Classic Cinema Tuesday: Anatomy of a Murder

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There is something about a good courtroom drama that grabs me. The inherent drama and tension of the proceedings keeps me on the edge of my seat. I love to see the process of how someone will try to twist the facts of the case to their advantage. This drama is most convincingly on display in Anatomy of a Murder, directed by Otto Preminger.

Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a contented retired prosecutor in a small town. He loves to fish, read case histories with the town drunk (He used to be a lawyer), and drive his assistant mad. This is all changed when he gets a call from a young woman. This woman, Laura Manion played by Lee Remick, contacted him in order to help her get her husband, Lt. Fredrick Manion played by Ben Gazzara, out of jail. He is stuck there because he killed a man in a fit of rage after that man raped his wife. As Mr. Biegler fleshes out the details of the case, he sees that there is more than meets the eye. Laura Manion is a flirt with a penchant for tight-fitting clothing. Lt. Fredrick Manion is a man who is quick to anger, especially when it comes to his wife. He shows hints at being a dominating and jealous person. Lt. Manion cops to killing the man but says he did it out of rage. Mr. Biegler must build a case to cast a shadow of a doubt for a jury that he was in his right mind when he killed the rapist without revealing too much about this couple’s relationship. It will be a tough one to pull off, especially after the assistant D.A. comes down from Lansing to help out the prosecution.

Before Otto Preminger was a film director, he was a lawyer to help satisfy his father’s expectations. This intimate knowledge of the law that Preminger brings to the picture helps it immensely. He is able to paint a realistic and complex case around something that could fall into sensationalism and grandstanding in a less capable pair of hands. The moment rape is mentioned, events seem to always lend themselves to sensationalism in movies. Not only does Preminger root his events in reality, he provides the audience with a sturdy anchor to hang all of case procedures on. James Stewart is able to bring this aging lawyer to life through his subdued speech patterns and transformation of physical character. However the supporting players are just as strong. Ben Gazzarra, Lee Remick, George C. Scott, Eve Arden, and a host of other character actors show their faces and shine in their small roles.

This movie is almost three hours long, but it does not feel it. The every scene moves along quickly as we find out with Biegler just how to work the legal system towards their advantage. If this doesn’t sound like riveting watching, you would be wrong. Due to the great actors, the amazing screenplay and the competent directing, nothing seems to drag or take too long to develop. If you have a couple of free hours this weekend, I would suggest setting them aside and watching this remarkable movie.

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