Review: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

[Anatomy of a Murder was re-released on Criterion DVD/Blu-ray today.]

ONE of the most affecting things I read as a child on the nature of justice versus the law was in Len Wein's The Untold Legend of the Batman. As young Bruce Wayne is training to be a lawyer he encounters a lecturer who corrects his interpretation on the delivery of a sentence. Wayne is troubled by this. "Is that justice?" he asks. "No, Mr. Wayne, that's the law." Suffice to say, Wayne abandons legal studies to pursue his own brand of criminal justice.

The difference between the law and justice and the intricate vagaries of the criminal justice system has long served as the basis for the courtroom drama. If a film like Sidney Lumet's excellent 12 Angry Men (1957) serves as an example of a film thats primary concern is the concept of justice and how the principle of "beyond a reasonable doubt" serves that concept within the American legal system, then Otto Preminger's Anatomy of Murder (1959) is an example of a film that is primarily concerned with the limits of the law, and how we may manipulate it to eke out our own form of justice.

Anatomy of a Murder stars the inimitable Jimmy Stewart as Paul Biegler, a small-town Michigan lawyer who agrees to take on the defence case of an Army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) on trial for killing the man who raped his wife (Lee Remick). The issue is not whether Lt. Manion committed the deed or not (he admits as much), but how Biegler will get him acquitted.

This film sets the stage for every John Grisham novel and Law & Order spin-off in existence, and its ground breaking, straightforward discussion of sex and rape is only a curiosity, along the way to seeing Jimmy Stewart in his prime facing off against a big shot prosecutor played by young George C. Scott. The film never drags despite its nearly 3-hour run time, propelled by sharp dialogue and our desire to find out the result of the court case.

In one sense the film presages America's fascination with court cases (e.g. the O.J. Simpson trial), in which the guilt is not the issue but rather the result. Part way through the film one may be taken aback to find oneself rooting for an admitted murderer to go free, but the film manages to make it work in two ways. Firstly, by casting the ever loveable Stewart (has a film other than Vertigo ever made a perversion seem as understandable?) as the defence attorney we cannot help but see him as the film's true protagonist and root for him. Secondly, by treading such murky water (pitting our outrage over rape against the violence of pre-meditated murder) the film avoids easy answers. In what way does the law parallel justice? Is a man or woman ever justified in taking revenge?

Some might see this film as a the cynical flip-side to 12 Angry Men though in the end its power is in seeing how a defence attorney like Biegler can manipulate the law and the jury members alike. If it is our own sense of justice we seek satisfying, we might be better off staying out of the courtroom and, like Bruce Wayne, forging our own path. For the rest of us, Anatomy of a Murder serves to propose the courtroom as the battle ground where justice and law forge an uneasy truce.

10 out of 10

Anatomy of Murder (USA, 1959)

Directed by Otto Preminger; screenplay by Wendell Mayes based on the novel by John D. Voelker; starring James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, and George C. Scott.