Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

anatomy of a murder poster 1959 movie
9.0 Overall Score
Story: 9/10
Acting: 9/10
Visuals: 9/10

Straight up courtroom drama

Taken out of context of when it was released might seem tame

Movie Info

Movie Name: Anatomy of a Murder

Studio: Otto Preminger Films

Genre(s): Drama/Mystery/Suspense

Release Date(s): July 1, 1959

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

anatomy of a mruder james stewart arthur oconnell

Let’s lawyer up this case!

US Army Lieutenant Frederick “Manny” Manion (Ben Gazzara) has killed Bernard “Barney Quill in his bar in front of witnesses.  Manny claims blacking out during the event as a result of his wife Laura (Lee Remick) being raped by Quill.  Paul Biegler (James Stewart), his assistant Maida Rutledge (Eve Arden), and his friend Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell) decide to take the case, but find themselves faced with the problem of proving Manny’s condition at the time of the murder and how to introduce aspects of the scandalous case.  The Michigan prosecuting attorney has brought in Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) to help prosecute the case, and Biegler will have to use all his wits to keep Manny from going to jail.

Directed by Otto Preminger, Anatomy of a Murder is a courtroom mystery thriller.  The film adapts the novel of John D. Voelker which he wrote under the name or Robert Traver in 1958 and based on the murder of Maurice Chenoweth by Lt. Coleman Peterson in 1952 in Big Bay, Michigan.  The film was well received and nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (Stewart), Best Supporting Actor (Arthur O’Connell and George C. Scott), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography—Black-and-White, and Best Film Editing.  The movie was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2012.  The Criterion Collection released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #600).

anatomy of a murder lee remick james stewart

Mrs. Manion…are you trying to seduce me?

Sometimes it feels like if you’ve seen one courtroom thriller that you’ve seen them all.  You get the cocksure attorney that pulls out the secret at the end and everyone walks away happy.  Anatomy of a Murder set the standard for courtroom movies, but it also doesn’t feel like a lot of the movies that followed it.

The set-up feels a lot like a Perry Mason-esque story.  You have Paul and his team seeking out evidence, but unlike something like Perry Mason, there isn’t necessarily a big reveal.  The surfacing of evidence from Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant) seems to seal up the case…but the after moment indicates that Paul has been played.  Something happened, but it is muddied and unclear.  The case was won in the court, but it wasn’t necessarily won by the evidence and witnesses.

James Stewart feels a bit like his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington character, but unlike “Mr. Smith”, Paul has a goal and uses the courts to his advantage which isn’t always honest but serves the purpose of getting his client clear.  He gives big speeches and has that bombastic way of speaking that has helped him in other roles.  Lee Remick plays almost a femme fatale who doesn’t feel she’s giving the whole story along with Ben Gazzara.  I like Eve Arden’s character, but Arthur O’Connell steals the scenes as part of Paul’s team.  George C. Scott comes in thinking he’s going to serve up the country lawyer but ends up served himself.  The movie also has appearances by Murray Hamilton, Orson Bean, and Joseph Kearns.  Duke Ellington who worked on the soundtrack also has a cameo in the film.

anatomy of a murder george c scott kathryn grant joseph n welch

…and you just overplayed your hand

The movie used a lot of on-location shooting in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan primarily around Ishpeming and Marquette.  Having been through that area, I can’t imagine what it would be like for a film crew to show up there in the 1950s to shoot a big budget picture.  The court scenes are all compelling and framed to perfection.

Anatomy of a Murder is a rather surprising movie in that it really pushes the boundary for the 1950s.  The court case is frank and brings up a lot of aspects surrounding rape vs. consensual sex.  The movie did cause some controversy in this aspect and led to some banning in areas.  Anatomy of a Murder might feel a bit quaint by today’s standards, but taken in context, the film is a movie that deserves its staying power.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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