Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Anatomy of a Murder

May 2020 Bar Bulletin

By Jacob Kuykendall

Editor’s note: With all of us stuck inside for the foreseeable future I thought it would be a nice diversion to have a monthly column where I explore and share my thoughts on some of law movies available streaming. If you like some of these “softer” articles in the Bulletin, or know of a hidden gem of the genre I should check out, please don’t hesitate to shoot me an email.

A soldier, Lieutenant Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara,) has just been arrested for the murder of another man he claims raped and beat his wife, Laura (Lee Remick). The only person standing between him and a life in jail is a down-on-his-luck attorney named Paul Biegler (Jimmy Stewart), just dethroned as the district attorney for a small town. This is the set-up for Anatomy of a Murder, based on a book of the same name (the poster boasts “Last year’s No. 1 best-seller… This year’s No.1 motion picture”), a movie that zigs and zags between a courtroom procedural, a twisting thriller, and a small-town comedy.

This is also a story very much concerned with the ethical dilemmas and the ambiguity of trying to figure out someone’s intent after the fact. The director (Otto Preminger) cannily refuses to use flashback, so you are forced to make your own decision as a viewer as to whether you believe the lieutenant and his wife. And the story never judges Paul for feeding his client their defense before he gives his testimony. Instead, the focus is always on the characters and how the justice system does and does not create justice for them. 

Released in 1954, the story deals with some very dark topics in a matter of fact way, which is shocking both in its frankness and in the context of the time it was released. The case at issue is a violent rape and assault, and the characters in the story treat the topic delicately but not but also in workmanlike way. It creates an interesting contrast, Paul is unfazed in investigating the crime and building a defense, which makes him come across as an old pro at criminal law. At the same time Laura appears equally unfazed by the trauma she’s recently suffered, which gives credence to the prosecution’s strategy of calling her motives into question. 

Watching this now also left me with a lot of questions about how this movie and it’s handling of the crime would have played for an audience when it was released. The movie was very controversial when it was released because of the discussions around rape, sexual violence, and sexuality in general. According to imdb.com, the movie was banned in Chicago when it was released. At the same time, I am left to wonder how audiences at that time would have interpreted the same events.

Sadly, it also highlights how little has changed with regards to the treatment of rape and sexual assault in criminal justice. The prosecution in the movie builds their strategy around Laura’s behavior; she likes to drink and party and wear short skirts, and so, they suggest, her testimony is not to be trusted. Our cultural values have grown very little since 1954.

The movie is buoyed by its cast. Jimmy Stewart’s charisma makes attorney Paul Biegler an underdog you want to root for, even as he’s bending the truth and the rule of law to help a client he does not like. Ben Gazzara’s cold, simmering performance leaves you guessing as to how culpable he is in the crime. Lee Remick also sells a very complicated role: she’s sympathetic as the victim of a horrendous crime but also never quite seems effected enough by it. When her façade of coolness cracks, it’s very striking. Arthur O’Connell, as Paul’s legal partner Parnell, also steals the scenes he is in as something of a comic relief.

The film is also brought together by an amazing score composed by the jazz legend Duke Ellington (who briefly cameos in the movie as “Pie-Eye,” and the only person of color who appears on screen). Paul Biegler is established early in the film as jazz aficionado and pianist, which the other characters scoff at as too cool and modern for an aging attorney. The scoring is all upbeat jazz, which casts the movie with an almost timeless quality. It feels modern for a movie from the 50s, but also completely separate from the more sweeping symphonic score you would expect from a legal drama made today.

I was first introduced to this movie by my evidence professor in law school, who used it to demonstrate objections based on relevance and hearsay. By the very low standards of legal  procedure in film, Anatomy of a Murder does a great job at handling some of the intricacies in a way that’s both entertaining, and also comprehensible to someone outside of the legal profession. Also, as mentioned before, the film never casts judgment on the legal professionals in the story for their gamesmanship, which is pretty rare for the genre. It’s left to the viewer to decide how they feel about it, which makes for a more complicated film.

The move runs along, especially for a movie from this era, at 2 hours and 41 minutes, so settle in for this one. It’s not slow, the story moves briskly over the runtime and there’s not much in the way of wasted space. Still, settle in with some popcorn before you start this one.

A great movie with a killer soundtrack, you can find this one for rent on Amazon Prime and the iTunes store. 

Jacob’s Review: Five bags of popcorn out of five. 

Jacob Kuykendall is the editor of the King County Bar Bulletin, the senior staff attorney for the KCBA’s Records Project, and co-host on the film history podcast “Decades Podcast” available on iTunes. He can be reached at jacobk@kcba.org.

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