Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a small-town lawyer who was once the local District Attorney. After ten years in the job, he lost the role in an election. Feeling betrayed by those around him, he now has his own practice but not many clients, preferring to spend his time with nature, fishing. Now, he has a huge case; an army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) has apparently murdered a man after that man allegedly raped his wife (Lee Remick). This case will make or break Biegler’s career and will require every resource at his disposal, including his cunning, wits, experience and theatricality in the courtroom, more so when the prosecution brings in a famous attorney from the state’s capital.
After seeing things like Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why (2017) and the film To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) to name a couple,works that are separated by over fifty years, Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959) is one more example of a narrative that centres around rape in a small community. More specifically addressing the controversial issue of acquaintance rape and depicting a victim with questionable morals. Simultaneously, the victim is seen as a friend, a father and a monster. This film is another James Stewart Greats. It’s a cornerstone of the crime genre, the courtroom genre and drama, and there are no heroes or villains. No good, no evil and there are no innocents.
I don’t think a bad James Stewart performance exists. He really is quite charming in this picture but he’s as serious as he needs to be too. Lee Remick is fragile and seductive whilst Gazzara is somewhere between protective husband and remorseless killer. The supporting cast is excellent, creating a very human landscape of players that keep the story grounded in reality. These characters are those who help our protagonist Biegler (Stewart) in a number of ways but he also helps them become better people, including Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell), an alcoholic,. And without whom, Biegler (Stewart) would not have been able to work the case as he did.
Released in the eclipse of 12 Angry Men but before the world was introduced to Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, this is one of the very best James Stewart performances, with a court scene that reminded me of Kevin Costner’s performance in JFK. Though, it should be vice-versa since Anatomy was released first. This film is based on a book of the same name which is reportedly based on a real life case in which the author Robert Traver (Justice John D. Voelker) sat as judge. Aside from the performances and aesthetics (great cinematography), this story is timeless (almost a parable) presenting questions about human conflicts, philosophy and morality.
It’s the questions asked that make this film great. Is murder justifiable? The unwritten laws that Manion talks about versus Biegler’s constitutional law. It’s the difference between what is conventionally right and what is morally right and they often aren’t the same thing and can differ from person to person. However, the delineation between the two is a sharp line and some people (like Manion) are willing to do things outside of the law, and really, are we in any position to judge?