“Twelve people go off into a room: twelve different minds, twelve different hearts, from twelve different walks of life; twelve sets of eyes, ears, shapes, and sizes. And these twelve people are asked to judge another human being as different from them as they are from each other. And in their judgment, they must become of one mind – unanimous. It’s one of the miracles of Man’s disorganized soul that they can do it, and in most instances, do it right well. God bless juries.” – Parnell Emmett McCarthy
If you ever told me that I’d watch a courtroom drama that’s nearly three hours long and that I’d love it, I’d call you a liar. Nothing is more boring to me than court movies. They’re overly talkie, use an abundance of legal jargon I don’t care to know and they just sit there, in one room, seemingly forever. Hell, I hate when television shows I love go into some multi episode courtroom story. I hate courtrooms, I hate jury duty and I thought Court TV was something that old people watched, hoping it would kill them sooner.
Yet, Anatomy of a Murder is to courtrooms what 12 Angry Men is to jury duty. It took something that I have less interest in than dusting sand and made it compelling, engaging, entertaining and hooked me emotionally. In short, it’s a spectacular film that I was glued to from start to finish.
I have become a fan of Otto Preminger’s work, especially his film-noir stuff. While this isn’t noir, it has that distinct Preminger touch and visual allure. It’s clean, crisp, warm and has a strange magnetism that pulls you in. Preminger really was a master of the silver screen, as his films always looked immaculate yet lived in with a sort of grandiose aura about them.
The absolute highlight of this film is seeing two legendary actors: James Stewart and George C. Scott, go head to head as rival lawyers during the trial that is the focus of the story. And really, I think that it is the incredible performances by these two that lured me in, even more so than this being a Preminger film. James Stewart just owns this role and his mere presence prevented this film from having a dull moment. George C. Scott was a great accent to Stewart, giving him a powerful foil to play off of. Stewart was like a 24 oz. bone-in tomahawk ribeye while Scott was the best Béarnaise sauce you could ever hope to taste.
The film also dealt with very controversial subject matter for the time. The trial involved a murder that was committed in defense of the killer’s wife being raped. This was taboo stuff for the 1950s and there’s even a scene in the film where the judge has to explain to the people in the court that he won’t permit any giggles or snickering at the mention of the word “panties”.
Anatomy of a Murder is a long film but it doesn’t feel like it. The set up and investigative stuff before the trial is probably the slowest part of the movie but that doesn’t take too long and once you are in the courtroom, this picture just takes off and doesn’t come back down until the credits roll.
This is a pretty perfect film for its time and its subject matter. It goes to show what kind of magic Hollywood can produce when you have a premier director and two paragons of pure acting talent.
Pairs well with: 12 Angry Men, Orson Welles’ The Trail and two of the James Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock collaborations: Rope and Rear Window.